SPOILER WARNING: There is a general discussion of the film’s content in the following review.
Sometimes I wish the original trilogy were the only films ever made. They were perfect in my eyes. But I am happy to admit I have embraced the whole Star Wars saga (which includes six seasons of the TV series The Clone Wars and Rebels, currently into its fourth season) over a lifetime, despite some of my reservations that the prequels were somewhat of an exercise in indulgence by George Lucas. That said, some of it was awful and some of it was really good, especially The Revenge of the Sith (2005).
More recently a wonderful reboot under the control of the Disney empire without uncle George has seen the franchise slowly grapple with expectations of hard die fans and moving the saga forward. A few years ago I said that handing over the reins of the Star Wars franchise was probably the best thing for its continued future and success. It was also quite understandable at the time how uncle George feared that his vision of Star Wars might be totally compromised with a new trilogy ‘storyboarded’ by a new generation. I like to think that this current trilogy with The Force Awakens as its anchor, and the Star Wars reboot in general with Rogue One, a stand-alone film and another few more still forthcoming, is pretty much in safe hands. If you can only see me sitting here writing that last sentence, I really had to pinch myself to see that I was awake. Believe me I am fully aware of the hate campaign against Kennedy & Co. and the growing reaction from hardcore fans that Disney is trying to kill Star Wars.
Two weekends ago, I saw the latest instalment in the Skywalker saga, Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But before I give you my two cents worth, its important to mention that the lead up and secrecy around the film, and the plot theories and conspiracies surrounding Rey, Luke and even Mark Hamill’s reluctance about what should happen to Luke, was beyond anything I had imagined. Importantly, we also heard that The Last Jedi director, Rian Johnson, was given a green light by Disney to write and direct a new Star Wars trilogy. Instantly rumours buzzed around that, for Johnson to be given a blank canvas on three new Star Wars movies, The Last Jedi must be masterpiece, right? I knew that it was dangerous to believe that a film could be great without even seeing it, but nonetheless my expectations now were through the roof! I had even resigned myself to reluctantly accept whatever fate awaited Rey, Luke and even Leia, knowing Carrie Fisher will never return the big screen again with her sad passing last year. And so as the lights dimmed in the theatre, I held my breath and hoped for the best.
The first part of The Last Jedi sees our heroes, the Resistance, led by Leia Organa, trying to evacuate from their base on D’Qar, which is under attack from the menacing First Order. A very costly space battle takes place above the planet led by Poe Dameron, which almost completely decimates the capabilities of the Resistance. They escape by jumping into hyperspace, but a short time after it is revealed that they have been tracked all along through hyperspace by the First Order, when they re-emerge in real time space, and there is no hope of escape. (More recently this astonishing revelation was brought to my attention by several friends, who noticed that the hyperspace tracking project was mentioned in Rogue One by Jyn Erso, when she was scanning the Empire’s database to find the Death Star plans. How did I miss that? And how’s that for a cool Easter egg!)
Across the galaxy at the site of the First Jedi Temple, Rey finds herself in the presence of a legend, Luke Skywalker, a Jedi master unwilling to help her or the fledgling Resistance led by his sister Leia, to fight against the First Order, who is hell-bent on crushing them. While Skywalker makes it very clear to Rey that he came to Ahch-To to die, Rey has many questions she wants answered, especially her place in the galaxy. But it isn’t long before Luke realises that Rey has a connection to the dark side and to his nephew Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren, which is something that truly frightens him.
By the end of the two and half hour film, it was hard not to walk out of the theatre feeling emotional, confused and especially relieved that Rey, whom I adore as the latest Star Wars female heroine, remains somewhat unscathed after her misadventure on Ahch-To and her later ordeal under Snoke. (My greatest fear was that she would turn to the dark side.) But as the faces of people whom had shared the same experience, smiled and beamed with excitement, I was torn by my initial overall expectations. I was somewhat underwhelmed by the film and my feelings for it, and yet this was still despite the very positive reviews I read later that night at home. I’ll see how I feel about it in a few more days I thought and upon seeing it again.
The Last Jedi did its best to try and piss me off straight after the opening crawl, with Poe’s stand up comedy routine, heckling First Order’s General Hux. It wasn’t long after that I wondered whether I had come to see a comedy or a space opera, especially when Luke unceremoniously throws his lightsaber over his shoulder. It received lots of laughs in the cinema, which I believe should have been a more serious moment, leading us to eventually understand why Luke had rejected his Jedi life. Don’t get me wrong, humour definitely has its place in Star Wars, but there was an overemphasis of it in this film. It is at times cheap and cheesy, but for the most part I guess it works?
Other things troubled me too, some flaws and things that I could have done without, such as Maz Kanata’s cameo and the surprisingly annoying General Hux, bobbing up strategically at plot points trying to look important. Is it just me or were there too many new aliens and creatures? It was like Rian was showboating. Dude, you can expand the Star Wars universe with subtlety, I don’t need to see that there are hundreds of new star systems and live forms, sometimes it is nice to imagine it. The reliance of CGI, definitely one of the sins of the prequels, is also heavy-handed under the watch of Rian Johnson, but it admittedly does serve its purpose, in the best of the action sequences and explosive battle scenes. We seriously could have also done without the pointless extravagant Canto Bight/ casino side story in which Finn and new Star Wars character Rose Tico, attempt to find a master code breaker, so that they can sneak on board Snoke’s flagship and disable the hyperspace tracker, allowing what remains of The Resistance to escape. And while on the subject of Finn, he is wasted in a lackluster performance by John Boyega. Though his only saving grace might be his attempted kamikaze attack on the First Order’s laser battering ram canon in the film’s finale.
There are, of course, a litter of other smaller flaws, but they are just simply not worth getting into here, without sounding really petty. Ok, maybe just one more. I really hated that grossed out milking alien cows thing with Luke. What up with that? But the fact that I had noticed so many things that initially bothered me, probably suggests that The Last Jedi wasn’t working for me, right? Star Wars will always be divisive and we are always going to pick out the things we love and hate about it. The Last Jedi is by no means a weak film, it is unprecedented in scope for trying to be different or is difficult a better word to describe Johnson’s new Star Wars film? One of the more thoughtful emotionally-charged critiques of The Last Jedi was written by my friend Master Awan. He loves Star Wars as much as I do, if not more, but I think we may have to agree to disagree on some of what he has said in his provisional review.
Since then I have now seen it twice and have to some degree moved on from my initial disappointment. I don’t know what bothered me the most about it last week. The fact that it was promised that Rian Johnson would deliver an epic film that would rival The Empire Strikes Back or that the ending, including Luke’s choice to die, was something that I really deep down wasn’t prepared for. I also initially found myself questioning the originality of The Last Jedi, which I had dearly hoped for, but in some sense Johnson hadn’t moved it enough away from being a Skywalker saga?
You may get the impression that I seem keen on moving away from the original trilogy as a fan, truly ready to embrace the next chapter of the Star Wars story. That is to some extent correct. I mentioned earlier above that the original trilogy was in my eyes perfect and that many fans, including a dear friend of mine, believe that the Return of the Jedi, makes for a fitting end-point for the Skywalker story, where a repented father and son save the galaxy by defeating the evil Emperor and thus bringing balance to the force. I can still see those celebratory fireworks and the statue of Emperor Palpatine tumbling down as a symbol of victory. That point inevitably leads me to one of my biggest complaint about The Last Jedi that Rian Johnson’s unintentionally dishonors Luke Skywalker’s legacy.
“This is not going to go the way you think”, uttered from Luke’s lips to Rey in one of Ahch-Tou’s most dramatic scenes which now seems quite poignant. Luke was once a hero, and maybe he should have been left to revel in glory, but in The Last Jedi we now find him with his spirit broken, cut off to the force and isolated from those he loves, because of a massive misunderstanding between Luke and Ben Solo (aka Kylo Ren), that led Ben to rise against his former teacher and destroy Luke’s Jedi academy and a new generation of Jedi. Our perfect vision of Luke is also instantly shattered when he refuses to help Rey, the galaxy’s new hope, to reset that delicate balance between the light and the dark side of the force. But Rian Johnson’s unpredictability surprised me late in the film, changing my mind about my relationship with my original Star Wars hero, giving Luke closure, not quite the blazing lightsaber battle I hoped for, but nonetheless a solemn finale with Luke tormenting Kylo Ren through a telepathic force projection, before he faded away likened to Yoda’s exit in The Empire Strikes Back, while gazing out upon a twin sunset, reminiscent of that classic A New Hope scene on Tatooine.
Johnson had always said that this trilogy wasn’t wholly Luke’s story, that it is Rey’s and that by making Luke a twisted and tormented former Jedi master dealing with failure and disappointment, it really in some respects helped set up the film’s effective ending and for us to truly now pin our hopes with Rey. I’ve come to accept that Luke’s death is probably as good as any finale for a beloved character (He may yet still return as a force ghost?) and sets up episode IX to allow characters like Kylo Ren, Rey, Poe and Finn to breathe and break free of the original trilogy’s shadow. “Let the past die,” Kylo Ren says. “Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become who you were meant to be.” That said not everyone is happy with the ending. Some believe that it won’t be salvageable, especially since we are left with the presence of Leia, but no Carrie Fisher.
With the first anniversary of Carrie Fishers death nearly upon us, it is fitting that she has left us with an amazing and rich legacy as Star Wars first female heroine, especially in her last performance as an actress. Interestingly, I had only recently learnt how Fisher had a hand in rewriting most of her lines in this film. I can only imagine what she might have insisted on for episode IX, considering it is believed that she was going to play an integral part in it.
The major strengths of the film I believe comes in many forms, especially its unpredictability. Take for example how no one saw Snoke’s demise coming or how Snoke’s ridicule of Kylo Ren further impaired his volatile state of mind. When Ren killed Snoke, we all hoped he would turn back to the light like his grandfather Anakin Skywalker did, but instead he chose by his own volition, to continue and not stray from his dangerous journey down the path towards the dark side. Adam Drivers guilt-ridden performance of Kylo Ren in my opinion steals the show, even ahead of what is believed to be Mark Hamill’s finest acting moment portraying Luke Skywalker. But lets not forget the strength of the film also lies in the four main female characters (Rey, Leia, Rose, and Holdo) getting things done and taking the fight to the First Order.
It annoys me a little that no matter what the makers of Star Wars do, hardcore fans will never be happy, especially with Disney’s emphasis on and inclusive nature to portray strong well-rounded female characters. A considerable backlash from fans comes from their horror that The Last Jedi is an all-conquering feminist movie. But my message to the kind of fan who originally shrugged off Rey, as a Mary Sue character after The Force Awakens, is that you need to put down their caveman club and embrace the momentous shift that society is advocating, that both men and women can co-exist, do the same things and work together side by side, even on-screen in a Star Wars movie.
Does it really matter that for a change, a female character like General Leia or her second in charge Vice Admiral Holdo (played by Laura Dern) can be strong, sceptical and dismissive of anything that their male counterpart might have to say? Some fan reactions are bewildering, especially in relation to how nice guy Poe Dameron (played by Oscar Isaac) was treated by Leia and Holdo. It’s almost as if women are not allowed to be opinionated strong leaders, especially when people like Poe are wrong. (Poe was put back into his place, notably for his subordination for ignoring direct orders from Leia, which ultimately cost the lives of many of their best fighter pilots, and later for questioning the authority of Holdo and her ability to make decisions and lead under pressure.) Anyway, I hope that we may remember in the years ahead how the brave, intelligent, and capable women of The Last Jedi saved the Resistance!
It is here I would like to pause and draw breathe and get back on topic about some more of The Last Jedi‘s strengths. That said I would briefly like to paraphrase what my good friend Sean Munger (See his review here) said to me a few days after he saw the film. He said that the major strength of the film was the chemistry between Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver. And that The Last Jedi story was not about epic space wars, but about a broken family. He went on to add that what a wonderful message Rey’s character send us. How a young woman, daughter of junk traders, can save the universe! Honestly, I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Cinematically, The Last Jedi may seem a little disjointed and unstructured with too many side stories, but here too lies its strength, as it is cleverly edited back and forth to keep up the suspense. These multiple plots I believe all eventually come together magically for the finale, set on a rich mineral planet of Crait. How gorgeous were those scenes of red and white during the climatic battle on the salt plains of Crait!!??!!
It is impossible to grasp everything that has changed my mind to truly embracing a film with such heart. Some of my favourite scenes involve Rey with Ren, and Luke with Leia, where director Rian Johnson has cleverly brought into focus another one of those mysteries of the force, where force sensitive characters can telepathically communicate with each other intimately across the galaxy. I loved the homage scene between Luke and R2D2 on board the Millennium Falcon, where R2D2 tries to emotionally blackmail Luke into joining the fight against the First Order. I also loved the moment where Leia is blown out of her ship’s bridge. We are momentarily left to fear that she is dead, until she wakes from her Jedi-like meditative state and reaches out with her hand to use the force to drag herself back into the ship. Finally we come to see Leia use her force sensitive abilities that Luke alludes to her having in the Return of the Jedi. Equally breathtaking is Vice Admiral Holdo’s ultimate sacrifices to save the Resistance, when she pilots the Resistance starship (the Raddus) into lightspeed right through the First Order destroyer. At the moment of impact, we expect to hear the roar of explosions, but instead the sound instantly drops out creating a surreal and striking visual of Snoke’s flagship breaking up. And finally, I loved the epic lightsaber duel in Snoke’s throne room between Rey and Ren against Snoke’s Elite Praetorian Guard.
What I have said here is at least I hope a start to make amends to my initial reluctance to The Last Jedi. In regards to feeling underwhelmed by The Last Jedi, I never said I hated it, I initially thought that some things in it just didn’t work. The casino side story still doesn’t and a few other smaller flaws still annoy me, but overall on seeing it again I have come to appreciate how Rian Johnson wanted to challenge and provoke us and or maybe even shake up our long standing dogmatic view of Star Wars. (Maybe in hindsight I should have tempered my expectations of it in the first place?) In short, it is an entertaining film, probably like no other Star Wars film before it, and arguably fitting where we find ourselves and our love and desire to see this saga move on from the past. And I think that it is also fair to say that the faith Disney that has shown in writer-director Rian Johnson is justified. Where to from here? I don’t know. Close your eyes, breathe and imagine the possibilities!
Photo Credits: The film stills from The Last Jedi used in this article are courtesy and copyright material of Disney/Lucasfilm. I make use of the images under the rational of fair use, to enable me to makes an important contribution to the reader’s understanding of the article, which could not practically be communicated by words alone. In fact, I hope that this review helps to promote the anticipation and excitement of the film.