Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Star Wars has always been about high adventure. The franchise has been outstanding in its creative vision, as well as eminently enjoyable but it has never been as deep as some of the themes and ideas that it has touched upon. George Lucas tried to provide a more complex narrative with his prequels, but it became lost in the clumsy screenplays. Instead of creating political intrigue and complexity, it all seemed somewhat incoherent and naive. Finally, Star Wars: The Last Jedi manages to achieve something that we saw briefly in Episode V. Thematic depth. The latest movie takes a franchise that has primarily been about spectacle as well as entertainment and re-invigorates it with a far greater narrative scope. There are real performances from Mark Hamill and Adam Driver, as well as complex philosophical musings on weighty themes. Finally, Star Wars like a fine wine, has matured and can now provide fans with a more substantial and nuanced story. Simply put, Star Wars has grown up and hence forward it can be more than just a space opera.
Rian Johnson continues where JJ Abrams left off and it soon becomes clear that The Last Jedi is not going to be such an obvious reworking of A New Hope as The Force Awakens was. He carefully directs and manages multiple plot threads as they simultaneously play out. To prevent any major spoilers, I’ll summarise the plot simply. Rey begins her Jedi training with a reluctant Luke Skywalker, who is unsettled by her immense potential with the Force and psychic connection with Kylo Ren. Meanwhile, the Resistance retreats from the might of the First Order who are on the verge of finally eliminating them. Can Fin and Resistance engineer Rose Tico them find a way to infiltrate the First Order command ship and sabotage it, buying time for the Resistance fleet to escape. As ever there’s a lot going on and the movie ensures that there are the required set pieces, drama and plot twists, tempered with humour and fan boy references. But writer/director Rian Johnson brings more to the table this time and the central themes are timeless conundrums that have provided drama since the theatre of ancient Greece.
During the second act of The Last Jedi, the narrative splits into three stories. Finn and Rose Tico pursue an elusive pirate and computer coder who may be able to assist them. X-wing pilot Poe Dameron clashes with Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo over her strategy as the Resistance retreats from the First Order. And Rey seeks the help of an indifferent Luke Skywalker on the remote planet of Ahch-To. It is this latter thread that is the heart of the movie. The trinity of Luke, Rey and Kylo Ren and how they are bound together is by far the most engaging idea. There is an Arthurian quality to this aspect of the film. I was very much reminded of Malory’s Le Morte D’arthur and the notion of a “A king without a sword, a land without a king”. At one-point Luke Skywalker admits that the Jedi may have fundamentally misinterpreted the force because all their actions have ultimately been ruinous. It’s minor comment with a great deal of weight, like a major shift in religion dogma, or when a long held scientific theory is overturned. This notion could lead to a possible renaissance in Jedi culture, led by Rey in future movies.
The Last Jedi, like The Force Awakens, further highlights the passing of the torch from old characters to new. Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is particularly interesting, providing a window into the world of all those people living under the First Order. All she has known is oppression and cruelty, which she succinctly articulates while on the Casino world of Canto Bight. Yet her motivation in the face of such injustice is not based upon revenge or hatred. I cannot remember the exact line, but she philosophically muses that “It’s not about destroying what you hate, but saving what you love”. Then there is the is Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo played by the dignified Laura Dern. Wise and experienced in both politics and war she clashes with the impetuous Poe Dameron who foolishly misreads her motives. Benicio del Toro also appears as the enigmatic “scoundrel” DJ. I was surprised how he effectively points out that the war is not as black and white as Finn suspects. It’s interesting the way the moral absolutes of the previous films are not universally upheld this time round. Again, this is evidence that the narrative has become deeper and more nuanced.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Star Wars film without John Williams. It is an undisputable fact that his scores for the previous seven movies have been integral to their success. The Last Jedi presents him with a wonderful opportunity to revisit many beloved themes. The late Carrie Fisher plays a pivotal role in the films proceeding and it was extremely poignant to hear the Princess Leia theme once again. It’s a truly exquisite piece and within the context of the film, profoundly moving. Again, I have to be careful to avoid spoilers but let it suffice to say that a much-loved character returns and it was an absolute pleasure to listen to the subtle reworking of their leitmotif. Yet of all the music that has featured in the Star Wars movies, for me the jewel in the crown is the sublime and moving Force theme. It plays out at the climax of The Last Jedi and considering the importance of the scene, it is especially poignant
However, with most movies, there are a few negative points to reflect upon. None of them are sufficient to undermine the movie overall but they do at times cause a lull in the proceedings. There was a little too much humour for my taste. Some of it works but other jokes, quips and sight gags fall short. I think the The Force Awakens found a better balance in this respect. There is also an excess of production affectations and visual FX indulgences, particularly with regard to some of the exotic alien lifeforms The Porg’s are somewhat superfluous and seem to be present only as comic foils to Chewbacca. There is also a curious rock dwelling creature that Luke milk’s. Why? Furthermore, the native caretakers of the Jedi Temple on Ahch-To serve no purpose other than to be the butt of some arbitrary slapstick humour. Also, as with the previous movie there are still many unanswered questions and unfilled gaps in the plot. We still know very little about Supreme Leader Snoke, apart from the fact that he is powerful in the ways of the force. It would have been nice to have known a little more about his backstory and his motivation. I was somewhat surprised by the way his story line panned out. Despite its 152-minute running time I still get the impression that significant parts of The Last Jedi were excised. For example, Captain Phasma remains woefully underused.
One thing is very clear. The ending of The Last Jedi closes the book on many aspects of the Star Wars universe that I and so many others grew up with. It leaves scope for a lot of new characters to step in and take multiple plot points and new concepts forward. All things considered this tonal shift in the franchise may not be to all fans liking but these films are not the exclusive province on the self-perceived faithful. Star Wars has grown beyond the confines of the original trilogy. Imbuing the narrative with these Wagnerian undertones such as pondering fate, the nature of our own deeds and the price we ultimately pay has finally allowed Star Wars to become a new incarnation of the classic mythology that George Lucas set out to replicate. Sadly, he lacked the literary skill to realise that dream. Rian Johnson thankfully does not. Hence the plot device of the Jedi order having to completely rethink its appraisal and relationship with the force raises many interesting possibilities. Simply put, after forty years, Star Wars has finally transcended its pulp origins and taken its first step towards becoming the quality fantasy drama it deserves to be.