There was something brilliantly moving and subtly stunning about the cliffhanger that ended JJ Abrams’ massively successful relaunch of the Star Wars series, The Force Awakens. Audiences waited with bated breath to see what would happen next after Rey (Daisy Ridley) reached out to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) that lightsaber on top of that mountain when The Last Jedi would inevitably pick up where Episode VII left off.
What we would witness was Luke throwing the lightsaber over his shoulder, and simply walk away. If there is a moment that sums up what we’re in for with The Last Jedi, it’s this one, and just to reiterate the point, later in the movie Luke tells our heroine that “this is not going to go the way you think”.
Where The Force Awakens stuck to the structure and tropes that one really expects from a Star Wars movie to the detriment of some who took umbrage at how the film basically remade elements from A New Hope, The Last Jedi almost wants to deconstruct what it is that makes a Star Wars movie tick.
Where Abrams’ film would be kicked somewhat for not taking enough risks, ironically The Last Jedi would be criticised by hardened Star Wars fans for taking too many and not conforming to what they wanted.
It just goes to show that sometimes you really can’t win.
Unlike JJ Abrams who had come from a hardened geeky profile having directed two Star Trek movies, a Mission: Impossible, helping craft the Cloverfield series as well as creating, or co-creating, popular television series such as Alias, Lost and Fringe, The Last Jedi director Johnson had come from a more cinematically scholarly background; Brick had transplanted film noir tropes and clichés to a high school setting, The Brothers Bloom was a stylish caper movie, while on television he had directed two of the best episodes of Breaking Bad, one of which, “Fly”, was the finest example of the television trope known as the bottle episode, while the other, “Ozymandias”, would be quite simply one of the greatest hours of television ever produced in the history of the medium.
In terms of genre cinema, Johnson had delivered Looper, a time travel thriller that won plaudits and was no doubt a huge factor in convincing Lucasfilm to hand him the keys to the Star Wars kingdom.
Right from its opening action sequence, a space battle that is not only one of the best in the series, but one of the greatest ever put to film, there is a sense that the film is going to boldly subvert expectations; the opening battle is spectacular, visually superb and makes great use of camera angles and close-ups that will recur throughout the film, but something interesting occurs; the film deals with the consequences of what happens. After a standoff against The First Order, the resistance sends in a fleet of bombers, most of which they end up losing. They win the battle and we see a returning Princess Leia smile at their victory, but then realize how much of their fleet they have lost.
The entire battle comes about because of Poe Dameron’s (Oscar Isaac) devil-may-care attitude, but where last time out, and even in the original trilogy with Han Solo, we celebrated such a thing, here it becomes a potential liability and Dameron’s punishment is being circumvented by strong women who disagree with him throughout, from Leia to Admiral Holdo (a very impressive Laura Dern).
Where most genre movies or adventures like this would take great joy in watching Dameron, or a character like it, be proved right or justify his actions, even as it causes untold losses around him, here the film is at pains to show the cost of such behaviour. In fact, for a franchise that has recently hit it fortieth year in existence, it could be argued that this is the first film in the series where it feels legitimately as if it’s a war movie, or at the very least is addressing the moral and ethical issues at the heart of a political conflict.
It’s the first of many subversive touches that makes the film a wonderful continuation to the new generation of Star Wars movies, but also allows it to stand apart from Abrams movie. Where The Force Awakens embraced the heritage and past of the series so completely, The Last Jedi sets out its philosophy through a line of dialogue delivered by Kylo Ren: “Kill the past”.
Not that Johnson sets out to anger fans, but there are things here that seem designed to combust and break apart what we expect from a movie from the series, as well as threads and ideas set up from the last movie; Episode VII gave us a Vader like-villain with a cool helmet and black costume, but the helmet is destroyed early on in the movie; Emperor Snoke (Andy Serkis) has been set up as Palaptine-styled big bad at the heart of everything, but he’s killed off as we head into the final stretch of the film, the mystery of his identity being a potential revelation that was, in fact, a big red herring; ditto Rey’s parents.
The last point proved especially contentious, but once again it subverted our expectations beautifully. Since this is the middle chapter, we were anticipating an Empire Strikes Back-style plot twist, but the twist was that there was no twist. If Kylo is to be believed, and there is a possibility that Abrams could reverse this when he takes the reigns of Episode IX, then Rey’s parents weren’t anybody special. In fact, he describes them as drunkards who sold her for money.
While everyone cried foul, the twist actually made Rey, a female character that many young girls could look up to, someone who had become special within the story because of who she had grown up to be, as opposed to being a part of some lineage with a mythological stake in the story.
If anything, de-mythologising was the key component of The Last Jedi’s narrative thrust; the devil-may-care pilot who is more dangerous than anything else, the lead character who doesn’t come from a special family at all, and the mythological hero of the past who has fallen from grace and become an embittered figure who has hidden himself away.
Mark Hamill’s performance was heavily anticipated and he didn’t disappoint with a complex portrayal that completely vanquished the boyish enthusiasm of Luke in the original trilogy into something deeper and poignant, a hermit hiding on a mountain, parts of which look remarkably like Donegal (which it was, of course).
With a smooth production or at least smoother than that of Rogue One which had been released the previous Christmas, Disney and Lucasfilm were very happy with what they had seen and had made a deal with Johnson to craft a separate Star Wars trilogy of his own, one separate from the Skywalker saga.
Heavily anticipated and hyped to the hilt, The Last Jedi made its way to theatres with a plethora of great reviews from critics, some of which were the best a Star Wars movie had received since The Empire Strikes Back and a massive box office take on its opening weekend, but controversy awaited.
A section of the fanbase were deeply displeased at what they saw as deviations from previously established character development, as well as key plot twists and revelations that saw Luke be essentially responsible for pushing Kylo to Snoke by nearly killing him after sensing the darkness within him and the film’s final moments that saw the death of Luke after a heroic face/off with Kylo in order to buy the resistance time to escape, a face/off where it was it is revealed that Luke is force projecting himself, something that in the end exhausts him to the point of death.
While fans took to social media to vent their frustrations over the plotting, Johnson’s script and argued that the film was trying to push a feminist agenda, the truth was The Last Jedi was a remarkable film. It’s not always one hundred percent perfect by any stretch; the narrative pairs up John Boyega’s Finn with a star-making performance from Kelly Marie Tran as Rose, both actors sharing great chemistry, but then gives them the film’s least interesting storyline that doesn’t really go anywhere, although one could argue that’s essentially the point, but overall there’s a boldness to the film that is dazzling and somewhat refreshing.
It never plays it safe. It doesn’t reset everything in its final moments to make everything the same as when it began, although it does actually have a more upbeat conclusion than The Empire Strikes Back did, there are still consequences hanging in the air, although the very final scene of the movie suggests the fire will be re-lit.
If anything, it’s Luke’s fate that drives home the more emotionally complex drama, his final moments bringing his character somewhat full circle, with imagery and stirring John Williams music (whose score is magnificent throughout) that cannot help but bring a massive lump to one’s throat.
With the fan controversy in the air, coupled with well-documented production problems with Solo and the firing of Colin Trevorrow from the director’s chair for Episode IX, thus facilitating the rehiring of Abrams, it was an interesting period for the series. With Abrams returning, it will be interesting to see if the next instalment, or Episode, will deal head on with the events and revelations here or, as many have suspected, Abrams will go back and undo it all in some ways and take the series back to a place similar to where he started, but as we continue to see movie studios devote their resources to trying to catch up with Marvel in crafting their own cinematic universes, it’s refreshing to see a film like The Last Jedi really go out of its way to do something different rather than play it safe.
If anything, creatively speaking, and this may be a contentious issue with some fans, the film itself has the spark that cannot help but light a new fire on the series.