What Was the Point of 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi?'
In the wake of a new direction for the franchise, and a massive fan divide, I am left wondering what was the point of 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi?'
Walking out of the theater into the cold New York night, I found myself repeatedly asking my friends, “Well what was the point?” The Last Jedi was unlike any Star Wars film I had seen before, and for the first time, I wasn’t reminiscing about the space battles, clash of lightsabers, or Chewie’s mighty roar. I was left with a profound sense that what we had just seen was not about these things. It was not about giving me the Star Wars that I had grown accustomed to. This is fine. Star Wars is not the franchise it once was. It is not helmed by a single man with unlimited power. After seeing The Force Awakens, my view of the great saga had shifted to fit the new message that Disney, not J.J. Abrams or Lawrence Kasdan, was sending me. Star Wars has joined their dark side. From now on, fan service will play a large role in the saga. This was refuted when I saw Rogue One, and again upon hearing the next Star Wars story would be following Han, and the next Obi-Wan. To be fair, I really adored TFA and have watched it numerous times. While it was not a brave film, it was clean. It had so much riding on it. While it will never compare to its several-decades-old predecessors, it will always be an enjoyable ride. But I was left disappointed, feeling that this trilogy was going to feel all too familiar. As it turns out, I was wrong.
Walking into The Last Jedi, a film I had done no research for, seen no trailers for, I was prepared to watch a film harkening back to Empire Strikes Back. What I got, while certainly giving tons of nods and copied plot points, was a distinct experience. This film, written and directed by Rian Johnson, is the antithesis of my prior beliefs concerning Disney and the future of the franchise.
I am not here to give a detailed review of the film, one where I break down the plotlines and the narrative decisions and explain why they worked or did not. I am not here to rant over the necessity of the humor in the film or the twists that kept us all on our toes. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has their own opinions of The Last Jedi. It does not bear the seemingly unanimous love the original trilogy has, nor does it bear the disdain that the majority of Star Wars fans feel for the prequels. Though I believe this is quite fitting. This is a film that I think succeeds on many fronts, and fails on others. As such, I do believe it is important to give a brief look at what I feel worked, and didn't work for this movie, before diving into the question that has brought us here: What was the point of The Last Jedi?
A Brief Review
The Last Jedi left me disappointed on many fronts, and more than fulfilled on others. Neither Poe and Leia’s, nor Finn and Rose’s storylines reached the heights of Luke, Rey, Snoke, and Kylo’s. TFA left me with a strong sense of community. Finn and Rey's relationship was a huge part of the film, and made for a fresh dynamic. Throw Poe in the mix, and I felt like I was watching a team form, and I was excited to see their dynamic grow. Unfortunately, in TLJ Finn and Rey do not see each other until the last five minutes, and the same can basically be said for Poe and Finn. We have three compelling heroes, and they were all separated. I felt like the split-up hurt my feelings of suspense, as only Poe is ever really at risk during the chase, which wants to be the primary event of the film. I found myself eager to return to Rey’s arc, as that was where this film shined. Her and Luke had me encapsulated. It was as if every time we cut back to the island, the lore of Star Wars, and the significance of this film, grew. The force, being to me the most interesting aspect of Star Wars, was put front and center to be critiqued and reimagined. We are nine films into this franchise and I would never consider this reason for things to be allowed to become stagnant. Now is a crucial period in Star Wars where we decide what the landscape will be for the coming decades. Will we retreat to the comfort of what was established decades ago, or will we innovate and explore a vast universe that is more than just stormtroopers and rebels?
And this brings us to the reason we are here. What is the point? I think Rian Johnson tried to tackle several themes. I think he wanted to innovate on and explore the Star Wars universe. Some of his decisions fall short to me, contradicting the path of the film. Others I believe to be crucial to the future of this franchise. So let's look at them and see what I mean.
Failure Makes Us Stronger, Don’t Be a Hero
I believe one of the main points TLJ tries to make is that through failure we become stronger, and that being a hero isn't going to win the war. I was thrilled when this was established early on with Poe as this is a lesson I learned at a young age and have lived my life by. Poe takes on a First Order dreadnought, and though he successfully takes it down, his decisions costs the lives of hundreds. Later, once Poe understands the value of not being a hero, he calls off the speeders that were charging towards the AT-AT’s, realizing this is not going to save lives. Finn and Rose try to infiltrate the First Order to sabotage their ship, and in doing so expose the rebels plan, again resulting in Resistance deaths. Later, Finn, having learned his lesson, tries to save lives by crashing his speeder into the First Order battering ram, but is stopped by Rose. Luke failed with Kylo during his training, thus completing Kylo’s turn to the dark side. Luke learns to look past his failure, and stops Kylo from killing off the Resistance.
I didn't quite feel that this theme was conveyed properly in the film. Poe fails to make a smart call in the prologue, and as a result is cast aside by his higher ups, instead of being taught a lesson. As a result, he makes another mistake allowing Finn and Rose to leave, and it costs them dearly. Though I am unsure how the rebels would have survived, if they were also being chased by a dreadnought. The speeders scene at the end, hoping to mirror the battle at the beginning, does not present Poe with the same dilemma, as there was a chance of victory against the dreadnought, and there was no chance against the AT-ATs. Finn’s attempted sacrifice would have mirrored Holdo’s sacrifice when she destroyed the remains of the First Order fleet. So, while we are told that we don’t need heroes, we need love and to continue surviving, we see that our protagonists would not have survived without heroic actions. This is further shown with Luke. His decision to appear against the First Order, resulted in the battle, and himself, becoming a legend. He survived the blasts of dozens of AT-AT’s and led to the survival of the Resistance. I think Star Wars has shown time and time again through the films that we need heroes and great sacrifices. Without these legends, our protagonists would never have made it this far.
Let the past Die, the Force Is About a Balance
This is where I believe TLJ hits home. On both a narrative and meta level, I believe another theme is not to get attached to the past; let it die. This film is clearly coming off the lack of creativity exhibited in the prior film, and wanted to be different. I applaud it for that. Though I would be remiss to say it pulled this off perfectly. While much of what it does is different, there are numerous similarities to the older films. I could list them, but I trust you can see them as well as I do. Despite Kylo claiming that old things need to be put to rest, the Jedi, the Sith, the Empire, and Rebellion, nothing has changed. The next movie will still have all of them. Luke, despite initially believing that the Jedi need to be put to rest, is not the last Jedi. Luke and Yoda burn down the Jedi temple, but the books still remain. While this bold claim is crucial for the future of this franchise, and links to what I believe the true point of this film is, this is a message Rian unfortunately would have been better off stating with the first film in his upcoming trilogy.
Films are composed of three acts. In many ways, a trilogy is to be looked at as a single story told across three acts, each having its own movie. As such, trilogies that can maintain a similar style or narrative end up feeling more congruent. Say what you like about the original and prequel trilogy, but this is something they understood. They look and feel like they are part of a single story despite jumping years between sequels. Rian taking the reins and changing the tone, narrative, and feel midway through an established trilogy results as a massive step away from Episode VII and from fan expectations. I have little doubt that this is the real reason the community is skewed, not because of Porgs or the humor, not because of weak plot points, but because Rian has prematurely done what is best for Star Wars.
So none of these ideas were executed perfectly. But amidst all of this, there was one notion that I think is perfectly exemplified in this film. The idea of a balance, and that the old beliefs cannot continue. Lesson one in Luke's training of Rey has her meditating. Luke tells her to close her eyes, and tell him what she senses. She senses the light, and the dark, and the balance between them. This balance is exhibited across the film. On the island, up top is the light, down underneath is the darkness, as any area linked to the force must have both. Luke talks about how the force is not owned by either the light or the dark, both sides simply tap into it. Finn and Poe struggle with understanding the balance between defeating your enemies, and saving your friends. Snoke tells Rey her newfound power in the light is the result of the force balancing out Kylo’s immense strength in the dark. This is exemplified in the scene where both Rey and Kylo fight for Luke's saber, but they are equals in power and the saber is pulled apart. The idea is personified in DJ, a character whose lack of conclusion in the film left me unable to see his worth past moving the plot forward. But it speaks volumes that he is the only character in the film to come out unscathed, because he is forward thinking and understands that this repetitive nonsense will never end, and can only end poorly for those that continue to choose sides. In a scene between him and Finn on a stolen arms dealer’s ship, he illustrates his beliefs by showing Finn that this arms dealer sold weapons to both sides. The struggle for victory has consumed the ethics of both sides, and further propagated the war.
As long as there is one side with great power, whether it be the Jedi, the Sith, the Rebellion, the Empire, the other side will always work to balance it and overcome it. This is an endless cycle. The only way we can move forward, is to break the conventions we have built. This is a notion that is becoming ubiquitous with modern cinema as the majority of profitable films are derivative of prior works. I found myself wondering after the release of episode VII how we wound up here again. All the achievements of our heroes have been undone and we must once again fight. Now I see this notion of the balance to be a large part of why there was an awakening in the force to begin with. If this is the point of the whole trilogy, that this battle is inevitable and it is time for a change, then I have more hope for this franchise now than I did two years ago when I watched the third death star explode.
I think Disney jumped the gun on this trilogy. From the research I have done, it seems like they had no clue what this trilogy was going to be about from the start. They knew the first film would be a soft reboot, and had no idea where it goes after. They presented tons of sub plots and characters to be fleshed out later, but had no idea where they would go. They got a bit of backlash from their decisions, and now, being more confident in their brand, they gave more control to a single person, like Star Wars used to be. I don't know why you would give the second film in your trilogy to a different director, and the result is clearly a different style and tone from what was established. Rian Johnson was given the power to do what he would like with the unimaginative decisions in episode 8, and it has me very excited for what comes next. I just wish this trilogy had a little more structure.
Rian's trilogy now looks to be the best in the franchise. He will certainly abandon the structure we have come too familiar with and give us something new. In Rian's trilogy I hope to see an enemy that has nothing to with the force. I hope to see a united Republic or Empire that must ban together in their belief in the force, in heroes, and in each other to battle something we have never seen. It is time we, as an audience, show that we are ready for new stories, brave adventures. Because Star Wars to me isn’t about a rebellion, or the Jedi and Sith, it is about a galaxy far, far away, about believing in each other and in the force that connects us all.