This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This is your final warning for Death Star-sized spoilers of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.
Two years of anticipation. Two years of fan theories, rumors and speculation. Two years of wondering what was going to happen in the moments after Rey held Luke’s old Lightsaber in her outstretched hand, and the old Jedi master responded with that stony, unreadable expression.
Where could the Star Wars saga possibly go next?
The Last Jedi, at long last, has the answer. Having stood stock still on an Ahch-To clifftop for the past 24 months, Luke takes the Lightsaber from Rey and, just like that, throws the thing over his shoulder like an empty beer can. Whether that scene made you laugh, gasp or simmer with outrage may partly define how you react to The Last Jedi as a whole. In his first entry in the Star Wars saga – and his first of four movies, if Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy has her way – writer-director Rian Johnson displays a confident, almost gleeful lack of reverence for the franchise’s most sacred characters and objects.
In the opening third, the Resistance’s entire squadron of X-Wings are, it seems, left torched and unusable. Admiral Ackbar, hero of the Battle of Endor in Return Of The Jedi, is killed off without fanfare. The otherwise dignified, serene Princess Leia is blasted out into space and quickly deep-frozen, only to float back to her ship with one arm outstretched, like a tiny Statue of Liberty. Even that precious old Lightsaber, rescued by Rey after Luke tossed it away, is later ripped in two during the heroine’s battle with Kylo Ren.
But as Kylo Ren says, “You have to break with the past. Kill it, if you have to,” which could be Rian Johnson’s manifesto for the future of Star Wars: in order to move forward, the franchise has to be willing to introduce new ideas and play around with old ones. The saga has to evolve – even if it means breaking a few things along the way.
In fairness, this is something quite a number of fans have been saying for a few years now, and when Luke Skywalker says that the Jedi religion should end, it’s easy to agree that maybe it’s time to shake things up a bit. And yes, that’s pretty much what Johnson does: The Last Jedi sees the Resistance – and by extension, the franchise – gradually stripped of so many time-honoured symbols, even as old faces like Yoda and Maz Kanata pop up to say hello. For the most part, the set-pieces Johnson puts in their place feel fresh and exciting.
The fight on the planet Crait, where Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and the remaining rebels scud along the salt flats in ramshackle craft, is a captivating visual spin on the old Hoth battle from The Empire Strikes Back. The blazing red throne room inhabited by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is a pleasing exercise in comic book minimalism. Kylo Ren is, once again, an arresting and intimidating character: conflicted, unpredictable, darkly funny.
The plot’s convincing on paper, too: in essence, a Battlestar Galactica–like flight from the First Order, punctuated by Rey’s interactions with Luke on his windswept island and Finn’s flailing attempts to disable the villains’ new-fangled tracking system. For this writer, though, there’s an occasional sense that Johnson is struggling somewhat to track all these plot threads and, at the same time, give the characters meaningful things to do. An example of this can be seen early on: a curious hologram conversation between Poe Dameron and Maz Kanata, who appears to be engaged in some kind of gun battle even as she’d dishing out advice. Granted, Maz does have some useful information to impart – it’s she who tells Finn and his new sidekick, Rose (a great Kelly Marie Tran) about the hacker who can help them with their mission. But that info could just have easily been dished out by Poe Dameron himself; the scene appears to function as a simple reminder that, after the confusion on the planet Takodana in The Force Awakens, Maz Kanata really is still alive.
This might seem like a small detail, but it’s emblematic of Johnson’s dilemma throughout The Last Jedi. He has so many great characters to choose from – but what to do with them all? In the case of familiar faces from Star Wars past, they’re often given short shrift. Leia spends much of the film in a coma, at least until the plot requires that she wake up again (not unlike R2-D2 in The Force Awakens). Chewbacca is reduced to an extended cameo, in essence – flying the Millennium Falcon and showing up for a brief comedy bit with a roasted porg or two.
All of this fits with Johnson’s “out with the old, in with the new” ethos, of course, and he rightly devotes far more time to his newer, younger cast. But again, a lot of this amounted to narrative wheel-spinning: it felt strange to see Poe Dameron expend so much energy on mounting a coup against newcomer Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), only for Leia to retake control of the bridge a few minutes later. As entertaining as Finn and Rose’s gambit on the swanky casino planet Canto Bight was, its big chase scene didn’t add much to the plot other than a few more minutes on an already hefty duration.
The meat of the story is really found in the strange triangle that grows, quickly but quietly, between Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren. Since their encounter on the crumbling Starkiller base, Rey and Kylo have established a psychic bridge via the Force (a bridge, we later learn, partly forged by Snoke). Despite Rey’s anger at the death of Han Solo, there’s a clear chemistry between the two – perhaps even a sneaking affection. Rey believes Kylo can be turned from the Dark Side; Kylo believes Rey will embrace the dark and join forces with him. It’s a complicated dynamic, since Luke Skywalker has his own history with Kylo; we knew from The Force Awakens that the kid formerly known as Ben Solo was responsible for destroying Luke’s Jedi school, prompting Luke to go into self-imposed exile. What we learn in The Last Jedi, however, is that Ben Solo’s murderous rampage was sparked by a midnight encounter with Luke: the latter standing over Ben’s bed, briefly wondering if he could save the galaxy a lot of stress and grief by murdering the lout in his sleep.
It adds to Luke’s sense of burden, and also complements Johnson’s thesis: the black-and-white, good-and-evil established by the Star Wars films of old is replaced here by shades of grey. Even a hero like Luke isn’t immune from dark thoughts, even if the intentions behind them are noble. We see this elsewhere, too, to a lesser extent: Poe Dameron’s daring raid on the First Order is a brave and noble effort, but the resulting loss of life was pretty terrible for the Resistance. The somewhat brittle Holdo initially seems like a weak leader when compared to Leia, but she eventually proves to be immensely brave, with her self-sacrifice resulting in one of the movie’s most striking images.
This ‘shades of grey’ theme also feeds into the idea of breaking with the past. In one key scene, we see Luke go to burn the old Force tree and the sacred Jedi texts; he hesitates, so Yoda completes the task for him. Interestingly, one of our theories was that the sequel trilogy would step away from the Jedi religion, and The Last Jedi seems to confirm this: Luke has, in his solitude, come round to the thinking that the light and dark side potentially exist in everyone.
All of which brings us to one of the most hotly-debated topics in Star Wars history to date: Rey’s family. Is Rey a Skywalker? A Palpatine? A Kenobi? As it turns out, none of the above. Rey is, as she says so herself, “a nobody” – abandoned as a child by frankly horrible parents who dealt in scrap. An anticlimax? Possibly, but it’s also a fascinating new development. Unless Rey’s parents still have some kind of special lineage that we don’t yet know about (which is now looking unlikely), it suggests that Force powers as powerful as Rey’s can, potentially, manifest themselves in anybody. The Star Wars saga doesn’t have to be about the Skywalker lineage anymore; it can be about ordinary back-water people like us.
When that revelation’s placed next to The Last Jedi’s other events, the overall effect seems to diminish the sequel trilogy’s sense of mystery rather than build on it. The prime example of this is arguably Snoke: in The Force Awakens, he was introduced as an unfathomably tall hologram. His demeanour suggested great age and power; most of us figured that he wasn’t really all that big, but theories abounded about his origins and identity. A Palpatine? Darth Plagueis? God forbid, Jar Jar Binks? Again, none of the above.
In The Last Jedi, Snoke appears in the flesh, as it were: he’s just a wizened old geezer clad in a gold dressing gown (it’s since been revealed that the character’s look was partly inspired by Hugh Hefner). As a villain, Snoke sadly lacks the cackling brilliance of Ian McDiarmid’s deceptively charismatic Emperor Palpatine, and The Last Jedi‘s events only serve to further detract from his impact as a villain.
By the time the movie’s sliced Snoke in two – with a shrug almost as casual as Luke tossing the Lightsaber over his shoulder – we might even wonder why The Force Awakens even bothered introducing him at all. Was he, like Rey’s parentage mystery, just another red herring? If so, The Last Jedi fails to introduce a particularly menacing threat to replace him. Kylo Ren is a magnificent character, but the two movies have now fully exposed the chinks in his armor: he’s evidently beatable in combat, we know his impulsiveness can lead him to make mistakes, and his sneaking affection for Rey seems destined to play out one way or another in Episode IX.
That just leaves us with General Hux, who’s now firmly established as an utter goon. That he was but a shadow of the deliciously cold Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) from the original trilogy was an obvious and quite funny point made in The Force Awakens. In The Last Jedi, Johnson undercuts Hux’s last shred of authority in the opening scene. (The style of humor introduced by The Last Jedi could fill an entire 2,000 word article by itself.)
All of this serves to create a sense of shrinking rather than growing threat – a brave and slightly odd move for the middle chapter in a trilogy. The Last Jedi has unexpectedly sewn all kinds of plot threads up: Snoke’s gone, Luke nobly sacrificed himself, Rey has confronted her past. Yes, the Resistance’s numbers have been decimated, but the First Order has been dealt an even greater blow: its grand puppet master is dead, and in his place we have an aggressive hot-head and a military general so hapless that he could get his own sitcom (co-starring Adrian Edmondson, obviously). This raises the question: will the Resistance destroy the First Order, or will the First Order simply implode through mania and sheer incompetence?
Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII does much to change the saga’s course, from the burning of Jedi texts to despatching of another legend from the Star Wars pantheon. And yet, as Rey’s Millennium Falcon blasts off at the end of the movie, the overriding sensation is not of a story opened up, or of infinite possibility, like that hackle-raising shot at the conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back, but of a fable coming to an end.
Johnson has shattered old icons, but hasn’t found anything particularly iconic to put in their place. It’s telling that one of The Last Jedi‘s stand-out scenes openly explores the subject of nothingness. Rey journey’s deep into the heart of the island, and presumably deep into the darker part of her own soul, and finds nothing but her own image, reflected over and over, receding to a dot.
Or, to put it another way, The Last Jedi takes Star Wars, toys with it, then casually tosses the franchise over its shoulder. How Episode IX will catch it, and move the story on from here, is anybody’s guess.