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Review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Posted December 26th, 2017 at 06:44 AM by Viperlord

I have written one long movie review before, for The Battle of the Five Armies, and prefaced it by stating I was an unabashed fanboy of Lord of the Rings, both Tolkien’s work and Peter Jackson’s adaptation. I issue much the same warning here; I have been a Star Wars fan since I was a child, I have seen every Star Wars film, played numerous Star Wars games, read much of the Star Wars Expanded Universe (when that was a thing), and viewed some of the television series spawned by the movies. As with many fans, I do not have much good to say about the prequels, and while I have liked the films of the Disney-era to date, my praise has not been unstinting. As this film has sparked a noteworthy amount of debate and anger online, I just wanted to lay out where I am coming from as a fan of Star Wars. With that said, onward, and be warned, spoilers abound!

Star Wars: The Last Jedi was the greatest Star Wars movie I have had the pleasure to see in theaters. It was a gripping tale with strong character arcs, a stream of revelations, energetic action sequences, some heart-stopping dramatic moments, and above all, a simple, clear message. (More on that later) Thematically, structurally, and in execution, The Last Jedi fires on all cylinders, with strong performances from the cast and the score of John Williams aiding significantly in its success. The foundation of the film’s uniqueness and success however, is the script and the direction of Rian Johnson, best known for working on several standout Breaking Bad episodes and for Looper.

Johnson brought a decidedly different stylistic sense to Star Wars than anything we had seen before. Before Disney obtained Star Wars, every film was made with the direction or at least the involvement of George Lucas, bringing a certain amount of stylistic continuity. The sole preceding film of the sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens, was overseen by J. J. Abrams, a director who has specialized in recapturing the nostalgic feelings of past eras and updating their style into the modern era, and is brought into established series for precisely that reason. Rogue One, while possessing far more of the feel of a classic war movie, (I have repeatedly called it “Guns of Navarone in space”) was, as a prequel, necessarily also largely built out of familiar elements.

Rian Johnson then, is for all practical purposes, the first director of a Star Wars film not to be extensively aping Lucas’ style or confined by particular preconditions of the movie he was making. And he does not let the opportunity go to waste, introducing a number of stylistic flourishes unfamiliar within Star Wars. The most notable examples are the three rashomon-style retellings of Kylo Ren’s fall to the dark side, Leia’s spacewalk, and of course, the silent lightspeed kamikaze run into the First Order’s dreadnought. Johnson does not stop there in making his mark on the film; he also skillfully manipulates audience expectations and reactions, with simple methods that remind one more of Steven Spielberg than they do of George Lucas. From Poe’s confrontation with Admiral Holdo, to Kylo Ren’s shocking dispatch of Snoke, to Luke’s showdown with Kylo Ren, Johnson proves himself adept at faking out the audience, but in a manner that leaves the viewer fulfilled instead of confused.

I bring all of this up partly to explain the divisive reaction the film is receiving in some quarters. The simple explanation for part of this is that the film is stylistically different than what preceded it, and further, the aforementioned curveballs that Johnson likes to throw have shattered fan expectations and theories left and right. The film not quite conforming to those expectations seems to have disappointed many. But for all that, I would still say that Johnson has made a fairly traditional film; the plot is quite simple, there are many callbacks, especially visual ones, to the original trilogy (though this film does not ape one in particular in the same manner as TFA) and Johnson is not shy about reinforcing the themes of the movie and making it very clear what he is doing. This is why many of the complaints about the movie I have read are surprising to me; almost without exception, they are addressed within the film itself. Everything is built around clear setups and payoffs.

Having spent all this time on set-up and directorial style, I am not going to go through the events of the entire story in a linear, narrative fashion as I did with my review of The Battle of the Five Armies. Thinking about how to write about this movie, I realize I only got away with it there because of to the extent that movie was padded with sheer fluff. This movie, with a near identical runtime, was absolutely packed with twists and developments. Instead, I will simply highlight a few character arcs and talk about the main message of the movie to wrap up.

The character whose role in the story is perhaps the most criticized, at least from what I have seen thus far, is Finn. When he returns to consciousness after the film’s opening, his immediate priority is to find Rey. To that end, he initially attempts a desertion of the rebel fleet before getting roped into Poe’s maverick plan to defeat the First Order’s tracking system. Finn and Rose separate from the fleet for a subplot that is ultimately something of a red herring in that it does not achieve Poe’s plan, which is a failure. This has critiqued in some quarters as a waste of time that does nothing more than serve to put Finn in the right place for his showdown with Captain Phasma.

While the story on the Monte Carlo planet (Yes I am just going to call it that) is understandably not everyone’s cup of tea, I will dispute the argument that it is pointless or a waste. This will be clearer in the conclusion, but firstly, this storyline is important in underlining the main theme of the movie, handily illustrated in the movie’s final scene with the slave kid who uses the Force to pull the broom into his hand. Secondly, it serves as an adequate vehicle to develop the characters of Finn and Rose. Finn, at the start of this movie, still has essentially selfish motivations via his fixation with Rey and is only affiliated by association with the Resistance, again, pretty obviously illustrated by Rian Johnson through Finn’s attempted desertion.

It’s during his time on the Monte Carlo planet that he sees firsthand the corrupt system that underwrites the First Order and is underwritten by it in return, leading to a passive, cynical acceptance of it. From there up to his confrontation with Phasma, Finn is presented with two views of how to deal with this; the better part of his nature and conscience is represented by Rose, and the selfish, amoral side of him is represented by Benicio Del Toro’s codebreaker, DJ. The choice is to stand up and become the hero that Rose initially saw him as, or wallow in selfish, apathetic cynicism as DJ does and as, at the start of the movie, Luke Skywalker is doing. Finn chooses the former.

Thirdly and finally, the storyline on the Monte Carlo planet, and Finn’s storyline in general, is the most optimistic part of the film, arguably barring the conclusion. There is little hope to be found in the mounting dread of the fleet chase or the twists and turns of Rey and Kylo’s story. But here, confronted with the casual barbarity they see, Finn and Rose are able to do something about it, showing the enslaved children the Resistance symbol and the hope it brings in the process. It’s a needed light of hope amidst the darkness of the film’s middle act. This doesn’t mean I expect everyone to necessarily love this part of the movie, there’s a legitimate argument that it’s thrown together awkwardly and feels too much like Earth during the casino scenes, and the appearance of Del Toro’s character is a notable contrivance, but I do see the storyline as a useful component of the movie.

The other character arcs were, I think, more easily grasped by the audience. Poe, who did not have a whole lot to do in the previous movie, is here cast clearly in the classic fighter pilot role of a military maverick. This is subverted from the usual use of the trope by having his actions repeatedly prove to be detrimental to an undermanned and outgunned resistance movement in the long term. This is highlighted twice, first by Leia at the end of the film’s opening sequence, and then again by Poe’s conflict with the character of Admiral Holdo, portrayed excellently by Laura Dern. Holdo, in a classic bit of the misdirection Rian Johnson utilizes in this movie, is initially framed as the antagonistic, untrustworthy outsider before the reverse is revealed; she has a perfectly rational plan which has been undercut by Poe’s actions and she is not only completely trustworthy, she carries one of the film’s real show-stopper moments with the lightspeed ramming of the First Order’s dreadnought. From all of this, Poe learns the difference between necessary sacrifice and wasteful would-be heroism, and demonstrates that at the end of the film, weaving his story nicely into the conclusion.

I’ll talk about two more characters before wrapping up, as Rey is addressed in the conclusion; Luke Skywalker and Kylo Ren. It was broadly expected that Kylo Ren, serving as the primary antagonist of the previous film, would be to some degree supplanted by his master, Snoke, in this movie. That ultimately did not happen, as in a wonderfully subversive twist, Kylo successfully removes and replaces Snoke as the primary antagonist to the entire galaxy. Luke Skywalker meanwhile, probably to everlasting fan debate, is initially not quite the mentor Rey had hoped to find, proving to be bitter over past failures and buying into his own legend.

I mention Luke and Kylo in the same breath in this manner because their stories are defined by their shared past, and they ultimately represent the thesis and antithesis of the movie. Both are obsessed with the past, Kylo in a twisted attempt to live up to it, and Luke bowed down by it. Not only has Luke grown embittered about himself, he demonstrates a searing but insightful view of the past hypocrisy and failures of the Jedi Order, in dialogue that could have come straight from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, and is ready to let it die. Kylo, savagely scorned by Snoke for his facile and juvenile attempt to take the mantle of his grandfather, comes to a remarkably similar conclusion; the past doesn’t just need to be allowed to fade, but it has to be stamped out, eradicated, in order for something new to rise from the ashes.

The difference, ultimately, is that Luke (with the assistance of none other than Master Yoda, in ghostly form) is able to realize that his past failures are in fact the greatest lessons he could have received and passed on. Rather than continuing to allowing the past to define him, Luke ultimately steps up, armed with the knowledge he needs to do better. Confronting him is Kylo Ren, who has reached a twisted version of Luke’s enlightenment that has led him to adopt a self-serving kind of nihilism. But Kylo’s version of Luke’s enlightenment is hollow, and the complete inefficacy of his rage-fueled flailing against Luke’s spiritual mastery of the Force is the visual representation of how ultimately empty Kylo’s warped worldview is. Luke passes into the Force having achieved his greatest triumph, and Kylo is left with a victory as hollow as he is. The reason Kylo Ren, rather than a more polished villain like Snoke, is the true villain of this story is that he represents the complete antithesis of the heroes, best exemplified in Luke’s contrasting enlightenment and Rey’s fundamental decency and acceptance that she has no place in the universe but that which she makes for herself.

In the end, what is the theme and the message of the movie? It is twofold, dealing in part specifically with the Force, and in part more generally across the film. The latter theme is simple; failure. Specifically, how to learn and grow from failure. This is really hammered at throughout the film, with the force ghost of Yoda in particular explicitly laying out the thesis here. It fits well with the main story of the movie; virtually everything the Resistance does, by most measures, results in failure, though the First Order certainly gets to share in that and ultimately ends up with a Pyrrhic victory. But at the end, the Resistance and our heroes are all stronger for the failures they’ve endured throughout the movie. The arcs of Poe, Luke, and Finn particularly reinforce this message; Poe learns from his mistakes that preserving life is more important than destroying the enemy in a blaze of glory, Luke overcomes his fixation on the failures of the past to help save the future, and Finn’s failures in this film ultimately lead him to become a more selfless and heroic character. Through this thematic framework, the movie somewhat echoes The Empire Strikes Back in its optimism in the face of despair, and given the state of the world today, it feels like a timely (or perhaps just timeless) message.

The other message the movie drives home is about the Force and about the notion of destiny. In this case, the thesis statement is delivered by Luke Skywalker, and it’s quite direct; the Force does not belong to the Jedi. It belongs to nobody, and therefore, can belong to anybody. The notion of a chosen one, prophecy, and predestination from the prequels? Tossed out the window into the garbage where they belong! With a protagonist coming from nowhere who can match a Skywalker’s strength in the Force, the Star Wars saga is no longer about the Skywalker family, as initially envisioned by Lucas; it can now be about anyone. If The Force Awakens was a celebration of the original trilogy, The Last Jedi was its swansong.

Rey is not the hero of the story because of who her parents were, or because destiny has selected her for anything. She is the hero simply because she chooses to be. She spent the last film and much of this one looking for someone to tell her who she is and what her role in the story would be. She finally found that person in the unlikely form of Kylo Ren, who confronts her with what on some level, she already knew; her parents were nobodies who abandoned her. As though speaking for the most toxic elements of the Star Wars fanbase, he tells her she has no place in the story, but then offers her one; join him, destroy everything that remains of the past that has wounded them both, and rule the ashes at his side. But she will not; ultimately, nobody decides the place of characters like Rey, Finn, Rose, and Poe except for themselves, through their actions. It is a complete rejection of a slightly creepy fixation on one family line controlling the fate of the galaxy, and it was doubtlessly done intentionally by the writers; Kylo Ren’s characterization was now clearly always a self-aware take on the dark side of where this could lead.

There is plenty more that could be said about The Last Jedi. Are there legitimate flaws to critique? Sure, though I do not think any of them amount to very much next to what the movie was able to achieve. There is also much to say about the film’s strong portrayal of women, the performance of the cast, the mostly clever use of humor, and the highlights of its action sequences (including a lightsaber fight that fuses the intensity of the duel from The Force Awakens with some of the stylization of the prequels) that I did not get to discuss, having already written well past the attention span of the average reader. To sum up, I would strongly recommend the film to the casual and die-hard Star Wars fan alike. It is an intense, fun ride, executed with flair that succeeded past my most hopeful expectations on the thematic level.
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