*The following contains spoilers for all films in the Star Wars franchise, including Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi in theatres worldwide marks the eighth installment in the blockbuster franchise, which arguably stands at nine if you include the standalone flick Rogue One: A Star Wars Story from 2016. But while the exploits of Felicity Jones and crew will be remembered as a fan-fuelled deviation in the Star Wars universe, both in terms of tone and of purpose, The Last Jedi will surely endure somewhat fittingly as the last moments of the old storyline as we know it.
When it was announced in 2012 that a Lucas-free Star Wars sequel was in the works, fans were perhaps right to be skeptical about where Disney and its shiny new team of creators would take their childhood heroes. Afterall, Return of the Jedi, albeit a film still maligned by part of the fan basis, did manage to tie up most of the loose ends, with Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, R2D2, C3PO, and friends gathered in rejoice as beyond, the ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda and Anakin Skywalker (ughh look, they cut in Hayden Christensen) watched on in peace. That cathartic curtain close brought a John Williamsesque symphonic climax to Star Wars which, even with the prequels and the full scope of Darth Vader’s story added, remains a satisfying conclusion to a near-perfect tale. Importantly, Disney wasn’t the first to flirt with the idea of peeking backstage after the show. Indeed, Lucas toyed with the idea of a film VII-IX long before he sold all rights to ever be involved. The temptation towards the dark side was strong. Perhaps dreaming of sequels is the ultimate curse of the creator, a phenomenon made all the worse by the insatiable hunger of cult following. Tolkien once entertained the idea of returning to Middle-earth, though perhaps thankfully the project never came to fruition. J.K. Rowling, on the other hand, seems to be afflicted with the opposite issue, as staring into the Mirror of Erised on some weird corner of Twitter she continues to celebrate the birthdays of characters long-dead. Ultimately, however, Star Wars fell into the trap of neither in The Force Awakens, with the major consensus being the long-awaited seventh film successfully bridged the gap into new territory, even if at times this came at the cost of borrowing
plot threads entire sequences from A New Hope. On the surface, the movie seemed landmark, with a diverse cast of characters and new villains to boot. In retrospect though, The Force Awakens was only ever as bold as our collective interpretation of Star Wars allowed. The film relied heavily on emotionally-charged glimpses of friends-of-star-wars-past, with very few actual elements of the new trilogy offered up in what was essentially a movie for fans.
As a result, we all kinda stepped somewhat tentatively into cinemas this week to see The Last Jedi, almost terrified to our main reactors by the fact that there was simply no way they could re-make A New Hope, or worse again Empire Strikes Back, and think we wouldn’t notice. Indeed, much of the talk in the build-up to December 14th focused on Director Rian Johnson who, unlike J.J. Abrams, seemed fully intent on breaking the death star-shaped mould we’d become used to.
To paraphrase, “We had a bad feeling about this.”
What becomes apparent in the first few opening scenes of The Last Jedi is that Johnson has made good on his promise. When Rey hands Luke his lightsaber on the remote planet of Ahch-To (Go on Ireland!), and the once farmboy simply chucks it away, he might as well have thrown all our preconceptions as to what Star Wars was away too. Sure, some critics might argue that like Empire, we again see the resistance fleeing their discovered base, or watch AT-AT walkers crawl across a white expansive landscape (Ooh salt, not snow), or see a new Jedi learn the force from a hesitant master. Sure, fans might say that like Darth Vader, Kylo Ren threatens to destroy our hero, only to turn against and then destroy an evil master at the last second. But while parallels can always be made (especially in a franchise this large), The Last Jedi is the most unique Star Wars experience we’ve had to date. This is perhaps highlighted by the currently very mixed reviews fans have given the film, with hashtags across the twitterverse citing the movie as awful. Conversely, the movie by and large is enjoying critical acclaim, which in some ways points to The Last Jedi‘s individuality better than I ever could. Notably, a Star Wars film has not enjoyed the favour of critics this much since the wholly flawless Empire Strikes Back stole hearts almost four decades ago. What exactly then makes The Last Jedi so controversial?
In a positive sense, the film invests hugely in the developments of its characters, even in those who have been defined before. Luke, a whiny-teenager-turned-brooding-Jedi-Knight, takes on a whole new layer as a wizened yet crippled recluse, a galactic hero whose only wish now it to die with his shame. Leia Organa, played for the last time by the fierce and ever-present late actress Carrie Fisher (for whom the movie is dedicated), evolves her role as general of the rebel forces. In one of Fisher’s best reprisals of the character, she lends an air of experience onto a cast that in many are still trying to figure themselves out. Only newcomers a movie ago, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) deliver momentous performances, with some of their interactions among the best-acted scenes in Star Wars to date. A real gem exclusive to this film was Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), whose strength and grace on screen made her sacrifice in the second act surprisingly poignant. Beyond the human sphere, The Last Jedi exploited the many riches current technology has to offer, providing us with immersive planet settings and fighter chases born to take your breath away. Indeed it was the attention to detail in many other areas—costume, sound, editing, cinematography—which likely tipped the balance in the eyes of critics. From a fan’s perspective, the film was laden with action, humour, canon and the fitting farewell Luke Skywalker has earned. Where it did not press on emotional scars, the movie certainly set out to create new ones.
On the flip side, at least empirically, the film left a lot to be desired. Though many characters resonated, it could be argued that C3PO, R2D2, and Chewbacca went to waste, while the enigmatic Poe Dameron strayed from bad-boy anti-hero into straight up unlikeable. The performances of John Boyega (Finn) and Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico) also felt at times forced, with many overstuffed interactions pumped with all the subtlety and emotional stakes of turn-it-off-primetime-television. Admittedly though, their characters were tasked with the most distracting and futile arc of the story, trekking halfway across the galaxy to find not-Benicio-Del-Toro in essentially Caesar’s Palace. When Boyega and Tran were back on board the rebel command ship, however, gravity took hold again, and the pair show promise for episode IX. The character of Snoke, alongside many of his minions, also went underutilized, written out at the first convenient moment. It was hard not to feel the hive mind of Disney at play here, with all the backstory we deserve surely kept stuffed away for a dozen spin-off comics or novels. At some point, we might also get an explanation for the entire second act, which like the fuel-scarce ship it centered around, simply dragged across the galaxy at nobody’s pace. Were it not for the strong finale, The Last Jedi would surely go down as the most potential lost since the death of Boba Fett.
As it stands, The Last Jedi will likely only garner the praise it deserves once the trilogy is complete. It is too soon yet to tell whether shaking off the skeleton was the right move for Johnson to make. This character-driven, force-heavy turn could be the start of something special, of a branch of Star Wars that can thrill and wound at the same time. Should episode IX return to the familiar formula, however, The Last Jedi will stand as a jarring, wandering middle to a trio of films whose plots seem to set out to do nothing, and perhaps sadly achieve it.