A Hyperspace Ride Through The Star Wars Saga: The Last Jedi (2017)
If we’ve now established that The Force Awakens was derivative and unoriginal by design, the next step in discussing Star Wars’ sequel trilogy is to understand how The Last Jedi acts as a binary opposition. Where JJ Abrams fell on the past to re-familiarise us with the franchise, Rian Johnson’s sequel was more interested in stripping the series down to its core components, questioning them, rearranging them, and then finally presenting them back to us with complete and total reinvigoration. To put it very simply: The Last Jedi was everything the Star Wars franchise needed at that precise moment.
With his core cast divided following the end of Abrams predecessor, Johnson’s razor sharp script allows each of his heroic three to face their thematic values head on, and without distraction. We watch Poe Dameron learn what it truly means to be a hero – a figure we joyfully followed in The Force Awakens thanks to Abrams’ breakneck pacing and Oscar Isaac’s effortless charisma, in Johnson’s film we see him grapple with the violent and negative outcomes of his blind heroism. War isn’t something you win by jumping in an X-Wing and blowing something up, The Last Jedi argues. War is strategy, war is safety, war is the long game. Through his undermining of Vice Admiral Holdo’s ultimately successful plan, Poe is forced to accept his own missteps and face the reality that his actions, as heroic as they are, have deadly consequences.
Finn begins The Last Jedi stuck in the same headspace he began The Force Awakens: “I don’t want to fight”. Through his time on Canto Bight with Rose, and through Rose’s subtle reframing of his perspectives, we see Finn’s attitude change. War isn’t something you can run from, even the glittery and golden casino in the outer region suffers poverty and slave labour as a direct impact from the very fight Finn wants to flee. Boyega is excellent here, gradually peeling away at Finn’s boxed-in mind – where once a man wanted to run, now he wants to fight.
The effortlessness of Johnson’s script is that even with his characters split across the galaxy, he allows their thematic journeys to unfold in perfect harmony. Poe’s arc here comes to a head as an army of speeders charge into a pointless suicide mission, his newfound patience and understanding leading to him pulling the forces back – but Finn’s resolution now contrasts. Finn wants to fight, he’s willing to die for the cause – but Rose, still reeling from the loss of her sister from one of Dameron’s inadvertently catastrophic displays of heroism, prevents this. Crashing her speeder into Finn’s, she tells him how war is not won by destroying those you hate, but by saving those you love. It’s a lesson rooted in Star Wars mechanics and one that effortlessly ties together the various threads running through The Last Jedi.
Far away, on the remote island of Ahch-To, Rey stands before Jedi Master Luke Skywalker. Arm outstretched, lightsaber in hand, her journey feels complete already: bring back the Jedi Order. But the return of the Jedi isn’t of interest to Luke, and so begins Rey’s second journey – this time, it’s one of self-discovery. Rey doesn’t have much time for acceptance in The Force Awakens, only truly harnessing her powers in the final act, and so it falls upon The Last Jedi’s shoulders to begin Rey’s understanding of the force and acceptance of herself.
Her lineage was teased in The Force Awakens, but never explicitly talked about in-depth. Johnson’s decision to have Rey’s parents be revealed as no one important is a stunning one, an idea that feels entirely at home within his film but also compellingly subversive for the franchise as a whole. Continuing the film’s analysis of heroism, Rey’s arc here argues that a hero can come from anywhere, that simply the lack of a famous bloodline should not prevent you from realising your potential. The moment of acceptance shatters Rey, who – in an unforgettable bit of acting from Daisy Ridley – has clearly never felt more alone, but it also re-inspires her to go back to the fight and find her place there instead. Back on Ahch-To, Luke told Rey that the force isn’t about lifting rocks. But Rey will be damned if she’ll let that stop her lifting rocks to save her friends. Her family.
On the other end of the coin, but not too dissimilar, we find Kylo Ren. With the connection bridging him and Rey – a stroke of genius from Johnson – Ren’s inner monologue appears outwards, as he toys with his own past in which he was betrayed by a hero, thus began his descent to the dark side of the force. Kylo’s story here is also rooted in heroism, but initially, it’s less about being the hero of his own story and more focused on the act of idolatry. Ben Solo looked up to Luke Skywalker, and when that failed he became Kylo Ren and looked up to Snoke. Regretting not killing Luke in that fateful moment, when Snoke’s betrayal becomes apparent Kylo takes control of the situation. He slays his own master, but the most telling moment comes next: he doesn’t attempt to rule over Rey, nor follow her. He asks for them to rule together.
Rey’s rejection cuts to the core of Kylo’s turmoil, as if the history he idolises and the future he envisions himself is cut in two – a motif thrillingly visualised with the splitting in half of Anakin’s lightsaber when pulled from opposing forces. Soon confronted by General Hux, Kylo does what he does best: he avoids the truth, but this time he takes control and assigns himself the position of power he’d formerly be searching for in someone else. Kylo becomes the hero of his own story, and he takes the fight down to Crait for one final showdown. And what does he do? He fails. Once again, Johnson presents heroism and failure, hand in hand.
Burdened and shamed by his past, the Luke we find on Ahch-To is lost and closed off: a hero whose heroism we must again question, in a similar vein to what Johnson achieves with Poe in this film. Luke’s arc here is thrilling, even with the sadness that runs through it. Johnson allows our hero, the hero of a generation, to feel shame and regret, to have made a fatal mistake and have been unable to rectify it. We find our hero in a time of unprecedented crisis.
Putting its hero through the ringer like this is perhaps the most fascinating thing The Last Jedi achieves. In an era of endless franchise revivals and relentless, repetitive cinematic universes, for a franchise to substantially and organically grow it must truly examine its own fundamentals. With Luke Skywalker, Johnson strips the very concept of the Jedi down to its core values and redefines them for a new era. Failure, regret, shame. These are all okay, so long as you learn from them, pass them on to the next generation so they too can understand what it means to fail and thus what it means to succeed. The Luke we find at the beginning of The Last Jedi is hiding in a shack and completely alone. The Luke we find at the end of the film is facing down an entire army, inspiring a generation around the galaxy, and doing so with the truest and most powerful display of the Force the franchise has ever seen.
Growth is key to all narratives, but there’s something about Star Wars’ sweeping, multi-generational storytelling that demands it more than any other franchise. Without The Last Jedi, Star Wars would be stagnant. It would be relying on nostalgia, living through the past without saying anything new or innovative. I’m sure it would be perfectly entertaining, but it wouldn’t be necessary. The Last Jedi makes Star Wars necessary again, telling new stories in new ways but with a concrete, adamant understanding of what the franchise has always been about beneath the surface. Call me hyperbolic, but I think it’s just about the most brilliantly conceived and stunningly executed franchise film we’ve had in a very long time.