"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" Is the Defining Chapter of the Saga
We are knee-deep in the new age of Star Wars. The Last Jedi is the eighth episode, the ninth live-action theatrical film, and the third film without creator George Lucas (though he served as a consultant on Episode VII, most of his ideas were ignored). After The Force Awakens revisited the Hero's Journey arc of the original film and Rogue One dramatized the prelude to the original film, it was time for the Disney era to show us what the new age of Star Wars would offer. In a perhaps controversial opinion, I believe Rian Johnson has given us the answer with Episode VIII as the defining chapter of the Star Wars saga.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, easily the most divisive film in the franchise, takes place almost immediately after Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, in her penultimate film role), is pursued throughout the galaxy by the First Order after a disastrous mistake, making their escape a last stand for survival. Lightyears away, the Force-sensitive Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) struggles to convince the once-legendary hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to come out of exile to save the Resistance and help her find her place in the galaxy, while Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Paterson) resolves to sever his ties to the light forever.
Ever since I saw The Last Jedi opening weekend, I've been wrestling with it. I can tell you I definitely liked it, but I'm not sure how much so. The movie is dense, especially for a Star Wars film, and there are many things I have yet to unpack to come up with a conclusive opinion on it. I've watched multiple videos, read many articles, and had a few conversations and debates with friends on it since seeing it as I try to decipher how much I liked this new chapter in the saga. And I am certain about a few things.
For one, The Last Jedi is visually-stunning. The film has some of the best shots in the entire franchise, especially during a showdown at the end. There were times the frames on the screen were so beautiful--not merely exciting or awesome, but beautiful--I was speechless. When I think of this movie, these shots are burned in my brain, and they make me want to go back to a theater to see them on the big screen again.
While not much time passes over the course of The Last Jedi and its predecessor, Rian Johnson packs a lot into his installment. However, this "a lot" doesn't equate to events in the way it did in The Force Awakens, a planet-hopping adventure. Rather, Johnson chooses to focus on critical points in these characters' lives. Rey and Kylo Ren have to decide what roles they will play in the fate of the galaxy--the dark, the light, or the grey areas. Finn (John Boyega, Detroit) must decide whether he will continue to run from conflict or go all in with the Resistance. Leia's Resistance must make critical decisions to ensure their survival after the First Order makes moves to fill the power vacuum left after the destruction of the New Republic. Luke must confront his philosophy of the Jedi when Rey arrives with dangerously untapped power. In showing the characters' decisions at these critical moments and the immediate consequences, the film is not content to merely be Act 2 in the trilogy's story, so much so that some have wondered what's left for the trilogy. That is to say the film is probably the most complete-feeling Star Wars film since the original. This isn't necessarily a good or bad thing, though The Last Jedi is not perfect.
The Kylo and Rey "A"-plots are always invigorating, and I could watched them develop more or at least see longer chunks in the film. Yet the Canto Bight scenes Johnson cuts to in the meantime, while in theory are important for the plight of the Resistance and the development of Finn's character, feel off. Most of this, I feel, was due to overt messages regarding the aristocrats that run the planet's metropolis. Yes, animal cruelty is bad and the subject is used to give us some insight into Rose (Kelly Marie Tran, CollegeHumor)--but it seemed the overemphasized of Canto Bight's sins, which include child slavery. (The sequence did introduce a new favorite John Williams theme, though!) I was fine with it while watching the film, but it is the weakest part in retrospect. Still, during the movie, I just wanted to get back to anything having to do with Kylo and Rey. Also worth noting is that Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie, Game of Thrones) is still the worst character in the trilogy, maybe even in the franchise, and shows that Lucasfilm should never have tried to manufacture the popularity of Boba Fett. However, there is no overwhelming fault in the film, that I could tell anyway, in the way one can call out a script or acting or direction. As my friend said, the film is slightly bogged down by little things. For him, those little things added up. For me, I'm not sure how much they add up, but they are still there.
As this overlong review comes to an end, I should revisit my claim that this is the defining chapter of the entire saga. This film explores the thematic concepts of power, hope, and balance and orients them around everything that has come before this story. We see Kylo Ren corrupted by hate and his lust for power, and Supreme Leader Snoke (the scene-sealing Andy Serkis, The Lord of the Rings) blinded by the pride of power. Luke mentions that one of the reasons the Jedi need to end is because, despite their seemingly good intentions during their association with the Republic, they too were blinded by power and allowed Darth Sidious to conquer the galaxy. This was further developed in The Clone Wars series. Leia fights to save the Resistance to keep hope alive in the galaxy in spite of the darkness of the First Order, a theme emphasized in last year's Rogue One. Luke, the Resistance believes, will be the beacon of hope that will light the spark of rebellion. Will he accept his role as a legend or let his cynical philosophy rule? Finally, the saga always has dealt with the idea of bringing balance to the Force, but this is the first installment that acknowledges that Star Wars's balance means there can't be only light or only dark but an eternal coexistence of the two, the continuing star wars, the duality of the yin and yang.
Perhaps controversially, Star Wars has defined itself for the future. The Last Jedi brings together themes that have been building across the saga while also showing what other thrills and twists the franchise can bring. Some things work, some things don't, and some things make me think. Its worldview is front and center now and challenges the idea that one side can and should prevail. Hopefully, these ideas will be discussed and further challenged by fans and audiences. If not, Star Wars will still be celebrated and enjoyed as a consistent source of stories and entertainment from a galaxy--and a mouse--far, far away. But should that be all that Star Wars is?