Spoilers for those living under a rock:
About half way through Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Benicio Del Toro as the weasely DJ says, “It’s all a machine, partner. Live free, don’t join.” And for the first time in the Star Wars history, it felt like the franchise was maturing. Allowing a character to acknowledge the light and the dark side as two warring sides of the same coin. Moving past the old-school simplicity that the modern Star Wars films had tethered themselves so tightly to. We got a realistic glimpse at the complexities of war, revealing the muddled morality in between. Star Wars was finally evolving, growing up. And then, shortly after the film’s release, the hardcore Star Wars fans rejected and backlashed against the movie’s attempt at change. Cue my most exaggerated face palming.
Back in December of 2015, Disney released their first Star Wars film under the house of mouse, The Force Awakens. I went into that movie with leveled expectations. I’ve never been a huge Star Wars fan, but I enjoyed the original trilogy and respected its place in film history. But now Disney had the rights, and The Force Awakens would be the first bold new step into uncharted territory. Surly the franchise would evolve in new hands. It had to. I would go so far as to say Disney had a genuine responsibility to deliver something as distanced as possible from the original trilogy. To inspire a brand-new generation with something never experienced before.
But to put it simply, The Force Awakens didn’t. The filmmakers instead chose the easiest route by making the movie a simple trip down nostalgia lane. A glorified homage to the very first Star Wars film. Instead of the filmmakers asking themselves, “Now that the rebels defeated the galactic empire after three movies, what now? What new stories can be explored so many years after the rebels won?” They chose instead to press the reset button and retread back to the rebels-as-underdogs plotline for easy accessibility. They didn’t even bother to explain why the rebels are back to square one, or how the First Order usurped their position. As long as the majority of the Star Wars fan base is wrapped tightly in their warm, fuzzy blanket of nostalgia, they won’t question it, right?
Needless to say, I was pretty disappointed, but even more disgruntled by the fact that The Force Awakens was largely accepted as a good movie. Sure, objectively, outside of context, it’s a solid flick. But, the fact that it crossed the finish line doesn’t mean cheating its way there shouldn’t have been ignored. I can go on about the dangers of nostalgia on the evolution of storytelling, but South Park already expertly executed that sentiment with the hilarious Member Berries of season twenty. Let’s just say I went into The Last Jedi with small-scale expectations. Like, quantum realm sized expectations.
But, The Last Jedi won me over. Rian Johnson brought a much-needed audacious attitude to the series. Instead of giving the audience all the nostalgia fuzzies they wanted, Johnson delivered a movie that questions the importance of the past, that encourages learning from the long-ago to pave way for a better new. To look forward, not backward. A message the franchise seriously needed to learn from.
The film’s greatest strengths can be found in just about every scene with Rey and Luke. Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill deliver. Big time. Script-wise, the scenes on Luke’s secluded island contain the most story meat as well. A lot of fans have complained about Luke’s old-man indifference, but to me it felt like we got the most raw and real version of Luke Skywalker yet. A perfect portrait of an old pessimist who lost all he used to believe in. Mark Hamill was allowed to delve deep for this, and it resulted in one of the best performances in his career. Rey is a great counterbalance. She’s the young optimist, but instead of having her just be female Luke again, this time we get to see her flirt with her dark side. Literally. Resulting in a compelling fear in the weathered Luke. In the early parts of the film you can’t help but wonder if Luke is right to remove himself from the conflict, maybe he’s justified in fearing Rey’s dark side. A compelling conundrum not often seen in Star Wars.
The movie gains even more traction when Rey and Ren finally come face to face. Much backlash comes from the twists that Rey’s parents are nobodies and Snoke is killed off faster than expected. But I’d argue these story turns are what make for an interesting movie. It baffles me that so many people want their Star Wars stories so cut and dry and predictable. A great story sets you up to think it’s going one way and then takes a quick diverging turn onto a new path. I would understand the negative fan response if Rey finding out her disappointing legacy was a gimmick that didn’t propel the story. But this is not the case. This reveal forces Rey to question her allegiances. She is truly challenged by Ren’s offer to stand together. The fact that this reveal has emotional character wait and is a bold and unexpected plot twist should be celebrated rather than rejected.
Despite loving the scene where Ren offers Rey a choice to join him, I must admit I felt the film should have gone all the way at this point. You can see the wheels turning in Rey’s head in that scene. Maybe the best change can come from her and Kylo joining forces, and she can use their relationship to turn him and the first order for the better. Maybe that would be the best way to save as many lives as possible. But just as fast as it introduces this intriguing encounter, the movie, almost insecurely, reverts back to the classic light vs dark angle. Where Rey chooses not to cross that line. But why can’t we have a character make a daring choice that can challenge viewers to debate morality. The drama that would result from Rey and Kylo ruling the galaxy, trying to navigate the grey waters of law and order, would be endlessly intriguing. The story potential would be limitless, and even more importantly, fresh. The Last Jedi made a point of breaking the traditional. But I say if it’s broke, break it all the way.
Some other aspects that didn’t work so well to me: Rose Tico’s involvement. The character serves a narrative purpose, but her portrayal just doesn’t feel real. She’s essentially a cardboard cutout there to communicate an ideal to Finn. No character flaws to be found. She’s obnoxiously altruistic and her side quest to save the racing species felt unnecessary and overly preachy. Also, the Porgs are cute, but when CG critters like these can be completely removed from a film with no effect on the narrative, their use for nothing more than “ah, how cute” moments becomes more blaringly apparent and shameful. And finally, people throw around the term, deus ex machina a lot these days, often without a proper understanding of the meaning. But, I can’t think of a better example of a deus ex machina moment than Leia gliding through space to avoid death. Apparently, she uses the force, but since when has the force ever worked like this? It would be one thing if the story returned to this as a significant point. But it happens, and is never mentioned again. A very bizarre choice.
Nostalgia has its place, but it’s important that it never be utilized as an effortless fall back in storytelling. Playing it safe to appease a particular fan base is never a worthy excuse, especially for a franchise with such momentous influence on the world. The Last Jedi may not land every beat, and it may be a bit apprehensive in its bold message, but the film’s hunger to evolve and move in a postmodern direction is certainly worth honoring.