Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Written & Directed by Rian Johnson
The New Galactic Republic has fallen to the First Order’s Starkiller Station. The Resistance is now fleeing its headquarters as the First Order fleet arrives to decimate them. Poe Dameron, the brash flyboy makes some questionable choices on the defensive strategy and comes into conflict with General Leia Organa. Meanwhile, Rey struggles to convince Luke Skywalker to return with her to the Resistance fleet and help turn the tide against the First Order. She eventually reveals her belief that Kylo Ren could be set back to the Light Side, but will learn the truth behind why Ren turned against Luke and his family. She also discovers the plans Luke has for the Jedi Order which will shake the foundations of the galaxy.
I had not planned to see The Last Jedi opening weekend due to not enjoying those sorts of massive crowds and just not feeling very excited from the promotional materials I saw. After work Friday, I sat in my classroom on my computer finishing a few things up and decided “what the hell!” and looked up spoilers. I’ve come to a stronger belief in the last few years that if a film relies on plot twists and shocks to be a “good movie,” then it is not. A movie that hinges its entire existence on spoilers will likely lack strong performances from its actors and not pace or tell its story in an exciting way. I also wonder if people rewatch films that are so obsessed with them not being spoiled. If the spoiler is paramount than a movie would lose all its luster after the first viewing? The best films grow with you and reveal themselves in different ways over time. That takes good filmmaking, not reliant on spoilers. I can understand wanting to go into a film and to be surprised, but that is not the default mode of film-viewing. All that out of the way, reading these spoilers increased by excitement to see The Last Jedi immensely, and so I gave in today and rushed out to see it.
I have been a big fan of Rian Johnson’s films since his debut Brick (2005). Brick is a neo-noir that is set in a suburban high school and replaces its hard-boiled detective with a no-nonsense high school student out to discover why his ex-girlfriend was found dead. It is incredibly stylistic, true to its genre roots, yet also challenging and fresh. It is one of the strongest debut films I’ve ever seen. His follow-up The Brothers Bloom didn’t appeal to me very much but has always been on my list of pictures to revisit. The next film, Looper was a mind-blowing experience and one of those rare time travel movies that capture the brain-twisting nature of defying the laws of linear existence.
Throughout all his work, Johnson has been incredibly stylistic yet paid close attention to his characters’ arcs, and at the end I find myself remembering the journeys of his protagonists much more than any artful flourishes or special effects. He definitely brings this aspect of his work to the Star Wars franchise yet is made to balance it with the structural expectations of the franchise, and there are moments where it doesn’t work very well. I feel like Finn lost a lot of his character that made him so much fun in the first film. He is part of a significant plot in the movie but that seems like much more plot for him while Rose Tico gets the spotlight for character development.
Overall, I enjoyed this movie a lot and it reframed The Force Awakens as an opening prologue to the actual story that is being told in The Last Jedi and presumably Episode XI. The decisions that were made on answering the more significant questions presented in The Force Awakens were absolutely perfecting at subverting audience expectations and being satisfyingly frustrating.
The first big reveal is that Supreme Commander Snoke is nobody. Where it came from and who he is absolutely unimportant. This is emphasized at the moment where Kylo Ren slices Snoke in half with a lightsaber. On reflection, this seems like a commentary on the nature of the prequels wherein every minute detail from the original trilogy had to be shoehorned in as cosmically significant. Boba Fett wasn’t just some bounty hunter dude in the background, he is actually the son of the man whom all original Stormtroopers were cloned from! It was this sort of retroactive continuity shaping that was one element in turning me off to what George Lucas was doing in those films. The galaxy is an incredibly vast place so in making the movies about the same dozen or so people you cause the universe to feel tiny and most people and places to be insignificant. I loved the fact that Snoke was just an evil man, that anyone can become an influential wicked person and they don’t have to be the great-grand-nephew of Bib Fortuna to be noteworthy. In the original trilogy, we did not need to know who the Emperor was to understand why he was in the story.
Snoke is a play on that trope of the Emperor and Kylo’s execution of him is symbolic in that it parallels Vader’s turn against the Emperor and it is casting off the structures of the old world, setting the films up for a new path. In regards to the parallels with Vader, it is interesting that Vader’s act led to his deathbed reversal to the Light Side while Kylo simply digs in deeper to the Dark Side. What Snoke was doing in manipulating both Kylo and Rey felt to Kylo like his betrayal at the hands of Luke. He has been systematically used by these older mentor figures, and in The Last Jedi, he has had enough. The path he’s chosen is a very self-destructive one because Kylo is still clinging to the idea of his supremacy. He is the “heir of Darth Vader” and while he claims to want to cast off the shackles of the past everything about him is tied to that obsession with his family’s history.
The second big reveal sits nicely alongside the Snoke point, Rey comes from nothing. I absolutely the loved that despite all the fanboy speculation and questions, Rey is merely the daughter of faceless junk traders on Jakku who sold her for a bit of drinking money. It is very similar to the humble beginnings of Anakin Skywalker, which have been annoyingly conflated with speculation about his “virgin birth.” It is more important that these characters came from nothing when looked at from a thematic point of view. Genre cinema is rife with characters that are anointed chosen ones, and that trope is being used to the degree that it has become cliche and pushes a dangerous message. The Chosen One sits nicely with the ideology of Ayn Rand, where only a particular slice of the population is exceptional and worthy. This is primarily how Kylo Ren thinks while Luke’s stance on the Force and the Jedi Order is incredibly egalitarian. Rey is just the seed of what is to come, people across the Star Wars galaxy who are not Skywalkers, who do not descend from Sith, yet are what the universe and the Force need to change the tide of history. This is a movement of the people, not powerful aristocrats and space wizards who sit above everyone else. Realizing this was the core theme Rian Johnson was weaving through The Last Jedi astounded and delighted me.
George Lucas unintentionally did an excellent job in making me despise the Jedi Order in his prequels. For all the characters’ whinging on about the dangers of giving into your emotions and the grating stoicism they exuded it made me truly hate the Jedi. Anakin was corrupted not solely due to the Emperor’s influence, but also because of the Jedi’s bull-headed insistence on the old way of doing things. They clung to traditionalism, and as a result, they were destroyed. The Jedi sought the impossible, that people could be made into some inhuman unemotional ideal and that then the universe would be saved. Rian Johnson has upturned this idea. Luke will not be creating a special Jedi Academy to train the replacements for the Order. That ideology is what led to the dark state of the galaxy. Instead of the Force being wielded by a select few, the Force that flows through all things should be a tool used for the betterment of life. I particularly love that the spirit of Yoda is the one to burn down the Jedi library after Luke’s hesitance. Yoda sums it up as he and Luke sit watching the tree burn, “We are what they grow beyond.” Going forward there is not merely a Light and Dark Side. The Force is too complicated for binary ways of thinking. The title of the previous film, The Force Awakens, speaks to this. The Force is a living element of nature, and it is growing so that the galaxy does not need one family’s bloodline anymore.
Anyone can be a hero. The universe doesn’t need to wait for the Chosen One because every single person is capable of changing the course of history. Martin Luther King Jr doesn’t exist without a movement pushing for Civil Rights striving for a century. Gandhi doesn’t reverse the colonial rule of India without the people already pushing against imperial rule. Susan B. Anthony was not the only women’s suffragette, and she didn’t even live to see women get the vote. Movements that make our world better do not begin with a single unique person, they come out of a community of people who believe that life can be better, should be better. Luke Skywalker sacrifices himself to give the Resistance that time they need to escape, and his act is a beautiful and emotional one. However, Paige Tico, Rose’s sister sacrifices herself on the bomber in the film’s opening to take down a massive First Order weapon and is beautiful as well. Her death and Luke’s are equal, they were both made to save the movement they loved and believed will life the galaxy out of this dark time. It is very fitting that The Last Jedi end on an image of a poor stable boy from Canto Bight using the Force to pull a broom into his hand and then gazing up at the stars. The Force has awakened, and Luke was right. It was wrong for the Jedi to hold this power for themselves. Never before has there been so much hope.