The Last Jedi: A new direction for the Star Wars Saga

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ATTENTION: THERE ARE SPOILERS WITHIN. IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE LAST JEDI YET AND DON’T WANT IT RUINED, RUN AWAY. 

 

Somewhere during the middle act of The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren (played brilliantly by Adam Driver) unleashes perhaps the most poignant quote of the movie: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” The line perfectly sums up the theme of The Last Jedi, and I’d be hard-pressed to believe writer/director Rian Johnson wasn’t well aware of that when he put the line in the film.

While J.J. Abrams’ 2015 The Force Awakens was a nostalgia trip intent on leaning on the past while introducing a new chapter in the Star Wars saga, Johnson’s film was an exercise in burning down that past to create a bridge to the future. TLJ eschews fan-service in order to breathe life into the next era of heroes and villains, yet in no way disrespects those that came before.

Mark Hamill delivers an outstanding performance as a grizzled, disgruntled Luke Skywalker. The main protagonist of the original trilogy was Johnson’s key tool in finally bringing the series out of the monumental shadow of George Lucas’ iconic trilogy. Luke’s very first appearance on screen sets the tone for his character (and the film at-large): picking up right where TFA leaves us, Luke takes his old lightsaber from Daisy Ridley’s Rey and dismissively tosses it over his shoulder and off a cliff.

Throughout the first two acts of the film, Rey tries in vain to convince Luke to join the Resistance and restart the Jedi Order to combat the growing powers of Kylo Ren and fight the evil First Order. Luke sees too much of Ben Solo in Rey and fears losing another unchecked power to the Dark Side. It is during these scenes we learn that Luke has closed himself off from the Force, ashamed of the mistakes he made to drive Ben Solo to the dark side. He preaches that the Jedi must end, and ultimately Rey decides that her best shot at saving the Resistance is turning Kylo Ren back to the Light Side.

After an intense confrontation between the two, Rey leaves to pursue her new goal of turning Kylo Ren, despite much protest from Luke. It is after this we get one of the film’s most important scenes. Luke, still intent on seeing the Jedi come to an end, goes to burn down a sacred tree with the ancient Jedi texts inside. However, he can’t bring himself to do it, but a returning Master Yoda (in ghost Jedi form, of course) does it for him via conjured lightning bolt from the sky. Afterwards, Yoda gives “Young Skywalker” one more lesson: his failures are the most important teachings he can pass on.

Ridley and Hamill share an excellent on-screen chemistry – along with Carrie Fisher/Laura Dern and Oscar Isaac & John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran – but it is Ridley’s Rey and Driver’s Ren that truly drive the movie. Kylo Ren truly establishes himself as the saga’s new big bad villain in TLJ, thanks in large part to his relationship with Rey.

During the course of the movie, the two – using the all new Force Skype – mirror the Luke/Vader dynamic from Return of the Jedi. Rey still believes there is good in Ren, and Ren pleads with Rey to let go of the past and join him in ruling the universe. Their conversations delve deep into each individual’s conflict within. Rey’s search for the true identity of her parents is merely a mask for the truth: she already knows, they were drunks who sold her away as a child. Ren’s longing for someone like him in the universe leads him to believe he can be the teacher Rey yearns for.

The film’s climax features the best saber fight since Darth Maul was around, with Ren killing Snoke (thank god) and the two of them kicking some major ass together in the Supreme Leader’s throne room. After Snoke’s last guard falls, Ren calls for Rey to join him at the head of the galaxy. It’s here Rey finally sees Ben Solo is lost for good, and the will they or won’t they tension of their interactions comes to a head. After Rey escapes, we gain yet another great on-screen pairing: new Supreme Leader Kylo Ren and General Hux (played by Domhnall Gleeson).

The other major plotline in the film is the First Order chasing down the last of the Resistance fleet, led by Leia Organa. Carrie Fisher does not disappoint in her final performance, particularly when on-screen with Isaac’s Poe Dameron. Leia’s calm, collected leadership works to corral Dameron’s hot-headed eagerness to be the hero. While he continually wants to bring the fight to the First Order, she maintains that their fight is one for survival. After an attack leaves her comatose for much of the middle of the film, Dameron then butts heads with Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) over the best course of action to save the Resistance. They maintain the calm/heated dynamic, and by the time Holdo sacrifice’s herself to save what’s left of the fleet you feel like you’ve lost a longtime member of the Star Wars family (a tribute to Dern’s excellent work in her ultimately limited screen time). After repeatedly questioning the tactics of both Leia and Holdo, Poe finally learns that heroics mean nothing without proper leadership.

The two storylines come together in the phenomenal final act where, during a tense standoff between a newly Kylo Ren-led First Order and the last remaining Resistance fighters, we get a very touching Leia/Luke reunion (at which time the theater mysteriously and suddenly got dusty) and a final showdown between Kylo Ren and Luke. Luke gives his life to buy the Resistance time to flee much like Obi-Wan Kenobi before him. It’s during this standoff that Driver truly shines, turning from a conflicted boy into a rage-filled monster intent on destroying Skywalker and what’s left of the Resistance.

The film does have its low points, of course. The film runs a bit long at two and a half hours, with a beautiful yet probably unnecessary casino subplot. On the flip side, without that subplot we don’t get the solid Fin/Rose pairing, and we’d be robbed of Kelly Marie Tran’s breakout performance. Also, at times, the film veers a bit too far into big blockbuster territory with numerous action sequences and one-liners. Captain Phasma once again is largely a non-player, and any comparisons to Boba Fett’s role in the original trilogy are a stretch.

Fin’s role going forward is also a big question mark. If you’re a pro wrestling fan, you’re familiar with the “creative’s got nothing for you” problem where a solid character simply does not have a worthy storyline. Your left feeling like he should’ve been allowed to sacrifice himself in the film’s final battle, but then we wouldn’t have gotten Luke’s wonderful swan song. What role he plays in Episode IX is a mystery that drastically needs a solution.

Ultimately, the film succeeds by moving the Star Wars universe beyond the story of the Skywalker family tree. The two most anticipated reveals of the movie – Rey’s true lineage and Snoke’s mysterious past – amount to nothing in the end. And you know what? Both of those are magnificent decisions by Johnson. We didn’t need another life in the Skywalker bloodline, we needed new blood. Rey gives us that and then some. We needed a real, tangible antagonist. Snoke couldn’t have given us that shrouded in an unknown past, but with Kylo Ren we get a villain worth rooting against.

It’ll take some years to really decide where The Last Jedi ranks on the list of Star Wars films. Gut reaction places it behind the original trilogy and above The Force Awakens. But by breaking formula, Rian Johnson gave us a brave new direction for the Star Wars Saga, and that should be commended.

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