In 2015, Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams gave us Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a film that brought George Lucas’ vision of a galaxy far, far away back to the big screens. It was a huge financial success, the third biggest international haul in cinema history. But it was openly criticised for its resemblance to what had come before, with many labelling it as an inferior doppelganger to the original Star Wars it so openly admired and alluded to.
So it was up to Rian Johnson, the new director of the eighth entry in the Skywalker saga, The Last Jedi, to reignite the fire of Star Wars fandom once more, by crafting something truly original, with enough narrative meat for the audience to chew on as they learn more about the characters and story founded within its predecessor.
Was Johnson successful? Did he do justice to the galaxy’s ultimate hero, the returning Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)? Did he create interesting narrative arcs for Resistance fighters Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac)? Did he answer any of the burning questions us Star Wars fans desperately want answered: who is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who are Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parents, is there really no hope of redemption for Kylo Ren (Adam Driver)?
Well unfortunately I can’t give detailed answers to any of these questions, shooting myself somewhat in the foot. I want to avoid spoilers, for those of you who are biding your time to witness Rian Johnson’s new vision.
But I end this note on that line for a reason: ‘Rian Johnson’s new vision’ is exactly the term to describe The Last Jedi, and how you feel about that will ultimately determine your reaction. This is not a by-the-numbers narrative continuation of the films that have come before. Instead, to re-purpose Luke’s own words from the film, The Last Jedi ‘will not go the way you think’.
This is a truly personal film, but by definition, personal means its Johnson’s movie. Rian Johnson has written and directed this movie, on the basis of how he feels these characters would and should progress, how the Star Wars mythos should evolve, who are our heroes, who are our villains, who rests somewhere in-between. Many have demonstrated frustrations about a number of these decisions, and I cannot fault them for their claims because it is entirely subjective. I can only tell you how I felt about the experience, in relation to my feelings about Star Wars as a whole.
I personally found The Last Jedi to be fresh and exciting, a new turn for the narrative. Not to beat around any subjective bush, but to use the most significant example for myself, the story of Luke Skywalker was the most important, and perhaps the most satisfying for me in this regard. Luke has always been my favourite film character, an idol of mine since I was a little runt, first witnessing this bleach blonde farm boy become the saviour of the galaxy. So it was a dangerous game that Rian was playing, by engaging with Luke on a level that suggests there is still much to learn about him, even though, in my eyes, he was already the ultimate hero, his arc coming to a fulfilling conclusion in Return of the Jedi. But Rian does something remarkable here: he demystifies the character, gets down to the grit and soul of someone who is still just a human with unique gifts. As the biggest fan of this character, I was struck by how much I related to Rey, in watching Luke, her idol and the last hope for the Resistance, fall apart at the seams, as he teaches her that not everything is as pristine and proper as the legends encourage you to believe. It’s this message – that legends can be looked up to, but heroism can only come from within – that defines The Last Jedi, turning Luke Skywalker into something more than a hero who kids can admire: he’s a hero that’s as much an equal to them, as anyone else.
I haven’t given anything away here, but hopefully that provides a personal perspective on a narrative development I found to be truly satisfying in a way I didn’t expect. It is understandable as to why this would frustrate some: it defeats the legendary status of a beloved character. But it empowers us in the process, which is the most worthwhile outcome, creating a relatability to these heroes that makes them all the more universal in how we cherish them.
There are certainly aspects of the narrative that do not work as well as Luke’s arc, and I feel inclined to bring these up, in order to prove that my love for Star Wars has not tainted an honest opinion. For example, irrespective of the storyline’s visual innovation and ingenuity, Finn and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) embark on their own quest that felt a little unnecessary. The mythos that Johnson was questioning and furthering rested on the relationship between Rey and Luke: it felt like that was where his passion for this story was concentrated. Finn and Rose’s adventure, on the other hand, felt a little disjointed from the rest of the film, in terms of tone and content. A little CGI heavy, an overreliance on humour to engage us with the characters, all contributed to a sequence that started to drag and seemed to pull us away from the fascinating dynamic of Luke and Rey, with the ethereal presence of Kylo Ren wrestling with the consciences of both characters. That’s not to say that I dislike Finn and Rose in any shape or form: the actors have great chemistry. It just felt like the time spent with them could have gone to better use exploring the complex morality being raised through Luke and Rey’s narrative development.
I think the humour will also prove divisive with the fanbase. I was mixed on its use. With a character such as General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), a First Order general so laughably over-the-top in the first film, it is certainly appropriate: turning him into a literal laughing stock immediately creates gratification, with his slimy villainy cajoling numerous sniggers out of us as we witness him losing a firm grip on the fleet he so confidently commands. However, in certain action sequences, the humour dragged the intensity down a little. Dire situations call for serious reaction, yet it can sometimes seem as though the characters are oblivious to this, cracking wise and alienating us a little in the process.
For a final comment, I will praise actor Adam Driver once more for his portrayal of Kylo Ren. With his work in The Force Awakens and his progression here, Kylo Ren is quickly becoming one of the greatest characters the saga has created. Far from a rip-off of the infamous masked baddie of the originals, Kylo is deeply conflicted and always on the tipping point of absolute fury. It’s this instability that we have not seen before and is exactly the kind of villain that this series needs: neither wholly bad, nor on the predictable brink of redemption, he settles into a unique position that has me more than a little excited as to how his story will end.
Unfortunately, this review may seem a little sporadic in terms of structure. But my defence is that any Star Wars film is an overwhelming experience. It’s hard to truly come to terms with how one feels about the overall event. There were moments of pure delight, such as the portrayals of Luke and Kylo Ren, but there are equally instances of uncertainty, with the oft-kilter humour unsettling the urgently suspenseful narrative arc established. Plus, by virtue of our princess, Carrie Fisher, having passed away, there’s an underlining sense of sadness about her scenes that subsequently suffuses throughout the film. Again, it’s an impossible task to truly harness one’s feelings into a comprehensive register.
I will almost certainly be taking a second look at the film. But more importantly, I will be releasing an analysis of the film, with spoilers, past the weekend, once people have had a chance to see it, to deepen my detailed thoughts on the movie.
Until then, I will recommend you see it, because it’s impossible to predict how you’ll react to it. I responded positively to the overall choices that Johnson makes, despite the flaws I have highlighted above. But it’s evenly possible that you might disagree with the turn the series has taken. I’d like to be optimistic about the future of the franchise. It’s just a case of putting our faith in J.J. Abrams once again, as he takes up the mantle of the final film in this Skywalker saga. May the force be with you J.J.