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

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Compared to Abrams, Johnson is a far less commercial and more idiosyncratic director.

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.

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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.

LUKE’S REDEMPTION

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.

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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 FANGIRLLJ11

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.

At least he still has General Hux around to keep treating like the annoying brother he never wanted.

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.

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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.

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Posted by Julianne Ramsey

Oh you know, I'm just your typical wallflower, high school theatre nerd who minored in film studies, attained her M.A. in English Literature,works as a substitute teacher, and decided to go to nursing school, but really wants to be a writer who blogs about pop culture, and then have people who. . .wait for it. . .actually read/ look forward to what she writes. In my spare time (when it's there), I watch one of my many blu-rays or DVDs (about 800 now), reading my kindle (one of the greatest inventions ever), playing my ipod (another one of the greatest inventions ever), obsess over b=Broadway musicals and horror films, and play my guitar (badly). In other words, I have no life that doesn't revolve aroung pop culture or school. Sigh.

36 Comments

  1. –> “reminds us that anyone, not just the remarkably born Luke or Anakin Skywalker, can harness its gift. It an elemental force, not a privilege for the few.”

    I keep reading people saying this (or similar), but I just don’t get where that’s coming from. Anakin was essentially no different than the broom boy. From the very beginning, SW presented the Force as something that could be embraced by anyone (though not everyone).

    Why are people cheering the idea that The Last Jedi rejects “privilege” when no privilege was ever suggested?

    Reply

    1. Anakin was basically divinely inspired, which does make him different than the stable boy or Rey. The film tries to make the point that the force isn’t something only “special” people have, but that it can exist in anyone.

      Reply

      1. What made Anakin divinely inspired? He was a slave boy. How does that make him special — other than the idea that a slave boy can become special?

      2. He was believed to be conceived by The Force. He’s essentially the Jedi version of Jesus, except he fell to the Dark Side

      3. Based on what? I don’t recall anything like that in the movies.

      4. I had done some googling, since my prequel knowledge is pretty slim. This is a pretty close summary of the consensus of internet research.
        https://www.thoughtco.com/star-wars-faq-how-anakin-created-2958004

      5. So, that’s a lot of speculation by fans — and reasonable arguments for and against. But let’s just say the Force did father Anakin, I’m still not seeing “privilege” there.

      6. He’s basically a Messiah myth, which is kinda the ultimate privilege. Though the lines of dialogue that article aren’t fan speculation, but actual movie quotes. Neither Rey nor the stable boy appear to fulfill any kind of prophecy the way Anakin does, which makes them different.

      7. Okay, but the idea of “privilege” is that certain people or families or groups get benefits just by being a part of that group.

        Here we have the Force needing a hero and rather than going to a privileged group or family for one, it creates one — with a nobody.

        That’s the opposite of privilege. And it totally embodies the idea that the Force can go to anyone.

      8. Well, you are forgetting the Jedi don’t want to train Anakin, because his age and background left him vulnerable to emotional manipulation. There is the perception that Force ability exists in remarkable people who are taken as infants (younger than Anakin, anyway) and trained in the ways of the Jedi. Last Jedi indicates it’s not about the Jedi religion or people who seem remarkable, but can be in anyone. Oh, the glory of Star Wars minutiae. I think I might just be defining “privilege” differently than you are, which is fine. Other opinions are available, and I’m not someone who swears by the original trilogy.

      9. So, two things about that…

        1) The Jedi not wanting to train someone who’s too old is not the same thing as keeping the Force for the Privileged.

        2) And the fact that the Jedi did not want to train him blows up the idea that The Last Jedi finally stopped the Force being only for the privileged.

      10. It is indicated that they chose who was trained, and they do seem to be privileged individuals. The Jedi council seem like Time Lords, stodgily sitting in self-righteous judgement. Anakin is trained because he’s basically made of Force. And, as Luke points out, their approach is riddled with failure.
        2) I disagree. Phantom Menace and the Jedi council’s reaction to Anakin has a snobbish subtext.

      11. Picking and choosing who to train sounds MERIT based not PRIVILEGE based. Was the Jedi council arrogant? Seems like it, yes. But that’s a far different argument than that the Force is only available to the privileged. There’s also a big difference between who is able to work with the force and who any given organization chooses to train. Two separate issues.

      12. The older movies made it seem as though Force strength couldn’t be harnessed without training. The new films make training seem inessential, more philosophy than skill. It’s not entirely clear how Jedi are chosen. It’s possible I always just read into it some since of being high-born (and I don’t think I’m alone in this, because as you said, the idea of privilege has been referenced a lot by other Last Jedi reviews). Granted, quantitative analysis does not yield accuracy, but it does speak to a perception of how Jedis were chosen. Anyway, you don’t have to agree with anything I said. That’s the glory of the internet. You can always find arguments that both agree and disagree. I’m not passionate enough about the Star Wars world to go back and watch the prequels to see if I’d read them the same way today.

      13. Here’s how I interpret the Force/Jedi thing…

        Some people have an affinity with the Force. As far as I know, there have been no explanations as to how that happens. Maybe just a randomness. But, we have seen in the movies that the Force was manifested in some people BEFORE their training.

        So, the question the Jedis have to answer is: Do we train this person on how to master the Force? If they train someone who does not have the right temperament or morality, they could be unleashing a terrible power among innocent people. So, I can see why they’d want to carefully choose who they do and do not train. But, I never got the impression they could take just anyone and teach them to use the Force. The Force had to be manifested in the person, first.

        The common definition of “privilege” today is that a person or group just has things handed to them by virtue of their race or what family they were lucky enough to be born to. Nothing I’ve seen in the movies about either who the Force is manifested in nor who the Jedi chooses to train is based in any way on privilege.

      14. I always got a classist vibe from the Jedi, but as I’ve said, other opinions are available.

      15. Your impression was that they chose students based on “class” and not on perceived potential and teachability? You got the impression they’d take on incompetent students just because of the “station” of the student?

      16. No, but they only assessed the upper crust of society for ability. So, yes, ability is critical, but class meant you’d be considered. I don’t think there were Jedi squibs.

      17. Again, where in the movies did you see what pool they used for selecting students? What did they show that suggested they limited their selection to those in the upper crust?

      18. Okay, it’s not in the movies. It was just an impression I always got. I always thought of Jedi training as boarding school, which I equate as something upper class kids attend. Seeing a slave child, with a rebel ring, able to use the Force in a controlled way felt different than anything else I recall in the Star Wars world. It may not be logical, but it’s hard to hold fast to logic in a movie with space magic.

      19. We really only have two scenarios that I can think of where we have some insight into the Jedi selection process. The first (chronologically) is when Obi Wan brings Anikan to be trained. The second is when Yoda meets Luke.

        In neither case do they suggest he can’t be trained because of society or station or class. In both cases it was just, “He’s too old. Too impetuous.”

        If that’s all we have to go on, I think it’s a big leap to suggest the Jedi training was limited to high class students.

      20. Again, and I feel like I’ve said this, the terms associated with Jedi training (academy, tutor, order, council) are terms I associate with upper classes. There is astonishment in finding such strong Force strength in a low-born kid like Anakin.

      21. I’m sad for you that you associate academy, tutor, order, council with only the upper class and cannot conceive of a more enlightened society where such things are open to any who qualify.

        And I don’t think the astonishment was that he was low born. Just that he was strong and undiscovered.

      22. There’s an old joke about a young woman who calls home after just a month at college. She’s frantic and angry because her psych class was showing students dirty pictures. The mother was at first concerned but as she asked more questions she realized what was going on. “That just a rorschach test, dear.”

        And the daughter replies, “I don’t care what they call it, they shouldn’t be showing us dirty pictures!”

        Moral: We tend to see what we want to see.

      23. Come now, that comment is beneath you, or at least I hope it is. It wreaks of condescension.

      24. I’m saying you’re seeing privilege and exclusivity because that’s what you want or expect to see. I see the opposite because that’s what I want or expect to see. It’s not condescending. But, I do think your view of this is sadly very narrow minded. That you can watch Star Wars and only see a society that only benefits the upper class is baffling to me.

        But, I think we’ve circled the drain enough. Thanks for the conversation. I’m out.

      25. I will end with this: can I conceive of such a society? Yes. Does that appear to be the case in the world of Star Wars/ reality? No, not really. But, whatever.

      26. Why do people do that? Drives me crazy. We’re just having an exchange of ideas and they just throw out, “Relax dude! It’s just a movie!” Good grief! Nothing in my posts should have suggested I was over emotional No personal attacks. No hyperbole. I simply expressed my thoughts and asked for more clarifications on yours.

      27. Well, I did that. I was just kidding, which is why I’ve continued to reply. I enjoy debate. But, I’ve used that MST3K reference as a non sequitur on FB multiple times. Sorry if it offended you. Definitely, not my intention.

      28. Also, “please repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a [movie and a film review].’ I should really just relax.”

  2. My main problem with the film is Rey fighting in rage. The original premise of the Light Side was to fight w/o rage and anger. Fighting with anger was supposed to take you to the Dark Side. So much of the best themes of the original trilogy has been warped in the later films.

    Reply

    1. The point of the film is ambiguity. The idea is that the light and dark don’t exist as separate entities. There’s balance between the two, but anger isn’t an inherently evil emotion. I don’t need old ideals frozen in amber. They can expanded upon

      Reply

      1. I can accept expansion as long as the story supports it. But here we were taught the force works one way and then they started using it the opposite way — with no explanation. That feels like either retcon or plot hole.

      2. I think the story does support it. Luke says the force isn’t just something the Jedis control. It’s elemental, and he does say light and dark have to coexist. Besides, there is nuance to anger.

  3. I really appreciated this review. I like that somewhere along the way, Star Wars pulled its head out of its ideological, naive ass and started exploring deeper and more realistic ideas (kinda like Star Trek has always done!). This was a film about mistakes, regrets, and failure. However, it acknowledges that everything is transient, so there is still hope that things will turn out okay. It was a beautiful mess (like life, anyone?), and its humanity resounded so clearly with me. I love the originals for what they are and the value they brought to popular culture. I equally love the sequels for acknowledging their heritage and choosing a path true to them and the newer popular culture they belong to. This whole film reminded me very strongly of a Star Trek: TNG quote from “Peak Performance” where Data questions whether he is flawed due to losing a game. The Captain Jean Luc Picard shares his words of wisdom: “It is possible to commit no errors and still lose. That is not a weakness…. That is life.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4A-Ml8YHyM) I feel like that is how people are approaching this film, and I’m okay with it. Thanks Julie for a great review. I love reading these.

    Reply

    1. Thank you for the nice response!

      Reply

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