By Travis Trombley
It’s a fitting focus for this series in particular. Star Wars - across nine films, three television shows, comics, novels, and video games - has constructed a modern mythology that’s now spanned and linked three generations. However, despite its popularity, the critical success of the franchise is anything but consistent, especially when it comes to the films. Yeah, we are looking at you Hayden Christensen, Ewoks, midichlorians, hyper-convenient Sarlacc sequence, and Chancellor Palpatine vs Jedi Council fight scene.
So here’s the question: what did writer-director Rian Johnson learn from the failures past of the Star Wars franchise?
We’ll start with what the nine year-old in me is interested: the action. Johnson’s leaned away from hyper-choreographed lightsaber duels in favor of more brutal encounters that showcase variety and craft. Think about it this way: I remember the fight between Darth Maul and Obi-Wan being flashy, fast and cool, but I recall very few specific moves or moments. Conversely, when I think of the street fight between the Bucky and Cap in Winter Soldier, I recall not just the overall feeling of the fight, but the actual sequence of the fight and the moves featured throughout. Last Jedi functions more like the latter example; overall, I think there’s less lightsaber action to be had, but what we get is ultimately more memorable. It seems quality trumps quantity here.
Similarly, Johnson chose to privilege the spectacle of intense, creative piloting maneuvers over more standard “I can’t shake them!” dogfights. The film opens with yet another impressive Poe Dameron dogfight in which he maneuvers his X-Wing in ways that force the audience to appreciate both his talent as a pilot and Johnson’s imagination as a director, just as J.J. Abrams did with the Jakku Falcon scene from Force Awakens.
That said, one’s mileage on the increasingly divisive Porgs will vary. I didn’t entirely mind the Porgs - Johnson learned from the overuse of the Ewok how to include annoying little creatures without making them a hindrance on the plot. However, many will find the part when Chewie slaps a Porg off the dashboard of the Falcon the film’s most cathartic moment.
Hearing the complaints about Force Awakens’ reliance on A New Hope for its plot, Johnson created something distinct in with Last Jedi, though he still borrowed enough elements from both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi to feel familiar, and he uses these moments to build the franchise conversation (much as, I think, Force Awakens did).
But, perhaps most importantly, Johnson learned from the series’ limitations on structure to deliver a film that, for the most part, matures the franchise.
But, another caveat: your perception on said maturity will depend on one’s willingness to “let go of everything you fear to lose” - well, not everything, mostly just the characterization of Luke Skywalker we saw last in Return of the Jedi and the stark binary between Jedi and Sith thus far depicted. After a series of prequels that explained the importance of the past as they related to the original series, Johnson now asks us to “let the past die” - as it’s only with the death of the past that the future can take shape.
The result isn’t just another Star Wars film. Last Jedi is a worthy addition to the franchise because it matures the lore rather than simply expanding it, as Rogue One did.
If Phantom Menace and Rogue One showed us that lone heroism could win the day, Last Jedi tells us that lone heroism just gets people killed, and that real leaders must remain cognizant of the long game and preserve rather than destroy.
If Revenge of the Sith taught us the split between Sith and Jedi is a wide expanse, Last Jedi tries to infuse that relationship with a little more nuance. That the Force is balance rather than a harsh categorization of morality.
If A New Hope taught us that a hero is someone who leaves their home and saves a princess and gets rewarded in the end, Last Jedi takes the stance that sometimes a legend - if not entirely accurate - that inspires is more important than a hero.
Where the saga’s focus on the Skywalker family tree suggested that one’s blood makes one special, Last Jedi says people are responsible for themselves, and that anyone - a mechanic, a junker, a pilot, a politician - can be more than their origins suggest.
Whereas the ever-present and categorically evil influence of Palpatine provided a moral context against which good could be formed, Last Jedi resets that framework, showing us that the scariest evil is instead a choice made by someone capable of good.
Yes, the film makes some of these revisions more effectively than others. Despite the discussion of moral nuance in the Force (and the universe at large), Rey’s decisions retain a the old categorical measure. And where the pursuit plot device that defines much of the narrative momentum lends the film a sense of urgency not seen since Empire Strikes Back, the Finn and Rose roadtrip to a casino planet lasts much longer than it should and unnecessarily bogs the pace. Also regarding Finn, his laser ax fight with Phasma falls far short of the craft displayed during a parallel bout that pits Kylo and Rey against Snoke’s samurai-esque bodyguards.
But the film makes up for it, in my mind, with its daring. It's chutzpah. As frustrating as it is still not knowing the origin or political aims of the First Order, I find it more refreshing that I have absolutely no idea where Disney is taking this franchise by the end of this film. After a prequel series that explained the history of the originals and a side-story that butts directly up the the A New Hope, the saga needed an injection of originality and sense of progression, and Last Jedi provides that, both narratively and thematically.
Look for more specific discussions to come after I see the film two or three more times, but until then, let me know your thoughts. Are you one of the fans who hates this installment? Are you a Porg-lover? Where does Last Jedi rank in the overall series for you?