Spoilers, lots of ‘em.
As I write, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is the top film in the world, already grossing over a billion dollars and pushing franchise profits past what Disney paid for the entirety of Lucasfilm in 2012. Though an indisputable success at the box office, there have been mixed feelings about the film itself. Now, no film is perfect but many agree that it has some of the most visually stunning moments in the series’ history. Rian Johnson is beyond competent, and that shows. That said, if you look to Rotten Tomatoes, as many do, you’ll see a significant difference in the critical opinion and fan voting. While I don’t personally think you should look at Rotten Tomatoes for insight, this does expose an interesting phenomenon. For some reason, many casual fans are pretty lukewarm on the film while the professional critics seems to like it quite a bit.
I think I know why.
The Force Awakens, by the same metrics, was a financial, critical and fan success. It introduced new characters, locations and brought back the aesthetic abandoned in the prequels. The only problem is it kind of stopped there. Sonny Bunch of the Washington Free Beacon may have said it best, calling it “The most Star Wars movie since Star Wars”. I think therein lies all of Episode VII’s problems. I don’t feel the need to really dig into how many times it echoes A New Hope, there is plenty of already written about that, but I do have to mention it as it is quite a valid criticism. I think the bigger problems can be found in characters and their trajectories. Rey is presented with almost no backstory or motivation. She accomplishes a lot, but without much weight. Finn should have the most complex viewpoint, but it is never quite used as his driving force. Oh, and Poe is a great pilot. Yes, I’ve read the stuff that his characterization is weak because he was supposed to die, but he didn’t and thus that is no excuse. The only new character who really comes out of the story with a unique narrative is Kylo Ren. Quite frankly, he was only character who motivated my interest in The Last Jedi. After repeated viewings, another weakness grows more apparent. It makes enough sense that The Empire did not completely disappear, but it is sort of weird that what one would have expected to be simply “The Republic” is calling itself “The Resistance”. It is a bizarre attempt to equate the good guys with The Rebellion, which in theory was no longer necessary. By design, it was safe. No challenging concepts about the war, The Force or anything else. There was a lot of cool stuff in there, but honestly, there was in the prequels as well. The Force Awakens echoes Disney’s Marvel films; Stick with the formula and retain your audience. Unfortunately in storytelling, safe means you don’t move forward. Rian Johnson moves forward.
“Let The Past Die. Kill it if you have to.”
The Last Jedi has some problems. It often feels disorganized, as if it is trying to address characters who aren’t all that important to its progression, but I think that flaw is a result of an admirable cause. Johnson seems to be addressing The Force Awakens’ lack of development and explanation. By film’s end, we have spent enough time with all of our principals to truly get a sense of their personalities. Two of our characters deal with one of the newly established concepts: The dominance of the First Order. Episode VII never quite explained why The Resistance exists, but from opening crawl here, we are informed that the imperials maintain the upper hand. I’m sure there will be an eventual film that fleshes out the years in between the original and contemporary trilogies, but it seems that things didn’t turn out the way the rebellion hoped after The Emporer’s demise. Finn’s part in this might be the weakest both in direction and development, his subplot would be the easiest to cut out, but he does progress a bit along with newcomer Rose. Poe is entered into a military quandary, the struggle of a soldier who is now in command. While I like what this does for Poe as far as his persona, I do have a problem with this sequence. Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo acts counter intuitively, there’s really no reason for her to keep Poe in the dark. I can’t agree more with Dameron’s mutiny. What else is he supposed to do when lives are on the line? The reveal of her plan falls flat, there is no logic to the deception. It really only serves to further damage the Resistance and to put Poe into greater military influence as the narrative moves toward the next film.
The greatest leaps are made with Rey, Luke and The Force. Rey goes from a character with no past to someone struggling with their place in the galaxy. This sort of meta-narrative can be found over and over again in the film. I can’t help but feel that Johnson was commenting on the both his challenges molding The Force Awakens into something more complex and the general direction of the franchise. Finding Luke Skywalker, she expects to finally find clarity. She does not. Luke has become a tortured soul, knowing that the Jedi Order, as it once was, had failed and knowing that even under his watchful gaze, it did again. Skywalker is not endlessly confident because that didn’t ever work for the Jedi. He too is searching for something, and he does eventually find it. Johnson’s Force moves back to the broad idea it was before the prequels, and advances it even further. It acknowledges the failures of the Jedi order and, instead of ignoring them, embraces it. There are no rules about parentage or training, it is the open mind that allows all possibilities. This covers Leia’s use of The Force (as I assume she has expanded her understanding as well), Rey and even the stable hand we see at film’s end. With the help of Yoda, Luke establishes a new Jedi Order under Rey, not one limited to tradition, but one seeking the truth about all of existence. The Jedi didn’t have it right, so they must constantly advance their mentality to maintain relevance.
The Last Jedi also affirms Kylo Ren. Ren had the most momentum coming into the film, and retains it as he moves forward. I think the expectation here was for him to turn to the Resistance and help take down The First Order for good. Six of the films basically tell the redemption story of Anakin Skywalker and The Force Awakens beats the audience over the head with parallels between Ren and Vader. In this film, we are reminded that Kylo Ren is not Darth Vader. He murders his master not in some Sith ritual, but because it suits his needs. We are left without an origin or explanation of Snoke because it is irrelevant. Snoke was just another Force weilder stuck in the past. Kylo Ren isn’t and he just might be cold enough to finally smash the Rebels. Ren is the embodiment of the current trilogy’s new direction. The past isn’t irrelevant, but these new characters must be treated as something different. Like the Jedi Order, The Republic must not rely on the past for its direction, it must forge a more perfect future. Perhaps this holds true for the franchise itself as well.
I think this is where a lot dissent forms. Johnson commits to a new direction on many levels. The key word there is “new”. Gone is the stagnant Force, it once again holds power that cannot be fully explained. Luke ascends beyond a simple hero, he is now one with The Force and it is up to the new cast to find their place in the galaxy, places that won’t necessarily parallel their predecessors. The past is dead, and a bit of the comfort some had in it is gone. People have had a long time to develop an idea of what they believe should happen in Star Wars, and Johnson presented a vision of it that didn’t hold to fan theories. It didn’t buy into what people expected from it, though it never really violates the established continuity either. The Last Jedi is not a callback to what has worked in the past, but we need to remember that The Empire Strikes Back wasn’t either. I recently spoke with someone who did not like the film and when I presented my thoughts, their response was something to the effect of “I don’t want to think that hard”. That is a reality of these films. Regardless of its “geeky” reputation, Star Wars is one of the most popular things in the world and while there is a ton of higher concept development in this entry, that isn’t what a good portion of the audience was looking for. There are a lot of opinions on how it should go, and with the internet, there is a platform for as many who wish to speak about it. I mean, that’s what I’m doing right now. Honestly, I fear this minor backlash might effect Episode IX, and that the work done by Rian Johnson will be walked back to a more familiar formula. Art loses when it is forced to be democratic. I think it is better to be daring than safe. The Last Jedi wasn’t safe, it wasn’t even truly about finality for the order or its heroes, and I respect that above all its problems. I might even like it more than The Return of the Jedi.