Judging by the box-office returns, I’m guessing that some of you went to see The Last Jedi this past weekend. I’ve got some thoughts on the film, and will divulge them in a moment – although know that they come with FULL SPOILERS for the entire film. You’ve been warned…
A lot was riding on Episode VIII of the star-spanning franchise, perhaps even more so than its numerical predecessor. The Force Awakens proved that Star Wars could be compellingly adapted for a modern audience (and alleviated much of the ill will that had dogged the series since the prequels), but it was also deeply and inextricably linked to the original trilogy, and to the very first Star Wars film in particular. The Last Jedi, though, has the challenge of moving things in a new and wholly uncharted direction, all while keeping the spirit of the franchise which spawned it.
Perhaps not surprisingly, reactions to the latest chapter in the series have been mixed. Some viewers are praising it to the heavens, others trashing it as a betrayal of the Star Wars ethos.
While I understand the points made by both sides, I can safely say that I fall into the former category. I found The Last Jedi to be a spectacular film – perhaps the best Star Wars entry outside of The Empire Strikes Back.
As both writer and director, Rian Johnson has a lot to contend with, building off multiple characters and stories that JJ Abrams established in the previous installment. And for the most part, he succeeds marvelously. The Last Jedi is bigger, darker, and more gripping than its predecessor, with a greater emphasis on character development and humor and a lesser focus on franchise nostalgia.
In Rey, the producers strive to create the new Luke Skywalker, a young scavenger turned unlikely galactic hero. The seeds were planted in The Force Awakens, and began bearing fruit in the film’s final scene, as Rey came face-to-face with her spiritual predecessor. Student meets teacher. One generation passes to another.
Except The Last Jedi doesn’t make it that simple. Here, we learn that Luke has become a recluse not out of any noble or spiritual sense, but because he has lost faith in the entire Jedi Order. The darkness he saw in Kylo Ren – the same darkness that eclipsed Anakin all those years ago – could easily be replicated again, and again. What future does the Jedi have if it sows so many bad seeds within its own ranks?
Luke’s depiction in The Last Jedi may not seem of a complete piece with his character in the original trilogy, but it’s precisely this contrast – he’s gone from a burgeoning young hero to a pessimistic old hermit – that makes his scenes with Rey so compelling. Luke needs Rey’s voice of reason – her hopeful spirit in the face of overwhelming odds – to bring him out of his rut. He can learn much from her, perhaps even more than she from him.
And what of Rey herself? Her battle with Kylo Ren at the end of The Force Awakens pegged her as more powerful than she seemed, but also threatened to turn her into an idealistic Mary Sue. Who was this woman, we wondered, and how can she so effortlessly wield a lightsaber?
The Last Jedi seemingly resolves the issue, in part by toying with the idea that Rey will find herself inextricably drawn to the dark side. More notably, however, the film saddles Rey with a long-awaited backstory. After two years of theorizing – is she Luke’s daughter? Leia’s daughter? Chewbacca’s sister? (Okay, I was probably the only one with that theory) – we finally have our answer. But it’s an answer that has clearly polarized fans.
On the one hand, I can certainly understand how the revelation that Rey has no familial connection with the elder Star Wars cast can be anticlimactic, particularly how much hay was made about her supposed connection in The Force Awakens. (And I strongly suspect this development was not originally in the cards, only coming to fruition when Abrams handed the reins to Johnson.) But at the same time, I fully applaud this development. Separating Rey from the Solos and Skywalkers distinguishes her as a fresh face in the Star Wars lineup, and expands the potential of the Force beyond a chosen few. (Something the franchise had to do in order to keep Luke from becoming, as the title suggested, the last of the Jedis.) It may have made sense to biologically connect Rey to the previous generation of Star Wars heroes, but setting her apart makes her a more intriguing and unique character. (It also works as a nice rebuttal to the dreaded midichlorians, proving once and for all that the Force is not linked with biology.)
Rey’s expanded screentime and deeper characterization comes at the expense of some supporting players (notably Finn, who doesn’t leave quite the impression he did last time, some fun interactions with Rose notwithstanding), but it deepens the overall story, particularly anytime she shares a scene – physically or even just mentally – with Kylo Ren. Like Rey, Kylo develops very well from the previous film, as we spend time wondering if he will ultimately break free of the dark side. Rey and Kylo’s parallel inner conflicts reach a head in the film’s third act, as – in one of the most emotionally liberating scenes the Star Wars franchise has yet delivered – Rey and Kylo team up to face off against Snoke’s guards.
Alas, the partnership is not to be, as Rey and Kylo are ultimately drawn to the respective good and evil roles that the previous film planted for them. Rey becomes a true Jedi, while Kylo becomes the new Big Bad (in an unanticipated but welcome replacement of Snoke, who wasn’t all that interesting a character to begin with). These roles seemed predestined based on the previous film, but the journeys which the characters take to meet them make their development feel earned.
It may sound as though I’m being too kind to The Last Jedi. And indeed, I won’t deny that the film has its share of flaws. Finn, as I’ve already indicated, feels underused, and apart from his battle with Captain Phasma, very little of his actions here feel like emotional follow-through from The Force Awakens. (I’m also of a mind that he probably should have died in his climactic cannon-run, to give the film’s sense of loss an added punch, but the producers are likely hesitant to kill off what they perceive to be such an integral character.)
Another character poorly served is Laura Dern’s Holdo, who wobbles uncomfortably between ally and antagonist for much of the film. She and Poe clash nicely, but her character rubs off too much as a cardboard authority figure (even as, in some respects, she arguably has the moral high ground over Poe). Holdo’s heroic sacrifice makes for one of the film’s best visuals, but also leaves us feeling like her character has gone unplumbed.
My other issues with the film are largely technical (the pacing in the first half seems lengthier on the Rey side than in the Fin/Rose segments), or else are influenced by the film’s obvious merchandising plugs (the Porgs and BB-9E were both heavily marketed in recent months, yet barely appear in the film itself). They are ultimately overshadowed by the overall experience, where strong characters and dazzling effects kept me riveted for much of the film’s two-and-a-half-hour running time.
There are aspects to The Last Jedi which leave me skeptical of the trilogy’s conclusion. Killing Snoke was a daring move, but Kylo Ren will need to provide a true sense of menace in Episode IX to pay it off. I’m also concerned that Abrams (returning to the director’s chair for the next installment) will try and alter Rey’s backstory by revealing a familial connection all along, “fixing” something that Johnson never broke. And of course, the tragic death of Carrie Fisher has undoubtedly changed plans for the series, as Leia was very likely poised to play a key role in Episode IX.
Whether these concerns are legitimate remains to be seen. For the moment, however, it’s worth sitting back and enjoying The Last Jedi for the thrilling visual and emotional spectacle that it is. I’ve had concerns about the direction of the franchise ever since Disney got their hands on it, and have worried that the studio may oversaturate the market with Star Wars films until the well runs dry. That may still yet happen, but there are ways in which the franchise can remain strong and sturdy. Thanks to The Last Jedi, I have new hope.