Star Wars: The Last Jedi
“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.”
I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a franchise film so overtly broadcast what it was trying to do in a series. From that Kylo Ren line in the trailer to the very first Skywalker scene in the film, it’s clear that Rian Johnson wanted to go his own way with Star Wars: The Last Jedi. This isn’t a fork in the road, it’s blowing through a gate and off-roading through the wilds of Endor.
The Force Awakens seemed to be a film that was a very well received by audiences and critics alike right at release, but in the weeks and months to come, it became increasingly nitpicked for one reason or another with endless debates about Rey’s powers or Finn’s lightsaber handling abilities. The Last Jedi is wasting no time in becoming controversial however. Critics love it, as the film sits at an enviable 93% on Rotten Tomatoes, but fans appears to be very split. Disney is boasting about the film’s A Cinemascore but a 57% audience rating on RT tells a different story. Anecdotally, I have some friends proclaiming it to be the best Star Wars film since Empire, or the worst since Phantom Menace.
I understand the anger, but I reject it. Ultimately, I liked The Last Jedi quite a bit, and am starting to love it more the further away I get from it, with a repeat viewing to follow sometime this week. But still, I understand why Rian Johnson has upset a lot of fans all the same. To talk about that, we’re going to have to get into spoiler territory, so turn back now if you have not seen the film.
The first Skywalker scene I’m referring to has to do with Luke casually tossing away the lightsaber Rey spent half of The Force Awakens trying to get to him. It’s a metaphor for everything that’s about to happen, as Johnson blazes a new trail for Star Wars while quite possibly starting a forest fire in the process.
One of the harshest things Johnson does is brutally murder not just characters, but mysteries. The two central questions of The Force Awakens that fans have been debating for years are who Supreme Leader Snoke is (Palpatine? Sidious? Jar Jar?) and who Rey’s parents are (Kenobi? Skywalker?).
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The film dispatches with every fan theory concocted so far with almost uncanny ease. It no longer matters who Snoke is because Snoke is dead, struck down by Kylo Ren and Rey in what is unquestionably the most unexpected, fantastic scene in the film. As for Rey’s parents, shortly after Snoke’s death we learn that truth as well. They were nobody. Drunk scrappers that sold her as a child for cash. Not Jedi or Sith legends with names we’d recognize (and not Battlefront 2 heroes either).
Here’s the thing: I like both of these decisions. I don’t need Snoke to be Palpatine resurrected or Rey to be the long-lost daughter of Ben Kenobi. I think the film is better off with these reveals, or rather non-reveals, the way they are. The point the film makes very clear is that the Force is for everyone, that it isn’t owned by some cabal of Jedi and Sith elites. Rey’s parents being no one illustrates that. Snoke’s death subverts expectations and does something I genuinely did not see coming from a mile away, as he would clearly normally be a villain that dies in the last ten minutes of the third film.
But there’s a problem with all this. The issue is that these questions were clearly meant to be answered in some sort of shocking or spectacular way when JJ Abrams set up the pins in The Force Awakens. But instead of knocking them down, Rian Johnson just blew up the entire bowling alley. It feels…weird to have invested so much time into these big questions only to have them swept away like they didn’t matter at all and we were stupid for thinking they did.
And that does create some issues. Are we really just…never going to learn anything about Snoke, why this large, deformed being has Force powers like we’ve never seen before and appeared out of nowhere to lead the entire galaxy? There seems to be little point now that he’s dead, something for novels and comics to explore, I guess. And with Rey, yes, it’s important that we learn that new Jedi can come from anywhere (even slave children, as the final scene suggests), but then Rey’s tremendous power in the Force is even more strange. It’s not just that she had abilities, it’s that she’s extremely powerful, which suggested an important lineage. But if Rey, child of dead scavengers, can be this powerful, can anyone? Is that the point being made? It’s all a bit messy when you think of how clearly this was set up, only to have these arcs cleaved into non-existence.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The point of all this is to say that while I like Rian Johnson’s Last Jedi on its own merits, I think it does make a jarring companion piece to JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens. Sure, A New Hope was a lot sunnier than Empire, but I’m not talking about tone or harrowing cliffhangers. Abrams was setting up actual plot points, Snoke’s origins, Rey’s parents and place as the new “chosen” one, and a new director comes along and discards it completely. What he replaces it with works, in my opinion, but now I’m worried about what happens when the series is thrown back to Abrams for Episode 9. Abrams was doing Star Wars fan service to the point where it often felt like a clone of the originals. Johnson has done something wildly different to the point where it feels nothing like what came before. Both work on their own but stick them together and it’s bizarre, and makes the plot fit together in odd, misshapen ways. I almost wish that Abrams had just stuck around to do all three films himself, but The Last Jedi does certainly get me excited for Rian Johnson’s greenlit standalone trilogy. I think Disney was smart to see that if they give him free reign, he’ll do something interesting with Star Wars that no one has ever seen before. But giving him the middle movie in a trilogy is a much different situation and why there’s some friction here.
Of course, there are other reasons to dislike The Last Jedi that I’m not listing here. For as much as I enjoyed the film, I couldn’t get over certain bad scenes (floating space Leia), bad lines (“chrome dome”) or bad arcs (just tell Poe the damn plan). But overall, I can move past those issues, respect Johnson’s discarding of fan theories and be excited to see him open up characters like Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker, and explore the murky grey area of the Force for a change.
So yes, I understand why some fans might be mad, and agree that Johnson’s hard left turn with the series is a bit abrupt. But I can’t help but like the insanity he cooked up, and I can’t wait to see what happens when he’s let loose for an entire trilogy from start to finish.