When Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released in December of 2015, it was immediately met with criticism that it was merely a “rehash” of the first Star Wars movie, 1977’s A New Hope, and that writer/director J.J. Abrams brought nothing new to the space saga (an accusation I have always vehemently disagreed with). It was thus automatically assumed that the entire sequel trilogy would just be a copy of the original.
This was the lion's den that Rian Johnson was walking into as he prepared to write and direct the second film of the new trilogy, The Last Jedi. Not helping the situation is the fact that two years between movie releases is plenty of time for people to speculate and build up a certain amount of expectations and more or less write their own movie. This is especially true nowadays in the Age of The Internet, where the craziest Reddit fan theories are published to entertainment outlets as if they’re actual news. Everyone walked into that theatre on December 14/15 with certain expectations, and I was no different.
Ironically, some of the first non-spoilery reviews I saw for The Last Jedi accused the film of being TOO different, of straying TOO far from familiarity. So it was obvious even before I sat down to watch the movie myself that poor Rian Johnson was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t, but at the same time, I was anxious to see what the acclaimed director of such cerebral indie hits as Brick and Looper could bring to this franchise.
I admit, I walked out of the theatre rather disappointed myself, but not for the same reasons as most. It wasn’t the “different-ness” that bothered me; what bothered me is that I felt like the first 2/3 of the movie turned out to be pointless by the time we got to the 3rd act. I didn’t feel as if any of the characters or the story in general had made any progress; I felt like we were right back where we started at the end of The Force Awakens, having sat through 2 hours of futile diversions.
This was most frustrating to me personally as someone who has been heavily invested in the relationship between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) since TFA. Don’t get me wrong, their interactions in TLJ were everything I had hoped for and more (Force-bond? Check! Sexy hand-touching? Check! Kylo’s 8-pack? Check! Teaming up to kill Snoke and then fighting off the Praetorian Guards in what has been called the closest thing to a sex scene Star Wars has ever had? Check and check!!!). So I felt more than a little let down when Kylo went right back on his nonsense, driving Rey away, and then having the ultimate temper tantrum on Crait, where Rey figuratively closed the door on him… seemingly for good? Boooooo…
I was also left wanting more from the subplots involving Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and newcomers Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), DJ (Benicio Del Toro), and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). I could not for the life of me understand why Holdo didn’t just tell Poe her plans, which then led to him concocting this hare-brained scheme to send Finn and Rose on a wild goose chase which amounted to nothing, and then once Holdo’s plans were finally revealed, Poe was like “Oh, cool, that’ll totally work!” [insert footage of me in the theatre throwing my hands up in the air like WTF?!] Not to mention jimmy’ing in this sudden lifelong intimate friendship between Holdo and Leia (Carrie Fisher, R.I.P.) meant to make us get all teary-eyed when Holdo decided to sacrifice herself for the cause. I mean, sure, that sequence was really badass, but we had only known Holdo for like 20 minutes at that point, 18 of which didn’t present her in a very likeable manner anyway. Perhaps that sacrifice should have been Leia’s…?
Having said all that, in the week following my first viewing of the film, I read many reviews, articles, analyses, and essays, both positive and negative, so see if anyone else felt the same way as I (they did) but to also see the film from others’ perspectives in case I was missing something (I was). Then I saw the film again on Christmas Eve. Now that I already knew what to expect – meaning, I had left my own pre-conceived notions at the door – I went into it determined to enjoy it for what it was. And to my surprise, I found that I actually got more out of it the second time around!
Rian Johnson is a smart storyteller. He is not one of these guys who will just spoon-feed you every piece of information; he trusts the audience to be able to read between the lines (probably an overestimation though…). And it is clear to me that The Last Jedi needs to be viewed multiple times to fully understand what he’s getting at and the story he’s trying to tell.
Below are some common gripes I have seen made about the film, and my responses to them after having viewed the movie twice and digested it for a few weeks:
- There Was No Point To Finn & Rose’s Mission. As stated above, I felt the same way, but apparently, the fact that the mission was fruitless WAS the point. One of the main themes of TLJ is failure. TLJ is the second act of a three-act story, and that is always the point in the story where hope is temporarily lost and the main objective seems futile. The fact that an entire 2.5-hour movie revolved around this theme probably made it stand out more, since we have yet to see the resolution. So we’re left at this tipping point where everyone is sort of in limbo and trying to figure out where to go from here. Even Kylo Ren, who indeed finished what his grandfather Darth Vader started by killing his master and successfully taking control of the Galaxy himself, ended the film alone, on his knees, in despair knowing that he screwed up the one intimate connection he’s ever had with another person, the girl who was “nothing” but not to him. And Rey, sitting alone on the Millennium Falcon, holding the two fractured pieces of the Legacy Lightsaber (a reminder of her failure to bring Ben Solo back into the Light), gazes wistfully as Finn attentively holds vigil over the injured Rose, highlighting once again Rey’s crippling loneliness. But hey, maybe Finn & Rose’s mission wasn’t a complete loss, as the last shot of the movie is one of the orphans from Cando Bight who helped them escape, wearing Rose’s rebel logo ring which she gave him, calling a broom to him using the Force (gasp!), and brandishing said broom like a lightsaber as he looks up at the stars…
- Snoke’s Death Was Disappointing. Okay, well, yes and no. The death itself was actually pretty great, as was that entire scene, which included perhaps the best fight sequence of the entire series. But I agree with the sentiment that we lost Snoke (Andy Serkis) too soon before we ever really found out anything significant about him. All we know is that he was the Supreme Leader of the First Order, was highly powerful with the Force, and essentially groomed and brainwashed Ben Solo into becoming Kylo Ren. (In the book Bloodline, told from Leia’s point of view and taking place between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, it’s implied that Snoke had been manipulating Ben while he was still in the womb!) Rian Johnson has stated that he feels Snoke’s background isn’t important, but I have to respectfully disagree, because the more we know about Snoke, the more we can understand Kylo, a main character whom Lucasfilm is trying desperately to make us sympathize with (to set up a possible redemption arc), yet they are withholding crucial information that would make that easier for us! Which brings me to…
- Luke & Ben’s Confrontation at the Jedi Temple Wasn’t Compelling Enough. This one goes twofold, with people criticizing this revelation as not enough incentive for (a) Ben to go full Dark Side, or (b) for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to give up everything and run away to live as a hermit. As to the former point, this is where more information about Snoke’s influence on Ben, as well as Ben’s relationship with his parents, would come in very useful. Without that, we just kind of have to take the filmmakers’ word on it but it leaves us with little to go on in terms of wanting to see Ben Solo redeemed. As to the latter point, that also ties into…
- Luke Was Totally Out of Character For The Entire Movie. Who’s to really say, though? Luke had been living in isolation for, what, 15-20 years by the time Rey showed up? And it had been 30 years since we had seen him at all. 30 years is a long time… People change, y’all. And it’s not completely out of line for him to give up everything after having considered MURDERING HIS NEPHEW and then having to live with the consequences of that fleeting thought. “But Luke wouldn’t have given up that easily!” the fanboys cry. How do you know? This is a man who has seen some shiz in his day – starting with the charred corpses of his aunt and uncle, then finding out the most evil dude in the entire Galaxy is his father, having his hand cut off by said father, almost getting killed by the Emperor, seeing how the Dark side ruined his entire family, etc, etc… As far as I’m concerned, seeing inside Ben’s mind and how the Dark side was corrupting him was probably extremely triggering for Luke, and his reaction to it, however temporary, had devastating effects, so it’s not without reason that Luke would be so consumed with shame and guilt at his own failings as a Jedi and an uncle that he would just take off and leave it all behind. But in the end he did what was right and sacrificed himself for his family. He went out on his own terms… I thought that was pretty satisfying, actually. And let's be real, we KNOW he'll be back in Episode IX, as the most obnoxious, nagging Force Ghost ever!
- Rey's Parentage Reveal Was Anticlimatic. Much like Daisy Ridley herself, I was pretty much over the "Rey's Parents Question" from the very start. Why does she HAVE to be connected to anyone?? Because she's too powerful not to be? Says who? Perhaps there is more to learn about her parents, but at least I think we can all collectively move on from those lame "Rey Skywalker" and "Rey Solo" theories now.
- The Humor Seemed Weird and Out of Place. Yeah, can't argue with this one. This was most obvious when it came to General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), who somehow went from villainous heavy to a punchline. I mean, Hux WAS hilarious in TFA, but that was due to how deadly SERIOUS he was. But in TLJ, he was like a caricature of himself... like an SNL skit version of Hux. It didn't work for me.
- Rian Johnson Killed Star Wars! Oh my goodness, please chill, guys, you’re starting to sound like Kylo Ren on one of his hissy fits! But seriously, I have seen some old school SW fans proclaim that TLJ has essentially killed their childhood and everything they loved about SW and that the new trilogy series is deliberately trying to shut them out. Guys, look… You simply cannot sustain a sci-fi/fantasy adventure saga about people in their 60s and 70s. You HAVE to move on, evolve, and pass the torch to a new generation, and I think the new series has done that splendidly WITHOUT casting aside the legacy characters that made us fall in love with the series in the first place. They have their role to play here, but they can’t play it forever. These new players are fresh, complex, and compelling, and their stories are worth telling too. And even this batch of characters will eventually be replaced – we saw that loud and clear at the end of the movie with the Cando Bight orphans. If anything, we should be grateful that there are so many more amazing stories to tell and that there will always be someone there to fight the good fight. “Let the past die.” Also, “The belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead.”
FINAL THOUGHTS: A balance. From the very first teasers and posters, we have seen an emphasis put on this idea of Balance in the Force. It’s something that has been talked about since the first movie, and a theme heavily presented in the new one, from the dubious motivations of the Resistance fighters to Benicio Del Toro’s wishy-washy codebreaker (and his speech in the stolen ship regarding the previous owner, who sold weapon technology to both the First Order and the Resistance). From the moment Rey and Kylo had that Force-off in the interrogation scene from TFA, I just felt like they were the key to finding this Balance. TLJ seemed to confirm this, with the Force bringing the two together to find some common ground. Kylo even told Rey that they should start a new order together, leaving everything else (the Sith, the Jedi, etc.) behind. At some point, I think Rey is going to have to realize that he was kinda right – that she will have to abandon everything for the good of the Galaxy to start something new. Can they do it together? Or will it be up to her alone? When she fell into the dark pit on Ahch-To and asked to see her family in the trippy mirror, she saw two obscured figures walk toward her, which merged into one… herself. One of the figures’ silhouettes looked suspiciously like Kylo Ren, and indeed in the original concept art for this scene, she was supposed to see her own face merged with Kylo’s mask, so it’s probably safe to say that that WAS Kylo in the mirror. Does their merging mean that they will come together in the end? That he is the “belonging” that is ahead of her, as Maz prophesized? Or does it mean that he can help her but that she will ultimately have to rely on herself in the end, as she always has?
And hey, speaking of Maz, is that "good question for another time" about how she came to possess the Legacy Lightsaber ever going to be addressed??
All these questions and more will hopefully be answered in Star Wars: Episode IX, which drops on December 20, 2019! Let the speculation begin!
In the meantime, if you have been having any reservations about The Last Jedi, I implore you to go give it another look!