The finale of a continuing series looking at maligned, misunderstood, and forgotten works of genre fiction and making the case for their reevaluation. Thank you all for your support and look out for the thrilling successor series soon to come!
Spoilers ahead (as if you don’t know them already)
I see you sharpening your pitchforks, readers. I am well aware that Star Wars: The Last Jedi is one of the most divisive major films in recent memory, for defensible and… not-so-defensible reasons. I know people who can enumerate their reasons for defending and condemning it with equal passion, and I’m well aware that simply by including this particular title in a series called ‘Reconsidering’ I’m already casting my lot with one side of the debate. But, haters, I beg you to stay and read on. Perhaps what I have to say may lead you to—if not change your views—at least see more clearly where I’m coming from.
With that out of the way, let’s go over the facts for those who don’t know or would rather forget. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi came out in 2017, on the heels of the well-received Force Awakens (2015) and Rogue One (2016), the first Star Wars films released since the IP’s controversial acquisition by Disney. It was successful, but various controversial decisions on the part of the writer-director, Rian Johnson, led to a severe split in the franchise’s notoriously fervent fanbase. Many detractors legitimately took issue with the liberties Johnson took with the established lore, while others just didn’t like that it had non-white people in it.
That latter point hardly deserves serious attention. The former, though, must be reckoned with to really understand what The Last Jedi’s place should be in the storied Star Wars canon. Can a saga built on narrative consistency and binary morality sustain a work that actively subverts and questions its premises? I believe the answer is yes. What’s more, such a circuit breaker, if properly embraced, can only make a franchise stronger and more adaptable—which only makes it more disappointing that with the godawful Rise of Skywalker (2019), Disney chose to do the very opposite and suffered the consequences. The Last Jedi is not completely successful in its aspirations, but it does represent a remarkable moment of storytelling potential—since sadly squandered.
For those fortunate innocents still wondering what the hell I’m talking about, allow me to backtrack a moment and lay out some of the fans’ major sticking points with the film (space and sanity prevents me from listing all of them). First of all, the film almost instantly defuses most of the major suspenseful threads left hanging from JJ Abrams’ aggressively crowd pleasing Episode VII. Luke Skywalker, at last discovered in his exile by young Jedi-in-training Rey and presented with his old lightsaber, immediately proceeds to toss said lightsaber away and act like a deranged hermit.
This comes after an opening that sees the previous film’s secondary villain Admiral Hux reduced to a pompous laughingstock and the apparently well-equipped Resistance fleet reduced to a few ailing ships due to spectacularly bad battle strategy. Before the credits roll, supposed all-powerful overlord Snoke will have been unceremoniously dispatched, the much-teased mystery of Rey’s parentage quickly dispensed with, and the heroes’ salvation secured through a hyperdrive maneuver that seems to contradict most of what we know about hyperdrives in Star Wars. Also a lengthy subplot on a casino planet that’s kind of just… there?
These are all risky choices—there’s more daring here than you’d find in a dozen tentpole blockbusters. Perhaps it’s even a little too much for Johnson’s purposes; he almost seems to be inviting the fanboy rage that came to engulf the film and all those involved in it. But it’s not for nothing. Whereas Abrams’ approach to making Star Wars in the 2010s was to replicate as much of the original as possible, changing just enough to avoid charges of ‘remake’, Johnson’s is entirely the opposite. He wants to subvert expectations and, yes, court controversy, but there is an end goal beyond mere trolling. By making the familiar so profoundly unfamiliar, he wants us to see these things we cherish in a new light—and realize the potential in them we’d never seen before.
Hard as it may be to perceive, The Last Jedi is more a love letter to all that is Star Wars than even The Force Awakens. Johnson clearly has a deep love for the franchise and—even more importantly—a healthy lack of reverence for its exact form. Much like his other films Brick and Knives Out took well-worn genres (hardboiled and murder mystery, respectively) and dissected them, only to present something new and profoundly resonant at the end of it, The Last Jedi aims to herald a new Star Wars, free from the weight of 40 years of tropes and conventions.
When something becomes sacred and static, Johnson seems to be saying, it may as well be dead. He wants us to see Star Wars again as it once was: exciting, dynamic, and wonderfully unpredictable. Who could have guessed that the dark grandeur of Empire would follow the zippy adventure of the original? That’s what brought those audiences to the theater again and again in the days of the original trilogy—love for what came before and curiosity to see what came next. Abrams’ (and Disney’s) vision of a franchise endlessly repeating itself until it’s sustained only by in-jokes and callbacks is a grim one, though it may be rapidly becoming reality. Had the promise of The Last Jedi been followed up on, things may well have been very different.
The importance and eloquence of the film’s message does not, of course, excuse its failings. The Canto Bight scenes are unforgivably unengaging and obviously detached from the main plot. Many of the subversions listed above may well be elaborate cover-ups for lazy writing. And the whole thing is a little too long. I’ve no doubt that a better Last Jedi exists somewhere in the realm of possibility, but I’m also quite content with the one we have. No one can deny that it is more often than not riotously entertaining; Mark Hamill, despite famously disagreeing with Johnson’s take on the character, is better than he’s ever been as Luke, while all the young cast are also in fine form.
The opening battle is among the series’ best, and the climactic one on Crait turns out to be much more than the Hoth rehash it at first resembles. The nail-biting predicament of the Resistance provides effective tension throughout, while the ever-shifting Rey-Kylo Ren dynamic may be the most fascinating in Star Wars since Luke and Vader in the original trilogy. The dialogue is also consistently well-written and engaging, rivaling Lawrence Kasdan’s work on Empire and Jedi. If nothing else, it’s an above average Star Wars movie, which already qualifies it as exceptional entertainment. The insight on the franchise’s future potential is a welcome extra.
In criticizing the film, many fans have taken Kylo Ren’s repeated line, “Let the past die. Kill it.” as if Johnson himself had said it. In fact, The Last Jedi makes it clear that Kylo is mistaken—a more suitable mouthpiece is Yoda’s ghost, who burns the old Jedi texts Luke had been treasuring (without actually reading them), urging him to start anew. It’s fitting that the last image of the film is of an unnamed child playing Jedi with a broomstick, a shot that has puzzled many. In light of Johnson’s intentions, it makes perfect sense. Who knows what lies in store for that child, totally unconnected to any known backstory or family line? I don’t know about you, but I’d love to find out.
Thanks to my friend Miguel da Costa for arguing the other side.