There’s an underlying kernel of irony at the center of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The film is the freshest film in the Star Wars franchise since George Lucas decided to add to the original trilogy. For all its flaws, it pushes the boundaries of the universe in many different directions, intent on being something new. At the same time, it is the tenth film in the franchise (three originals, three prequels plus the Clone Wars animated film, and the two Disney films). The routine solution for the tension between old and new has always been to side with the established lore of the franchise, occasionally to ridiculous levels. To the chagrin of many fans of the franchise, writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) bucks this trend violently.
Ostensibly, The Last Jedi is a sequel to The Force Awakens, but it doesn’t really owe much to its predecessor. It continues developing the characters Rey, Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron, Finn, and others. It picks up from the same general story line of the previous film (First Order vs. Rebels), but very few plot elements are referenced directly. Throughout the film, one thing is made abundantly clear: if an element from The Force Awakens was weak or unnecessary, Rian Johnson simply does away with it.
You can see how that would piss some people off, but I consider it an absolute breath of fresh air for a franchise that I was close to abandoning.
Now, that is not to say that The Last Jedi is perfect – far from it. The most glaring issue is the structure. The film is over-long by about 20-30 minutes, which is an eternity for an action/adventure movie. The pacing has some serious issues, and entire subplots are utterly dispensable to the ultimate story. In addition, a lesser problem lay in some of the performances/characters and (by extension) in the attempts at comedy.
We’ll start with the structural elements. The basic flow of the narrative is pretty simple: Rebels are running from the First Order (mostly led by Snoke and Kylo Ren), and can’t just jump to hyperspace because they’re being tracked. Instead, they need to be a little more clever about things. A few of our heroes (Poe, Finn, and the new character Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran)) decide they need to act. Meanwhile, Rey tries to learn whatever she can from Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who is reticent to indulge her curiosities.
The rebels “running” from the First Order is roughly the first two-thirds of the movie, and does not need to be quite so involved. It positively drags in some areas, and is not helped by the fact that Poe, Finn, and Rose’s plan to save them is 100%, utterly insignificant to the outcome and takes up a bunch of time. It feels a lot like wheel-spinning, so although there are some fantastic moments in this plot, most of them get lost.
Luke and Rey’s story line (and, by extension, Snoke and Kylo Ren’s) is a little leaner and more interesting, but it suffers from similar problems. Rey follows Luke around like a puppy-dog for a little too long, and even when she decides she’s had enough, there isn’t enough immediacy to her actions. Again, it is not as bad as the “main” plot – I’d probably take 20 minutes from the main plot, 10 from Rey/Luke, and 10 from the “final” battle sequence on the crystal planet. I’d end up with a brisk 2 hours and 2 minutes of Star Wars, only a minute longer than the original.
The characters and performances are much less of an issue, and largely come down to taste. I think Mark Hamill does a fine job for the most part, but a couple of his scenes come off as indescribably hammy (the scene with Yoda’s force ghost comes to mind). Other tonal imbalances come through in similar scenes from the other characters, particularly during Leia’s explosion scene, Poe’s mutiny, and almost everything involving Finn and Rose.
It may sound like I hated The Last Jedi, but this criticisms are fairly light compared to my complaints over previous films. And, they are mostly particular elements of the film that I feel missed. The overall vision is exemplary.
Rian Johnson is the first director of a Star Wars film who went out of his way to not be beholden to the past. There are some obvious examples of this philosophy in the film itself; Johnson even goes so far as to have Kylo Ren tell Rey to “Kill [the past] if you have to”. But, Johnson’s trailblazing aesthetic goes beyond new ships or aliens or planets. He seems determined to liberate Star Wars from the shackles of its past.
You know exactly what I am talking about: Star Was has lightsaber fights, Skywalkers, Jedi and Sith in long lines of succession, a large space weapon, Rebels/Resistance and Empire/First Order, and so forth. It is almost like a checklist that filmmakers have to complete. And, I am not saying that Johnson doesn’t check off a few of these boxes himself, but observe how – in almost every case – he subverts them.
There is a single scene where one lightsaber hits another: Luke’s memory of Ben Solo’s “betrayal”. What?
There’s a Skywalker, but he’s a flawed jerk hiding from all the mistakes he’s made (though he does undergo a kind of redemption).
The First Order and the Resistance are definitely the focus, but by the end, the good guys have practically been wiped out!
These small details are encouraging, but two specific examples are utterly brilliant: the death of Snoke and the “battle” between Kylo and Luke on the crystal planet.
-Rian Johnson, probably.
Snoke is the haughtiest Sith I’ve ever seen, and they all enjoy the smell of their own farts a little too much. Snoke’s on another level, re-directing Rey’s lame attempt to snatch a lightsaber to fly over and bonk her on the head, like smacking a dog on the nose with a newspaper for some slight misbehavior. He’s practically a Bond villain with the way he pontificates over his genius, describing with utter confidence that everything will go just as he predicts. All the while, Kylo Ren is shrouding his true intentions, and actually succeeds in destroying Snoke. It’s an amazing turn for myriad character reasons, the most important of which is that it shows Kylo as that same “frightened boy whose master had failed him” that Luke spoke of, all-the-while making his cunning, his power, and his danger utterly evident.
Mirroring all of these ideas, Luke’s thorough embarrassment of Kylo in the climactic fight scene is a triumph. First, there’s the same sleight-of-hand underneath the entire thing, and the same absurd confidence from the Sith. The audience can feel themselves involved in this trick, and in the confidence: since we’ve never seen Luke the Jedi Master at full strength, we might just believe he is capable of withstanding a barrage from a battalion of AT-ATs. We might believe he is just toying with Kylo by dodging his attacks, and we might believe he is sacrificing himself – just as his mentor Obi-Wan did. When it is revealed that Luke is projecting his form there, in an entirely new Force power, we feel the same embarrassment as the brain-dead Kylo Ren. We’ve been played by someone on an entirely different level.
Thank you, Rian Johnson, I love Star Wars again.
Most importantly (and most encouragingly), Johnson practically prohibits the sycophantic theorizing that seems to satiate the fanpersons in between episodes of this franchise. Who is Snoke? Apparently, he’s no one. It’s not Darth Sidious reincarnated, it’s not Darth Plagueis, it’s not some long-lost Sith Master. He’s just an overconfident dude who got his comeuppance. Who are Rey’s parents? Is it Obi-Wan? Is it Luke? Is she another “virgince of the force”, like Anakin Skywalker was? Nope – she’s just a poor girl whose parents sold her for drinking money.
I’m sure this rustled a lot of jimmies, because people like theories (especially when they’re shown to be right) and fanbases love their lore. But, there’s a crucial observation here: these non-answers emblazon The Last Jedi with a singular sentiment: Kill The Past – it’s not important. These are new characters, new stories, new ideas.
The Last Jedi does more than push specific elements in new directions, it also fundamentally embraces the same forward-looking ideology in its themes. For what is the ultimate statement of The Last Jedi, if not that something new can and should grow beyond the constraints of the past? Yoda tells Luke that masters must watch their apprentices eclipse them – and that all good masters must relish such an end. Luke informs Kylo that he will not be the last Jedi, that this day will see the birth of the next generation. And, despite being able to fit all that’s left of the good guys into the Millennium Falcon by the end of the film, The Last Jedi closes with a triumphant spirit of rebellion: from this spark, we will light a new flame.
Even if you’re not a champion of the individual particulars of The Last Jedi (and I’ve my fair share of complaints), Rian Johnson’s approach to the franchise is refreshing. Instead of tying everything to the past, he is forging a new way forward. I was skeptical, but he is the perfect person to be handed the keys to a brand-new Star Wars trilogy.