‘The Last Jedi’ passes of the torch for better or worse
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi” was a first for many things in the Star Wars Universe, but also the last for much more.
“The Last Jedi” swooped out of hyperspace and into theaters on Dec. 14 with mixed critical success. Some viewers enjoyed the new perspective on the Star Wars universe, but long-time fans left their cinema centers yearning for a more traditional approach. While there were plenty of issues with the film, there were several roses poking out through the mess of thorns.
The film, directed by Rian Johnson, centered on the aftermath of “The Force Awakens,” and saw the young heroine Rey attempt to convince the cynical and aged Luke Skywalker to train her in the ways of the monastic and altruistic Jedi warriors. Luke spent the entirety of the film denying her request, stating, “It’s time for the Jedi to end.”
Within this quote, and everything else in the movie, “The Last Jedi” brought forward the re-occurring theme of sending out the old and introducing the new — both in terms of the plot and in a meta-sense.
The movie strayed away from the traditional style of how Star Wars movies are executed. As junior antagonist Kylo Ren puts it, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”
The newest installment in the Star Wars universe also introduced many new characters that were received very poorly, independent of the series’ controversial new path. Rose, Vice-Admiral Holdo and so many other characters were pulled from nowhere, added nothing genuine to the film except screen-time and vanished away into obscurity, not impacting the universe in a meaningful way.
The film tried to introduce so much at once, and at the same time struggled to preserve the tradition that has made Star Wars a dramatic success. The movie was spread out and could not focus enough on the main characters that audiences have come to love. Instead of exploring the thoughts and feelings of characters such as Luke Skywalker, General Leia, Kylo Ren, Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron, Johnson instead focused on introducing new characters that fell flat and were poorly received by audience members.
In “The Last Jedi,” Luke Skywalker has turned away from the monastic teachings of the Jedi Order because of its shortcomings, while Rey, an eager young student, begs him to teach her. It is revealed through flashbacks that Luke chose to try to kill his student, Kylo Ren, at the first sign of his corruption to the evil “Dark Side” of the Force. This is despite Luke’s devotion to redeeming one of the most evil characters in movie history, Darth Vader, in the original trilogy.
This is yet again a sign of Rian Johnson killing off the old to bring forward his own new take on the Star Wars universe. The intent was noble, as the idea that heroes can fail and be corrupted is an interesting and new take on the Star Wars universe, but its execution was poor and hasty.
Rose Tico, a Resistance mechanic with a never-faltering smile, was a fish out of water the entire film. When the rest of the cast was brooding, demotivated, depressed or scared, Rose, the optimist, was always seen with a smile on her face. Happy characters are not bad, but in a life-or-death scenario, smiling in the face of peril detracts realism from the buildup of the scene. The character came across as creepy and out of touch with reality because the actress, Kelly Marie Tran, was only capable of portraying one emotion.
The Star Wars universe is slowly falling victim to the same problem many critics point out when reviewing the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — the gags. At the expense of an otherwise compelling and dramatic moment, Johnson chooses to have his characters laugh off the fear of death with the insertion of humor that is not funny.
These low-blow jokes first took the form of starfighter jockey Poe Dameron pretending to put the First Order Admiral Hux on hold, and making jokes at his expense while he prepares a daring charge against the entire enemy fleet with his lone X-Wing fighter. The idea of realism and risk is suspended from the scene when Poe turned a serious encounter into a weak comic scene.
At the crux of the silliness were the Porgs: The little alien birds inspired by real-life Puffins that led the marketing campaign as being this film’s token cute or quirky alien. These were the Ewoks of “Return of the Jedi,” or the Gungans of “The Phantom Menace,” or the BB-8 of “The Force Awakens.” One or two appearances of the Porgs would have sold their presence, but their appearances were too frequent, and they ended up oversaturating the film with their presence. The cute aliens were at their strongest when the iconic Chewbacca was about to eat a cooked Porg in front of a group of the birds, but the rest of their scenes fell flat and were intrusive.
The Last Jedi also suffered from its sometimes-anticlimactic scenes. Fans have always been in love with Princess Leia Organa, played by the late Carrie Fisher, who was a main character of the original trilogy. Because of the actress’ death last year, fans entered theaters expecting the director to kill off her character.
Johnson instead portrayed Leia as being sucked out into space to die, but then had her use the enigmatic Force to float back to safety. The scene, and every scene featuring Leia, built up the tragedy of this beloved character’s end, then ripped it from the grasp of the viewers in favor of bringing her back. Not only is this a disgrace to the character, but disrespectful to the memory of the actress, whose death should not be played with in the context of the film’s story. Either kill the character or let her live, don’t play with her.
Despite all the film’s negative aspects, there are several good things that saved “The Last Jedi” from being a terrible movie.
Every scene featuring Kylo Ren was a treat to the audience. Adam Driver, the actor who plays the junior Sith Lord, expanded on his acting and gave fans what they wanted from him. Kylo Ren was one of the only characters in this movie to truly show emotion, and the movie benefitted greatly from this.
The scenes involving his telepathic connection to Rey were intimidating, mysterious, and engaging. Johnson only vaguely flirted with the idea of using Kylo Ren as a protagonist, as opposed to an antagonist. It would have been nice to see this played with more, but it was satisfactory as it was.
Many fans were torn on the death of Luke Skywalker at the end of the film. After a dramatic buildup of Luke surviving numerous deathly encounters, such as being barraged by a volley of laser fire from the First Order and being cut in half by Kylo Ren’s iconic lightsaber, it is later revealed that Luke sent an astral projection of himself, as opposed to braving these perils in a killer sequence.
Instead of dying in battle, Luke has a peaceful and poetic death in the safety of the isolated planet of Ahch-To. Luke’s old cloak billowed off into the wind after his corporeal body faded into nothingness over a backdrop of the twin suns.
The scene of the little force-sensitive slave boy looking off into the stars has a similar take-away to the death of Luke. The whole ethos behind the concept of “The next generation is watching” gives nostalgic feelings that harken back to both Anakin and Luke Skywalkers’ origin stories and does the theme of “In with the new, out with the old” justice.
The best moment of the movie is the plot-twist where Kylo Ren and Rey are fighting side-by-side against Snoke’s bodyguards after the death of the Sith Lord. Even though one character is good and the other evil, the concept of transcending the morality-based plot of Star Wars and the two characters joining together against the common foe is strong.
Despite its controversy and torn fan base, “The Last Jedi” is a Star Wars film that has yet to distinguish itself as a positive or negative installment in the prestigious series as it sported aspects of both.