When J.J. Abram’s The Force Awakens hit screens in 2015, there was a lot of work to be done to repair the Star Wars franchise. The Prequel trilogy, with its woodenly performed, stilted dialogue and uninvolving narrative, had left fans soured as to what the franchise would do next. With The Force Awakens, fans were reminded Star Wars could be fun (and funny) again. It reminded you of everything you had once loved about the original films and left most fans excited as to what would happen next.
Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi takes all of those expectations and subverts them. For those fans who argued The Force Awakens was too similar to New Hope (a criticism I don’t share) The Last Jedi now feels too dissimilar to all that came before it. However, to enjoy The Last Jedi you have to take Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) advice: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.”
MY PERSONAL HISTORY WITH STAR WARS
Now, let me get this out of the way: I’ve seen The Last Jedi twice, and it may be my favorite film in the franchise. I also should point out that I like, but don’t revel in the Star Wars franchise. I have seen the original trilogy 4-5 times in my life and the prequels only once. Maybe that means this film is a better fit for me than for hardcore fans. Either way, I’m here to discuss the film, not the idea that fanboys make up an incredibly entitled, toxic culture. I will say this: If you watch a Star Wars film and you feel it is attacking your political or social beliefs, then adopt less noxious ideologies.
WHAT A DIFFERENCE A NEW DIRECTOR MAKES
What separates Last Jedi from the rest of the Star Wars franchise can be traced back to Rian Johnson. His first notable film was Brick, a teen film noir. He followed it with The Brothers Bloom and Looper, both films of narrative twists and double crosses. The Last Jedi is his first foray into blockbuster territory, but he plays more recklessly with blockbuster’s rules than I would have thought possible. He’s made a blockbuster filled with multi-layered characters contending with genuine obstacles when he so easily could have created cookie cutter characters stuck serving as plot devices, and in the process, he’s redefined what a Star Wars movie can be. He defied almost every single one of the internet’s Last Jedi predictions, and we’re the better for it.
THE CHARACTERS HAVE TO LEARN TO FIND STRENGTH IN FAILURE
Johnson sets up all of these little plots—Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) wanting to stop the Empire from tracking through light speed, Rey (Daisy Ridley) wanting to recruit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and save Kylo Ren from the Dark Side, Poe (Oscaar Isaac) left on a ship that can only temporarily stave off destruction—and lets them all go spectacularly off the rails. The setups are classic Star Wars narratives, but the journey is just a series of small steps forward and major setbacks. As Yoda’s force ghost reminds the forlorn Luke Skywalker, “The greatest teacher, failure is.” Every major character (Poe, Rey, Luke, Finn, and Rose) has an arc in the film, but the journey is based in failure, rather than success.
The Last Jedi opens in a state of hopelessness that permeates much of the film. Despite the destruction of the Starkiller base at The Force Awakens’s climax, the Rebels are barely surviving. The film’s opening battle, led by Poe’s cocksure pilot, costs them many of their bombing fleet and places Poe on a path on which he learns not to blindly leap into a conflict. Once the First Order follows them through hyperspace, a move thought impossible, the film becomes a cat and mouse game. The Rebels can keep out of the Firsts Order’s cannon range, but their fuel supply is dwindling.
Finn initially wants to desert in hopes of leading Rey, who is having her own adventure, away from the destruction, but a chance encounter with Rose teaches him to fight for a cause rather than a person.
They develop a plan: find a master codebreaker, sneak onto the First Order’s ship, and hack their system so the Rebels can flee undetected. Meanwhile, Rey struggles with trying to convince Luke to return to help the Resistance, wanting him to train her in the ways of the Jedi, and attempting to mind meld with a conflicted Kylo Ren. For a while, these narrative strands are just separate plates spinning in the air, and it’s to Johnson’s credit that they spin as effectively as they do. Of course, you know these disparate plots are coming to converge, but Johnson keeps the audience guessing as to how it will all play out.
Much of the discussion revolving around the film, from both those who like the movie and those who do not, involves what has become of Luke Skywalker. In the original trilogy, Luke was the eternal idealist, blindly falling in with the rebellion against the Empire. Here, it’s more than thirty years later, and he’s more cynical and beaten down by his past. He’s terrified of the raw power Rey exhibits because he’s seen the destructive potential of such power. However, he misses that power needs guidance, not abandonment. His cinematic journey involves recognizing and making peace with his mistakes.
The debate really revolves around whether or not such a transformation, including Luke’s initial instinct to murder his own nephew rather than see him become another Darth Vader, is in-line with the character. I think it is when you factor in everything Luke has lost. Luke used to define himself by his potential. Now, he defines himself by his failures. This is Mark Hamill’s best performance as Luke, placing his sorrow and anger at the forefront while keeping his wry humor intact. I’m not certain if it’s just the benefit of aging or years of doing voice work, but his voice seems more nuanced in this film than it did when we first encountered him in New Hope.
Luke Skywalker exists as the ultimate exploration of the themes Johnson wants to explore: what it means to be a hero and the role failure can play in character development, although maybe I’m spending so much time talking about him, because he’s my favorite Star Wars character. Luke was once the archetypal hero, but he now finds his legacy to be one of loss. I love seeing the boundaries of a character I love stretched and his ideals challenged. Instead of learning from his failures, he uses them as excuses to close himself off from the Force and the world around him. He’d rather live out his days as an isolated hermit out of fear he’ll make another costly mistake. Of course, he will eventually come out of hiding to do what he initially suggested as the most absurd of folly: face the First Order Battalions by himself.
However, Johnson subverts even this predictable narrative twist. Luke isn’t really there. He hasn’t left the island, but he’s projected himself across the galaxy to face down the pupil/nephew he failed. Yet, his physical distance from the conflict doesn’t save him, as Kylo foreshadows earlier when he sees Rey and informs her that the effort to project herself to him would be fatal. He gives himself over to the force and passes away. His final “see you around, kid” kiss-off is a pretty fantastic note to go out on, though. It echoes the term of endearment Han Solo always used for Luke and reminds Kylo of the father he killed that continues to haunt him. Luke may have been a failure in many of his undertakings, but he fights to rekindle hope and belief in the Resistance. In that regard, he succeeds and finds the peace his self-induced isolation and wallowing denied him.
CARRIE FISHER & LAURA DERN MAKE EVERYTHING BETTER
Last Jedi also continues Disney’s Star Wars tradition of emphasizing its female characters. Granted, Leia (Carrie Fisher) spends much of the film in a state of unconscious recovery, but Rey, Rose, and Holdo (Laura Dern) function as characters who are strong, capable, and willing to make sacrifices for what that which they believe. It’s a shame Fisher isn’t given more to do, since is the last time we’ll see her in her most iconic role. It’s clear Episode IX was going to be her shining moment, but she’s strong here, and there’s an added layer of poignancy that her final scene is reminding the Resistance that they have everything they need to resist the First Order.
There are still plenty of male characters for young boys to embrace, but it’s nice that Star Wars has given its female fan base more than just one character with which to identify. Holdo especially offers an interesting subversion of a female character in a position of power. At first, she seems as though she’ll function as an ineffective commander against whom Poe can rebel and prove his fighting instincts correct. However, she instead reveals herself as willing to sacrifice public opinion in order to save those on the ship. Her light speed collision into the First Order’s spaceship yielded both audience gasps and applause at both of my screenings, and she gets a lovely closing scene with Carrie Fisher.
THE FRANCHISE’S FIRST IN-UNIVERSE FANGIRL
But, it’s not just Holdo. Rose enters the film almost as a fan, gushing over Finn and her perception of him as a resistance leader. Yet, she’s not so star struck that she won’t zap Finn with a stun gun when she realizes he’s abandoning ship and becomes a hero in her own right by the end of the film.
REY & THE DEMOCRATIZATION OF THE FORCE
Then, of course, there’s Rey, whose eternal optimism and fighting resolve, fills the hope void Luke’s cynicism left behind. Picking a female lead as the character who guides the franchise was a bold move, one J. J. Abrams didn’t get enough credit for, since certain factions of fanboys didn’t want a non-male character that had natural Force ability. She doesn’t completely succeed in her desire to save Kylo Ren from the dark side. He’s still too much of a petulant child, willing to tear down the world because he doesn’t get his way. However, she comes close and does establish a bond with him, leading to him slaying Emperor Snoke. It’s simply that he’s been too hurt by both sides of this particular fight, and can’t see a clear way back from the dark path upon which he finds himself.
The reveal that her parents aren’t important, and she was simply sold for drinking money is heartbreaking, because she has obviously created a parental mythology in her mind, but it fits with an idea that’s echoed in the film’s closing moments when a young stable boy uses the Force to move a broom. Last Jedi takes the nebulous concept of the Force and reminds us that anyone, not just the remarkably born Luke or Anakin Skywalker, can harness its gift. It’s an elemental force, not a privilege for the few. The Force is no longer about one’s lineage, but has been given to those who most need hope and whose hope can keep the rebellion alive.
KYLO’S DESPERATE PLEA
Adam Driver’s performance is also fantastic here. He keeps Kylo’s heartbreak at the forefront of his performance. Note the moment when he pleads for Rey to join him as leader of the First Order. His sad, desperate “please” conveys how much he has lost and his fear of being left alone. This film further emphasizes that he’s not a Darth Vader clone. He’s not emotionally controlled. He’s a ticking time bomb of volcanic rage, going off without warning. His place in the Dark Side is based in pain and a wrath he can’t process. In the film’s closing moments, he sees Rey, the person with whom he could most potentially bond, close the door on him and leave him to his destructive path.
MOVING PAST THE BLACK & WHITE
Last Jedi exists in a world that is far less Manichean than the world George Lucas created. The primary characters make mistakes and choose unwisely. Poe would rather act on instinct, rather than reason, but he learns the importance of strategy and waiting out a situation. Finn learns there are bigger things happening in the universe than simply saving one person to the point that he’s willing to sacrifice himself to keep the resistance alive. He’s saved by Rose, who also learns that sometimes saving something you love is preferable to noble sacrifice. Even hacker DJ (Benicio Del Toro, bringing inherent strangeness back to the Star Wars universe) is basically Han Solo with even less of a conscience.
He isn’t evil, just more interested in his own survival than morality and will align himself with the highest bidder. He’s amoral and disinterested in ideology. He serves to emphasize what makes The Last Jedi so unique: the film is about flawed, damaged characters trying to rectify the consequences of poor decisions. By doing so, hope in the cause is rekindled, and the stage is set for the final battle. I have no idea where IX is going, and that is a thrilling state of mind, but I also have hope for the franchise’s future.