For everyone who hated The Force Awakens for pandering too much and playing it too safe, you’ll enjoy the boldness of The Last Jedi. It avoids all three of the mistakes I warned of in my follow up article on The Force Awakens. More than that, it matures and deepens the mythos of Star Wars in a way that only Knights of the Republic 2 has dared to, and while I feel it shies away from some its boldest ideas (to its detriment), The Last Jedi also takes Star Wars in an exciting new direction. It’s that boldness that I think has given rise to blacklash against it. I wasn’t able to see it the first day in theaters and so before going in, despite my attempts to avoid spoilers, I heard some of the concerns being voiced by others.
Some I agree with. There were some pacing problems, a few odd cuts, and some scenes that I thought were unnecessary. However, the majority of concerns I would strongly disagree with, but that will be its own article. Today I’m going to talk about how awesome this movie is and my hopes that future Star Wars movies will build upon the foundation that The Last Jedi has laid.
SPOIlERS: PROCEEDING PAST THIS POINT WILL RUIN THE MAJOR PLOT POINTS OF THE MOVIE.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
A Storytelling Review
The Force Awakens has its share of problems, there’s no arguing that. The biggest one for me was the detour to the “Casino Planet” that I felt was unnecessary and out of place, but I’ll be doing another article to focus on those problems. These problems were far outweighed by the positives of The Force Awakens and deepens not only the story of Rey and Kylo Ren, but also the setting of Star Wars itself.
Battles have become more complex with the introduction of electronic warfare systems such as the resistance’s cloaking field and the First Order’s hyperspace tracking. It also introduces, through story points and dialogue, a strategic element to the warfare that’s never been shown before. The one good thing about the Casino scenes was the reveal of rich arms dealers selling weapons to both sides, introducing a moral ambiguity sorely lacking from Star Wars. (I’d watch a spinoff movie of Benicio Del Torro’s thief character sooner than I’d watch one about a “young” Luke.)
Yes there are problems, but they seem so minor compared to the creativity and boldness that was on display with this film. The Last Jedi features the richest and most eloquent storytelling than any other Star Wars movie to date. And here’s why:
It Takes Star Wars in a Bold New Direction
I loved Rogue One in large part because of the romantic, noble deaths of the titular team of spies and saboteurs that stole the Death Star plans. At the beginning of The Last Jedi I was treated to a small taste of that as a squadron of bombers is all but wiped out during an attack on a First Order Dreadnought. A female bomber, having just released her payload, silently rubs a medallion (the twin of which is held by her twin sister Rose who is introduced later) as the bombs she releases consumes her. It’s filmed in exactly the same way all the heroic deaths in Rogue One were filmed. And yet instead of framing them as a noble sacrifice in pursuit of a higher cause, it uses those deaths to ask a question I never expected from a Star Wars movie:
Why? What’s the purpose of this?
Critics of Rogue One correctly pointed out that there were probably easier, less bloody ways to obtain the Death Star plans. It was plan born out of desperation, hastily slapped together at the last minute by people who didn’t want to wait to carefully plan an attack. A glorious, but ulimately too costly, a victory…like the one Poe Dameron launches.
When the fleet escapes Leia admits that the pilots who died destroying the Dreadnought were heroes, but she does not celebrate Poe Dameron’s daring, instead she reprimands and demotes him. Dozens of lives were lost and valuable strategic resources squandered to take down a single Imperial ship. A victory, yes, but an empty and ultimately meaningless one. Admittedly had Poe not destroyed the Dreadnought it probably would have followed them through hyperspace and been able to destroy the rebel fleet. But here’s why that doesn’t matter:
Poe didn’t blow up the Dreadnought because he was thinking ahead. He didn’t know the First Order could track them. This wasn’t a brilliant strategic move by a commander thinking two moves ahead of his opponent. It was the reckless act of someone who simply wanted to hurt the Empire, he wanted to be a hero, to gloriously triumph over a hated enemy.
I’m sure the First Order has plenty of Dreadnoughts to take the place of the one lost, the rebels didn’t have anything to replace those bomber losses. Leia needs Poe to start thinking strategically, instead of purely tactically. More importantly, she needs Poe to understand that victory over the First Order will never come if no one is alive to see it. This is a message further reinforced by Finn’s run at the siege cannon.
Just like Poe, Finn is ready to sacrifice his life in a glorious, but ultimately meaningless attack on the cannon. Best case scenario he destroys the cannon and he delays the breaching of the door for a few hours while they wear away at it with conventional weapons. Worst case scenario the cannon goes off and incinerates him. Either way the resistance would lose a valuable strategic resource: a man with insider knowledge of the First Order, who knows by heart the layout of their installations and Star Destroyers, who has already used that knowledge twice to infiltrate highly defended areas.
Living to fight another day can be just as valuable, if not more so, than a dramatic last stand. What this kind of thinking does for Star Wars is that it encourages the audience to think of the extras, the background characters, as actual people. To consider the lives being lost, adding a whole new sense of gravity to the battles.
In many ways this is reinforced by the fact that The Last Jedi says goodbye to not a beloved character, but also the comfortable old thinking of previous Star Wars movies.
It Pays Homage to Star Wars While Also Saying Goodbye
“That Force does not belong to the Jedi. To say that if the Jedi die, the Light dies is vanity. Do you sense that?” – Luke to Rey
Luke’s withering criticism of the Jedi was a long time coming, and it was good to hear it. My only problem was that it didn’t go far enough, I would have loved to have heard Luke’s thoughts on Jedi tearing children away from their families to indoctrinate them into their religion. At times it seemed Luke was channelling Kreia from Knights of the Old Republic 2 and his speech about balance had me nodding along in agreement.
To think of Star Wars without Jedi and Sith would have been unthinkable before. Now? Now I can’t wait to see what comes of this. Can you imagine the possibilities? Force wielders not adhering to one extreme or the other, but instead trying to find balance between light and dark. That paves the way for richer, more vibrant storytelling, which is why the The Last Jedi has such amazing characters.
The Characters Are Rich and Complex
I’ve talked about plot vs character driven stories before, once even using The Terminator franchise to illustrate the difference. This is quite possibly the first character driven story of the Star Wars canon. That doesn’t make the other Star Wars movies bad obviously, plot driven stories can be incredibly fun as evidenced by Star Wars being amazing. However they’ve all, The Force Awakens and Rogue One included, been dominated by their plots. Blow up the Death Star, save Han and Leia from Darth Vader, blow up the Death Star again.
The Last Jedi is a story whose plot is controlled by the actions of its characters; the characters are more complex, sympathetic, and relatable than any that have come before. Let’s start with the one we we’re all eager to see: Luke Skywalker.
The Last Jedi reveals that Luke is a deeply troubled person, tossing away the lightsaber the moment its handed to him by Rey. I’ll admit, this shocked me, as well it should have. This is Luke Skywalker, the man who almost single-handedly took down the Empire and saved Darth Vader. I couldn’t square in my mind the image of my childhood hero with the man that I saw before me.
At least not at first.
Fortunately Luke tells us exactly what happened to him, and not just by telling his story. Mark Hamill’s performance is impeccable in this and everything from the way her carries himself to the sadness lurking behind his eyes reveals his story.
Again the story challenges the audience:
“How did you think this was going to go? Why do you think I came to an unfindable planet?” – Luke Skywalker to Rey (paraphrased, I don’t remember the line exactly.)
As shocking as his rejection of the Jedi is, it shouldn’t have been shocking at all. Luke is right, why did we assume he had some good and noble reason to hide from the galaxy? Of course he came here to die, like a sick animal wandering off into the forest. And faced with his past, I can’t say I blamed him. Luke tried to train his nephew; a nephew named Ben after the Ben Kenobi that started Luke’s training; Leia and Han’s only child.
And he failed. Completely, and utterly.
When Luke first tells his story he lies and says Ben attacked him first, and it’s that lie that speaks volumes. To have Luke, the most naive and trustworthy character of the old trilogy lie to Rey and the audience was a bold move; a brilliant move, because it’s in that lie that I understood the shame, and the fear, that drove Luke. Here he was, faced with what he thought was a second Darth Vader, a new emperor in the making.
How many times has the hypothetical “would you kill Hitler if you could travel back in time?” been posited? Well here was Luke, who thought he was face to face with such a choice. And for a moment, Luke Skywalker, the Jedi Master, The Legend, thought he could see the future and in his arrogance he thought he could stop the horror before it began. So he ignited his lightsaber.
It was that moment of arrogance and fear that killed Ben Solo and created Kylo Ren. It’s that arrogance, an arrogance he blames (correctly or not) on the Jedi teachings, that fills Luke with so much anger. The arrogance that he thought he knew everything, that he could see the future, to see every end. The arrogance that robbed Ben Solo of the freedom to choose. The reveal of this sequence of events not only made Luke the most complex, most human, as we’ve ever seen him but also deepened our understanding of Ben Solo AKA Kylo Ren.
In my review of The Force Awakens, I talked about how much I liked that Kylo Ren was more a confused child than a badass Darth Vader lite. My appreciation for Kylo Ren’s character has only deepened with the reveal of his past. We already knew that Kylo had troubles with his father Han and now we know even more about his relationship with Luke.
“You’ve been looking for your parents everywhere! First in Han Solo and now in Luke Skywalker!” – Ben Solo/Kylo Ren to Rey
This line reveals so much about Ben/Kylo that it’s a brilliant piece of writing, because it reveals that he was looking for exactly the same thing. He was already having problems with his father Han, and so it stands to reason that he would see Luke, his uncle, mentor, and master as the next best thing. Young Ben, confronted with power beyond his imagination and still struggling to understand them and conflicted about his relationship with his parents sought refuge with someone he thought would understand him: the legendary Luke Skywalker.
Then one day he wakes up to find his uncle, a man he loves and looks up to, the one man he thought might understand him, standing over him with a lightsaber intent on killing him. My hat’s off to Adam Driver because looking into his eyes I could see the hurt, the confusion, the fear that Ben felt in that moment. I understood Kylo Ren’s journey in that moment. So Kylo lashed out in anger and fear, before Luke could explain, and after he’d burned Luke’s temple to the ground and slaughtered its students… he felt it was too late to come home.
And in the wings waited Snoke, a man who promised him the belonging, the acceptance, that he’d been searching for his whole life.
With all this knowledge of Ben’s character, I understood his plea to Rey to let the past die, because it’s the past that haunts him. Ben wants to go home, but he’s too afraid to. He thinks he’s done too much wrong and he’s probably right, so he wants to kill the past because he thinks that’s his only option. If he can kill his past, he can stop being the monster, he can stop being the man who killed his own father. He can be who he wants to be, the person that Rey still senses deep inside him… the boy who dreamed of being a hero. Like all of us though, he doesn’t want to be alone, so he reaches out to Rey; a person who thinks understands him.
Yet Rey didn’t understand because, despite both feeling abandoned by their parents, Rey chose a different path. Sold by her parents to be a slave she could have given into hate and resentment, but instead she chose to hope. She hoped that her parents had abandoned her for a reason and that they would come back for her. Those hopes are brutally dashed in The Last Jedi, and yet Rey only emerges stronger for it.
“It offered something you needed.” Luke Skywalker to Rey about the cavern beneath the island.
Easily one of the boldest scenes in the film, Rey’s journey under the island is one of the best scenes of the film. Subtlety has never been Star Wars’ strongest talent, but The Last Jedi shows us just how elegant a tool subtlety is, it makes me sorry that they included Rey narrating the scene because I don’t think it needed it at all. Rey needs to know who her parents were, it’s been a constant thought in the back of her head, holding her back. And sensing this, the Force shows her who they were:
Nothing more than shadow upon glass. Two people that briefly merged to create her and then sold her to a slaver. Then the mirror shows her the only thing that really matters:
Her. Her life, her journey, the woman she became despite her abandonment. The only thing that brought her to that cave was her, not because mystical parents that bestowed her with great powers, but because of her resolve and her spirit.
Rey doesn’t understand what the mirror is showing her, at first, but it’s that resolve and that spirit that allows her to reject Kylo Ren’s offer.
The mirror shows her a very selfish view of herself, which is what you’d expect from something of the Dark Side, because it ignores the help she had from her friends. But in a way that’s exactly what Rey needed to see, and when it’s balanced against her natural selflessness and generosity of spirit, being selfish isn’t such a bad thing. In this case it gives her the strength to do what was previously unthinkable: leave behind Luke Skywalker and save the galaxy herself.
Seeing Luke Skywalker reject the Jedi and everything they stand for would break most people, hell just look at how many fans are angry because of how Luke is portrayed, but Rey doesn’t despair. She’s hands herself over to Kylo Ren because she thinks she can save him, despite the danger to herself, despite Luke telling her not to. In the face of that kind of resolve… who could possibly stand in her way?
She’s Rey: a greater Jedi than even Luke Skywalker.
“It is up to us to pass along to those who will surpass us. That is a master’s burden.”
– Yoda to Luke