Ok, I just saw it for the second time, and here are my rambling thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi. (spoilers ahead, very very much so)
TL;DR — I really, really love it. There are some noteworthy flaws that keep it from being spotless, but overall it aims higher than almost any other Star Wars film and for the most part hits the mark.
So, I enjoyed the movie the first time around, but there were some parts that really disappointed me (Las Vegas town sequence, Finn/Rose storyline, Poe/Holdo storyline). This time, knowing what to expect, they bothered me less and I actually appreciated the merit of them further. In the case of Poe/Holdo storyline, seeing it with new eyes made me like it a lot.
To begin this ramble, I think it’s important to address context, because it’s impossible to treat a Star Wars movie like any other movie.
If you go in expecting Children of Men, you’ll be as disappointed as if you go into Children of Men expecting it to be Inside Out. So the context that I view these new films with is what I presume to be the marching orders given to each director from Disney:
- Create a thing that will make us a lot of money (thus widely accessible and fun)
- Set up and carry on the saga so we can make future money
- Sell lots of toys
- Make something artistically resonant if you can.
I think Rian Johnson fought his way all the way through and delivered on step 4, which I think The Force Awakens wanted to do, but didn’t have time for.
I think it's also important to establish that I am definitely a fanboy. I love Star Wars, it's the reason I decided I wanted to make movies as child. I even managed to really enjoy certain aspects of the prequels back in the day (nothing cooler than a purple light saber). So, judge me as you wish.
I’m going to break down my thoughts act by act, beginning with Act One.
"Will Luke train rey?"
Act One: “Will Luke Train Rey?”
(Opening of the film to Finn/Rose embarking on their journey, Luke reluctantly agreeing to train Rey.)
I think Act One is fine. A bit of misfire with humor at the beginning (“Holding for General Hugs”) but I think this section is aimed at a younger demographic than I. Poe, Finn, and Kylo get their character needs expressed. Poe: “Can he grow beyond a hotshot pilot and become a leader?” Finn: “Will he always run away from the fight?” Kylo: “Will he turn from the dark side?” There are porgs and fighting and it’s a fun start to a movie.
I thought the opening battle was well done, I actually cared about the girl who is later revealed to be Rose's sister. I think Johnson did a good job of establishing stakes and making sure the fun opening moments also had consequences.
I’m going to go on record here saying that I really like when Leia uses the Force. The imagery of it is a little awkward, but the meaning behind it got me both times. Leia, twin sister of Luke, daughter of Anakin, leader of the Resistance, gets a moment to be a badass Force user. We are given a glimpse of what was promised but never delivered upon when Yoda in Empire Strikes Back responds to Obi-Wan’s “He is our last hope” with, “No…there is another.” AND I love that Leia’s power isn’t something violent or aggressive, but extreme resilience. For someone who has lost her father, baby daddy, only son, and her entire home planet, and still soldiers on, I think it’s only fitting and overwhelmingly deserved.
While there is no Death Star to blow up this time around, there is more or less the same mechanism in place. “We can’t get close enough to the Resistance ships to blow them up yet, but eventually they’ll run out of fuel!” felt a bit like a stretch, but second time around I was fine with it. Ticking time bomb established.
"Will luke successfully train rey?"
Act Two: “Will Luke Successfully Train Rey?”
(Beginning of training to Rey deciding she can turn Kylo and leaving Luke behind.)
This act has some AWESOME stuff in it thematically, but is dragged down by the length of the Vegastown sequence and how long that sequence goes without meaningful consequence. But, I did like Rose the second time around, when I didn’t have my “who is this new person all of a sudden?!” hyper-judgement running in my head.
The coolest part of Act Two is how we get to know the Force better than we ever have. In previous films it’s talked about with either vague, yet powerful, philosophy…or it’s midi chlorians. Here, we get to see and explore the Force—and more than just the simplistic conflict of dark side vs. light side. We get an awesome perspective from old, cynical Luke that is really insightful—the Force doesn’t belong to one side, it belongs to everyone. The Jedi are just a religion surrounding the Force, they don’t own it. He criticizes the Jedi, all the mistakes they've made in the past. The hero of the original saga is CHALLENGING everything he once stood for and the foundation of the series itself. This is brave of Rian Johnson and Disney, and I applaud them for going here.
Also, I love this Luke. It feels absolutely like the evolution of the farmboy back on Tatooine, and how he would behave in this situation. Honestly, this was the most I’ve ever liked Luke Skywalker—he was never exactly the best part of the originals.
From a filmmaking standpoint, I really love how Johnson shot Rey and Kylo Ren having their Force connection talks. I love both of the actors, and I love that you can tell they’re talking to an actual person off screen (their eyes dart back and forth the way we do when we talk to someone…because, you know, we have two eyes). I’d bet money he had Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver on set doing the scenes as well. So simple in concept, accessible yet a bit challenging. Thumbs up.
At the end of Act Two, Rey searches the dark side of the Force for an answer and doesn’t receive it. This prompts her to make the deepest connection with Kylo yet and turn her back on Luke. This part plays as a bit weak for me, because I don’t think her need to understand who her parents are is established enough. It just doesn't seem like it's been earned to the point of having her abandon the last Jedi after a day of training. So the power of this moment is lost a bit…or rather comes off as “ok, yeah yeah, she changes her mind so the plot can move forward.”
Finn and Rose free the animals and escape, cool. Finn is a bit less naive now.
And here at the end of Act Two we see Luke have his darkest hour, as he races to the original Jedi temple to burn it all down…but hesitates. And then Yoda shows up to do it for him and is lovably his Yoda self. I was pretty distracted by “omg they put Yoda in this how do I feel about it” the first time around, so what he said didn’t really register. But this time it did. And I realized Yoda states what I believe is the theme of the film.
As a nice kind of couplet to “Do or do not, there is not try,” Yoda reminds Luke to pass on what he’s learned…especially failure.
“The greatest teacher, failure is.” — Yoda
As a thematic lesson in a film, I really like this. I think it is insightful and encouraging. It’s an anti-hyper-success mentality, it’s teaching the key to real strength. The truth we hope to learn when we are told a story.
And with this theme stated, we’re off to Act Three…where things get really good.
"Will Rey Turn Kylo Ren?"
Act Three: “Will Rey Turn Kylo Ren?”
(Arrival at Snoke’s ship to the Resistance landing on the salt planet.)
I think Johnson basically nails Act Three.
This is not the third act we’ve been conditioned to expect. In every other movie, the plan, after hitting a small bump in the road, would work. In the knick of time, Finn and Rose would get the shield down, something blows up, Poe barely saves the Resistance, and the Big Baddy survives predictably into the third film. But instead, our expectations are completely turned on their heads.
The choices and consequences the characters are faced with are legit and high stakes.
Will Rey turn Kylo? We’ve seen plenty of evidence that he’s conflicted, but also that he wants power.
Will Kylo turn Rey? She’s resisted so far…but she also sought answers in the dark side and has forsaken Luke.
I had no idea what the answer would be…and of course it’s ultimately not that simple, but the choices are believable. Johnson accomplishes the screenwriting challenge of “make the choice both surprising and inevitable.” And it leads to one of the coolest freaking light saber fights in the series.
(I also like that this film uses up the "Throne Room" parallel from Return of the Jedi, so that we don't need to have it in Episode IX. In general one of the things I love about this film is how it burns through the parallels and leaves room for a new kind of final chapter.)
Meanwhile…our characters fail, and fail really hard.
Rose and Finn’s plan to sabotage the tracking device is thwarted. Poe’s mutiny based on a long shot stalls Holdo’s plan to save everyone. Her plan was withheld for reasons I still don’t fully understand...but as Poe says at one point about his own scheme, “this plan is need to know, and she doesn’t.” Holdo thinks Poe dangerous, and he is, so maybe this is simply a lesson in how unfair and confusing it feels to lose one’s privilege. He doesn't need to know. The frustration is his and our punishment for wanting him to be right and go blow stuff up—deal with it.
All in all, our characters end up not only failing to achieve their goal (#theme), but make things WORSE…leading to the First Order discovering the cloaked escape ships and destroying most of what is left of the Resistance.
Those who survive only do so because of Holdo’s actions—an awesome moment that highlights the power of sound in cinematic storytelling and the importance of not seeing films in a theater with loud children.
There are some moments that falter in Act Three…like the convenience of Rose, Finn, and Phasma surviving the ship breaking up while everyone else is dead so that there can be a fight scene. But, you know. Gwendoline Christie is awesome, so.
Act Three ends with the Resistance heading toward their new base, alive but their numbers decimated. Rey has chosen not to join Kylo Ren. And this is kind of where Empire Strikes Back ends. The bad guys win, essentially. Luke chooses suicide over joining Vader and the dark side (but luckily falls into a convenient tube and is rescued), Han is in carbonite, and their fate is uncertain.
But The Last Jedi chooses not to end here, and rather decides to show our heroes learning from their mistakes in Act Four.
"Will the REsistance Survive?"
Act Four: “Will the Resistance survive?”
(Arriving on the salt planet to almost final shot in the Millennium Falcon.)
Rey is essentially absent for most of Act Four. She’s made all her choices for this chapter. Now it’s about Kylo, Luke, and the Resistance.
Facing certain demise, our heroes do what they can, and are put in a situation where they make choices they never would have in the beginning of the film.
Poe, realizing they’re fighting a hopeless battle, orders a retreat (rather than charging forward like he did in the beginning). He’s starting to realize that there is more to being a leader than just fighting. He gets the Leia acknowledgment of growth, “What are you looking at me for? Follow him!” #theme
Finn, having chosen to run and save himself in both TFA and at the beginning of TLJ, is now willing to sacrifice his life for the Resistance (even if a bit foolish…but now he’s becoming the hero that Rose thought he was at the beginning). #theme. I think his arc is the weakest, which bums me out because I like Finn and want him to bring something meaningful to the saga. I think he did work in TFA, but ultimately didn’t add a ton to this one—fingers crossed for some good Rey/Finn character moments in IX.
And Luke returns to the Force and faces Kylo in order to buy time for the Resistance. Kylo rejects the call to the light that he’d felt earlier and gives in to anger 110%. And in doing so, fails. Though I have a feeling he may not learn from his failures...an example of antagonists choosing the wrong way to live.
By the end, our heroes have matured through learning from their failures, fulfilling the moral of the story.
I think Acts Three and Four are great because the choices are difficult and there are real consequences to those choices.
Thematically, I do love the “democratization of the hero” talked about in articles going around, expressed beautifully in the brief epilogue with the children and the broom stick moment. The kids are a bit too Disney-fied for my taste, but it is still impactful.
This film snatches the Force from the jaws of the lone “chosen one” and gives it to the people.
From a saga standpoint, we get to watch The Rebellion be reborn. And it isn’t simply “let’s blow something up, get a victory, and in the next episode there will be a Rebellion formed”—this is the story of the actual formation. The spark igniting the fire.
We go on a kind of coming-of-age journey with the people who will very soon be leading The Rebellion, witnessing their struggles, sacrifices, and failures…and see them rise up and inspire others. Not by fighting what they hate, but by saving what they love.
And I am really interested by where they leave Rey’s character. She’s clearly experienced a lot, but perhaps hasn’t had the chance to really fail and really learn from those failures. What do the Jedi texts that she saved and brought with her mean? Did she not fully embrace the idea of letting go of the past, or is it a sign that she wants to aspire to the same ideals of the Jedi of old? Tune in next time!
For a film that needed to make money and sell toys, it has some really fantastic, progressive elements to it. I feel like it both aimed higher and hit the mark most of the time.
It honestly makes me emotional that the saga that I’ve loved since I was a kid has returned, and isn’t just being lazy. They’re moving the ball forward. Diversity and equality is put front and center and then not mentioned at all, normalizing it with one record-breaking release after another. With The Last Jedi, especially, it feels like Star Wars has really entered the 21st century, and is leading the way (in terms of big budget studio films...which are always a bit behind).
This, in my opinion can not be celebrated enough. Film is the most dominant cultural force of our time, Star Wars one of the most popular myths in the history of humanity. It is a touchstone, how we share ideas and prompt discussions. Rian Johnson embraced this responsibility whole-heartedly, and I love him for it.
The Force Awakens was familiar. I’m not on board with the “it’s a remake of Episode IV” talk…or rather I think that is a vast over-simplification. I think it had a near-impossible task and surpassed it with flying colors. But, it was a familiar story with familiar beats.
The Last Jedi wasn’t.
To sum it up, I’ll quote my friend Scott Marden, who I feel said it best when he noted simply, “With The Last Jedi, we actually got a new Star Wars film.”
It’s imperfect, it’s challenging, it’s fun, and it’s a little controversial.
It’s a new Star Wars film.
Looking forward, I’m a bit worried, for several reasons.
There is a freedom that comes with a middle episode. The first chapter has to establish a world, characters, stakes, and tell a story of beginnings. The last chapter has to provide resolution and a conclusion, tying off story threads and delivering spectacle three films in the making.
The middle chapter has the least requirements, so it is easier to be subversive. It's traditionally the only chapter that can leave the heroes worse off...which is one of the reasons the middle chapter is often the most compelling. Is Disney brave enough to turn the subversiveness up to 11 in Episode IX? Will they deliver a finale that is even more challenging to our norms than The Last Jedi?
Probably not? Especially given that J.J. is having to step in somewhat late in the game to save the film from Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World director), and apparently Carrie Fisher was to play a big role in it.
And what effect will the "backlash" to this film have in shaping the next? I don't even get what the backlash is about, but will it cause safer choices to be made?
And what happens next?! Will it truly be the end of this saga? Do we want it to be? Do we want to see episodes X-XII, or will the new Rian Johnson trilogy take over? And will I be able to stop myself from making another Star Wars video about The Last Jedi??
"Difficult to see. Always in motion is the future." - Yoda