Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)
Director: Rian Johnson
Screenwriter: Rian Johnson
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac
Rey and Kylo have an interaction through their Force Connection at 1 hour and 11 minutes into The Last Jedi. It’s a simple scene that was deftly handled compared to any sort of similar scene from the Prequels. First, there’s the concept of the Force Connection in the first place. The editing shows the viewer how the character sees the interaction through their different locations, rather than showing a vision manifesting in a single location through special effects. Rey’s setting is dark with sharp, jagged rocks surrounding her, representing her inner conflict and darkness. The tight shots really show this off in some beautifully constructed work. Kylo is shirtless in his quarters, it’s a plain honesty that comes through in his dialogue and attitude. The shapes in his establishing shots are rounder and softer than Rey’s, perhaps showing Kylo’s seeming acceptance of his place.
The opening lines establish the involuntary nature of this connection and how they are perceiving each other from their own perspective, and begin to move into conflict. Rey can’t understand why Kylo would hate and murder his own father, but Kylo asserts that family is weakness. He shows Rey a vision of the time Luke contemplated killing him (a hard cut and lack of narration tells us she can see it, too), and the tension swells. Cutting back to the scene, Kylo moves forward again, delivering the most important line of the film: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.”
Star Wars as a franchise is in a weird place; Marvel’s universe approach has changed the common idea of what film franchises are, kids who watched the Prequels growing up are teens or adults, and the new executives don’t seem to have a united vision on what Star Wars is or where it’s going. Everything Disney has made is set in a time around the events of the movies, some of them leaning heavily on nostalgia to put off actually making a reasonable move forward. The Last Jedi reads as an attempt to try and move forward while playing within limits and balancing the old with the new.
Do I love everything in this movie? No. But, I do think everything feels like it belongs in a Star Wars story. Saving the creatures on the casino planet may seem silly, but the thematic elements are right in line with Star Wars’ ideas about fighting against oppression. Poe’s goofy joke at the beginning is acceptable in the realm of the Star Wars movie, which have always had an element of humor to them. Maybe I’m being too dismissive, but there is so much good to the film that I don’t care about what ultimately comes down to personal taste.
Rey’s journey shows similarities to Luke’s time with Yoda. It delves into the mystical elements of the Jedi, one of the key components of any good piece of Star Wars media featuring Force users. She has a lot to learn about the Force, and it’s immediately clear that she is powerful. Her first session, in which she sits on a cliffside and feels the island around her through the Force, does such a good job of immersing the audience into her feelings. The montage of images is combined with the perfect music, and we feel the warmth, life, cold and darkness that she mentions. She ends on a hole filled with creeping roots that draws her with its dark energy, and it’s easily one of the coolest images in the movie. I’m also going to use this space to praise the Leia scene, which shows us the potential power of an unaware Force sensitive character. It happened, it’s canon, accept it like I have to accept Yoda and Sidious performing acrobatics.
Rian Johnson and his collaborators did an incredible job with the production and set design that feels perfectly cohesive with other films. Costumes are similar to the Imperial era without being the exact same, and the outfits in the casino are imaginative stand-ins for its black tie style. Snoke’s throne room is striking and stands out among the great sets in the history of the franchise. There’s also the design of Crait’s salty surface that plays into the brilliance of the finale, Luke’s final act of heroism.
Perhaps the greatest, and most controversial, part of the film is the reveal of Rey’s parentage and Snoke’s death…
These moments capture the attitude of “let the past die”. Snoke wasn’t a character in the movies, he was an analogue for Palpatine that lurked as a mystery. His importance lies in what he did prior to the movies, while this story is really about Kylo as the antagonist. Rey’s parentage may have been a fun point of speculation, but Star Wars doesn’t need soap opera connections. In fact, Rey functions better as a representation of the audience this way; a nobody. Someone far away from these events that heard about them through stories. It also allows her to be her own person dealing with her unique set of issues that contrast with Kylo’s.
Johnson was wise to trim the fat from the story. It allowed him to focus on giving the characters adventures to partake in, and getting the themes of wonder, possibility and change into the story. This is reinforced with the indentured servant stable boy at the end using the Force to get his broom, showing that it really is possible for anyone to become an important part of the stories we see.
Of course, the structure of the film may not be “new”. It’s a new version of Rebels versus Empire and parallels Empire Strikes Back, but I think that fault needs to be placed on the producers and JJ Abrams. The Force Awakens created this dynamic, and it’s clear Star Wars isn’t ready to let go of the period of between Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi. The best way to make a movie that feeds on nostalgia and doing the same thing is to acknowledge that shortcoming.
Where will Star Wars go in the future? Are there going to be any changes in management? Will there be conversations at Disney and Lucasfilm about the fundamental nature of Star Wars? When are we going to finally get a movie that takes place in a new era, or features some new character roles and dynamics? Can Star Wars work with a cinematic universe model, or does it need to stay as a simpler, event-driven property? Only time will tell, but if there isn’t an attempt to let the past die and move the franchise forward from the Skywalker era, Star Wars will become the stale, crappy property people think The Last Jedi is. I’d love to see Rian Johnson work with a blank slate and check because the dude knows how to make movies.