MPAA Rating: PG-13
USCCB Rating: A-II
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5
Warning: This review contains spoilers; a lot of spoilers. I am also basing my opinions on the assumption that everything the audience is led to believe in Star Wars: The Last Jedi is true is fact rather than misdirection. I haven’t read the script to Episode IX, but, knowing J.J. Abrams, anything is possible.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is easily the most anticipated film of 2017. After The Force Awakens did a great job at relaunching the franchise and teased fans with countless questions, The Last Jedi was expected to present a darker and more complicated narrative that would deliver on its predecessor’s promises. While it is pleasing to say The Last Jedi is a brilliant film in almost every aspect of its production, it is frustrating to admit that it also left myself and many fans unsatisfied, even upset. Perhaps I’ll take Obi-Wan’s advice and “search my feelings,” trying to understand this schizophrenic reaction.
The story picks up right where Awakens left off with Rey (Daisy Ridley) finding the reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the rocky island of Ahch-To (bless you). Yet from the moment Luke Skywalker tosses his long-lost lightsaber over his shoulder without even a single question to the mysterious woman who handed it to him, the audience senses something is off. Things get even worse when he tells Rey that “the Jedi must end,” even attempting to burn the last of the ancient Jedi texts. Yoda, in a great cameo, seems unmoved. “Page turners, they were not,” he sighs. Fine, but I’d sure like to read them.
Although it’s not the near clone Awakens was to New Hope, there are strong echoes of The Empire Strikes Back throughout The Last Jedi. Despite the destruction of its Starkiller Base, the First Order is nearly complete in their military takeover of the galaxy, hunting the last remnants of the Resistance across the reaches of space. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher in her last role) is running out of fuel and time, so Poe, Finn, and BB-8 team up to buy her some time. Some of the best parts of Last Jedi involve this duo’s space intrigue as they bomb starfighters, visit a casino planet, and impersonate Imperial officers.
A third plot arises as Kylo Ren keeps up his whiny obsession to capture Rey and assume the mantle – and mask – of his grandfather Darth Vader. His horrific act of patricide in the first film seems to have done little to sway his angst as he continues to throw tantrums, boss Hux around, and in general put everyone in a bad mood.
As a slice of escapist space opera, The Last Jedi is the most successful Star Wars film since Empire. The battle scenes, whether with laser guns in space or lightsabers on the ground, are incredibly well choreographed by director and writer Rian Johnson. The special effects and visuals amaze without distracting. The film also manages to balance the difficult tone of being neither too serious nor too lighthearted. It brings up themes of vengeance, failure, anger, and despair while enjoying several hilarious scenes between Chewbacca and the progs, cat-puffin-like creatures that will serve as the Ewoks for the post-Millennial generation. The dialogue also finds its proper niche between solemn speeches and eye-rolling wisecracks, especially from “I’m too damn old for this” Luke. In all of this, no one blinks once but all take it in stride. That’s very hard to pull off.
Luke believes that he has failed his former student Kylo Ren, who embraced the dark side and killed the Jedi. Yoda shakes his head. “The greatest teacher, failure is,” the syntax-impaired alien muses. It appears Johnson has taken Yoda’s advice to heart. Again and again, it is implied that many of the central ideas that made the original films so popular were wrong – that the series was, in the end, a failure. It was too simple, too ignorant, too black-and-white. It believed the good and evil were opposites, and that good always triumphed through the actions of heroic individuals. In 1977, at a time when everything seemed gray, this was a refreshing reminder of the Christian ethic that shaped and informed man’s greatest literary archetypes.
Yet The Last Jedi suggests that the 21st century, despite even more dire circumstances, demands narrative diversity and progressive conformity. Johnson goes even beyond Yoda’s advice and takes Kylo’s words seriously: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.” It’s not just that new characters are introduced, but older ones are snuffed out. Luke doesn’t just die, he becomes “un-Luke,” and Leia spends half the film unconscious. The revelation of Rey’s parents as unknown “desert folk” is also a let down. After everything that is teased in Awakens, tossing aside such important questions as unimportant is far worse than not answering them. It’s downright insulting. The filmmakers intended, no doubt, to show that one’s origins do not matter. Yet this is already understood through Luke’s humble origins and the force-sensitive slave children at the film’s conclusion. A new chapter in a series should have fresh ideas, but they should also flow organically and logically from what has been already built.
Johnson’s inadequacy comes from a larger problem within much storytelling today. Fantasy is archetypal in nature, yet from Harry Potter to Game of Thrones to Star Wars, 21st-century authors try to ground it in human concupiscence rather than Platonic forms. Rey isn’t a Skywalker because it would be too Shakespearian and patriarchal. “Why does this family matter so much,” Johnson apparently wonders. “Doesn’t every family matter?” Because as a fantasy, they are a stand in for every family; the necessary message is that every human is an heir to the King. The stormtrooper’s shift from nameless cannon fodder to conflicted hero in Finn would work great in a WWII epic, but in Star Wars one can’t go through that story process and then expect to kill countless imperials with impunity.
There are many other examples, but the death of Luke is by far the most infuriating. After a major victory, when the audience is at the height of their joy, he simply disappears without explanation. It is a redemption, in a sense, but barely. He will never get to become an aged Master, never train generations of Jedi, never even leave that stupid island. This nine-film trilogy is his story, not Rey’s. She can have episodes ten through eighteen.
Of course, to be fair, Star Wars has always been more pantheistic than Christian in its worldview. One could make an effective argument that Johnson is being true to the Jedi’s Buddhist roots, that he is challenging our attachment to this story as an audience and we must realize nature as transient. But I would argue that the original trilogy’s story of a boy’s transformation into a man and his refusal to cooperate with evil is thoroughly Christian at its heart, even evangelically useful. It wasn’t that Johnson failed in making a great Star Wars film; he didn’t even try. We all know what Yoda said about that.
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