It may not be the greatest Star Wars film ever. That mantle still resides with The Empire Strikes Back and naturally it will take time (preferably a second watch) to see how this film will rank overall. However, Star Wars: The Last Jedi might be the most significant in the franchise’s history.
“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.” – Kylo Ren
The last major release of the year and The Last Jedi is a milestone release for a few reasons. The most obvious of course is that it follows on from the highly enjoyable The Force Awakens. Director Rian Johnson receives that challenging baton to pick up the where the story left off. But in the larger context, 2017 has brought back the art in films where directors have used the medium to deliver unconventional films that have gone against audience expectations and taken us out of our comfort zone. We’ve seen it in Logan, Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049, War for the Planet of the Apes, Baby Driver, Wonder Woman, Get Out and Detroit.
The Last Jedi naturally belongs on that list. To paraphrase Obi Wan in A New Hope – this was not the Star Wars film you was looking for.
The Last Jedi is far from perfect. No film is. Does the runtime feel a little excessive? Yes. The ending felt a little tact on when it already had a natural resolve and could have been saved for the next film. Could the pacing been a bit better? Yes. Are there a few OTT moments which are cheesy? Yes. Is it clunky at times? Yes. Could some elements of the story been handled better to give it some tonal consistency? Absolutely.
But here is the big massive “but” in this story which already is proving to be divisive and controversial amongst die-hard fans.
The changes made in The Last Jedi were liberating changes for the better.
For all the love I have for The Force Awakens, it’s hard not to see the obvious connections to A New Hope. That is not a criticism but a common observation. As mentioned in my review, The Force Awakens uses A New Hope as a guidance to shape the new trilogy. It is specifically designed and constructed to introduce the next generation of strong characters in Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Kylo (Adam Driver) and Poe (Oscar Isaac). But The Force Awakens is steeped in heavy nostalgia, reminding the audience why they fell in love with the franchise as if we magically became children again. Seeing familiar things like the Millennium Falcon, the droids and all the familiar faces from that universe are the equivalent of buying and listening to a greatest hits compilation. Again, not a criticism but it helps build a context for The Last Jedi because it is the stonewall opposite of that.
The dangerous thing about nostalgia is that it can eventually become predictable and safe because of the lack of engaging challenges or fresh new stories for its audience. It’s the surreal sense of deja vu and like comfort food it relies on the same clichés and tropes to tell a story that remains within that unadventurous status quo. Rogue One largely suffered in that respect. It sadly doesn’t hold up after repeated viewings because of the high level of distracting fan service and not enough character development to flesh out a real and genuine purpose for the rebels to fight against the Empire. The film was clunky, saved only by the incredible battle on Scarif. We’ve already seen in other franchises such as Alien, Pirates of the Caribbean and Terminator on how tired that repetitive formula can be.
For franchises to have a chance at survival, they eventually need to evolve. Otherwise, they stagnate or in the worse case scenario, die as a consequence.
However rough around the edges this film was (and possibly could have done with another written draft), if The Force Awakens showcased that original, nostalgic innocence where it was allowed to be fun and energetic, then The Last Jedi is arguably the most layered, adult and grown up Star Wars film ever made.
That is one of the most surprising elements. Star Wars is meant to be a rapturous feeling of childhood excitement, fist-pumping hype and expectation but The Last Jedi delivers something unexpected. This is a film that took a risk with the Star Wars mythology by challenging those sacred and conceived notions. As controversial and upsetting this may sound for die-hard fans, but The Last Jedi doesn’t deliver on fan pleasing moments, revelations or cliffhangers (both in the cinematic fashion or literal fashion with Luke in The Force Awakens) just to satisfy an audience. This is a film that was bold enough to make a challenging statement to propel the franchise into uncharted territory where you have no idea what is going to happen next.
Given the amount of fan theories and in-depth discussions that developed in between the new films, it’s a nice feeling to be suddenly kept on your toes and freed from the compartmentalized beliefs. Because ultimately that was the danger with Episode 8, long before the famous “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away,” faded on-screen. Maintain the status quo and accusations of a lack of originality would have been fierce. We would have been back to square one in questioning the repetitive direction. But from a cinematic experience, who would want to go to a cinema and already know the outcome of the film?
At the heart of it, The Last Jedi is more of a character driven movie which again is another welcomed surprise. Similar to what Twin Peaks: The Return did, the more The Last Jedi is analysed, the more it serves as a brilliant running commentary about the legacy of franchises and how we interact with them. We’re all guilty of it. There’s always an element of hero-worship where characters become a source of inspiration and motivation. We put them on a higher plane where we can look up and believe. It also creates a celebrity head canon and culture defined by our own fantastical expectations. Yet similar to Denis Villeneuve‘s Blade Runner 2049, The Last Jedi cleverly dissects the idea of the hero complex by subverting the traditional story construct we’re use to. It embraces a nuance that is explored not as simplistically as good versus evil, but something far more complex, blurred and in-between. What writer and director Rian Johnson achieves are characters which are more human, grounded and real.
It’s not done in a disrespectful way. The classic and faithful homages are present and acknowledged. There are emotional scenes which recognise the symbolic connection of the journey started forty years ago. But The Last Jedi also rips up the rule book on what was done before to journey into the beyond. That aspect of The Last Jedi was the most liberating.
How often do you see a Star Wars film where the rebels are really up against it and on its last knees? Suddenly you slowly find yourself watching a bleak situation and the opening battle is one of the best moments in the film. It’s not to say that this aspect wasn’t explored before in previous films but The Last Jedi gave us something more visually in-depth instead of the 2D characterisations that Rogue One or the prequel trilogy suffered from at times. It’s the exploration of the human struggle, the sacrifices and the highly charged conflicts that rose out of those battles. As the tide kept on turning, the weaponry for the fight back becomes limited as if the First Order are Apple to the Rebels’ Windows 95. Our heroes are under severe pressure and there’s a consequence to these actions. That’s what kept the film interesting and emotionally dramatic. Suddenly you felt an endearing care for characters because of their own personal story arc. Like a cross-generation divide between the old and the new, everybody eventually learns and develops from their actions to become better leaders.
That speaks true of Rey and Kylo Ren. Their parallel story involves abandonment and trying to find a belonging in this vast universe. In a seminal way, they’re both looking for acceptance from their surrogate “fathers” which naturally plays along with the standardise thinking of the light and the dark side. But in the particular case of Kylo, arguably one of the best, well-rounded villains created for the new trilogy, his desperate emulation to be Darth Vader 2.0 is ridiculed as a childish exercise by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). The emotional conflict that resides between the two characters is their ultimate desire to live up to their influential legends and The Last Jedi becomes the realisation that they are stronger than what they think they expect of themselves. There’s a beautiful line which sums up that evolving trajectory – “We are what they grow beyond.”
But it’s also how the film deals with the old guard. We see General Leia (the late, great Carrie Fisher), vulnerable and scared of the consequences as she counts up the losses. Luke Skywalker (a brilliant performance by Mark Hamill) is not the clean-cut hero you thought he was. He’s tired, old, frustrated and a recluse. Whilst that may split the opinion of the fan base, the positive argument that is established makes him more human. Time has become a factor and the galaxy has changed, allowing these characters to grow. We get to see them in a new light, faults and all. It may go against reason but it also allows characters to escape that bubble and redefine who they are on a path to a peaceful redemption. It’s different but it is a positive different.
But the best of that improved characterisation is how it moves away from a singular ‘you are our only hope’ perspective to a collective ideology. Again nothing new in the Star Wars world but it’s always pined its hopes on characters bringing balance to the force – the chosen one. Yet the turmoil has previously ended the same way with the balance ushering in a fascist, totalitarian and autocratic power. Nobody does the battle alone like a God like saviour and it’s how Johnson found that aspect of the story to tell a distinction between the past and its upcoming future.
“We are the spark, that will light the fire that’ll burn the First Order down.” – Poe Dameron
Rian Johnson excels in showcasing a visual poetry. J.J. Abrams started this trend in The Force Awakens, freeing the camera from the static nature from the original to a barrel-rolling effect, making us feel we’re right in the thick of the battles. But for The Last Jedi, the visual storyline is all about the emotional impact, directly connected with the choices made by characters. Johnson intentionally slows down the action and cuts the sound as if there was a vacuum in space and it removed all the air. On hindsight it may have contributed to the slow pacing of the film but to see this subtle effect is new for the franchise, reinforcing that mood of action equals consequence. On the planet Crait, the “blood in the sand” effect acts as a psychological reaffirmation of war and its sacrificial nature, without showing actual blood on-screen. Every soldier is like a dead person walking towards an impending doom. The visuals also extends to the production sets which are beautiful, in particular Snoke’s red room and his guards.
Through the visuals, director Rian Johnson finds the time to explore the political aspect of The Last Jedi. Star Wars has always been political with arguably the prequel trilogy closely mirroring today’s world of right-wing nationalism rising up through a democratic society. But in The Last Jedi, the First Order is made fun of and Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux comes through as the best of how seriously he believes in The First Order and how others mock him. Again it contributes to the pacing of the film but introducing Canto Bight also highlights the dividing difference between the wealthy rich and the slave poor and the blurred lines that has a direct relevance with the world today.
The Star Wars universe is vast with so many potential stories to tell. The Last Jedi met my expectations because it was an attempt for the franchise to do something different that most blockbuster films struggle with. It had the audacity in its attempt to break the mould and break out of a repeating cycle that had become far too familiar and predictable. This is not The Empire Strikes Back in the franchise but a progressive move forward to shape its own new legend and that recognition and understanding will take time. It’s hard to see what path Star Wars will take knowing that this is the second film in the saga. But it will be interesting to see how J.J. Abrams will complete, shape and refine those changes for the untitled Episode 9.
It will be during this time when people will look back on The Last Jedi not with a petition loving hatred but with an appreciation for the risk taken in the first place. That should be congratulated regardless.
The Last Jedi is a good film. Impressively good. Faults and all.