Angus Shaw reviews the latest divisive installment in the Star Wars universe
I always said this film would make it or break it when it comes to the supernova of Star Wars sequels exploding across our universe this decade. The Force Awakens got away with rehashing predictable plots and safe bets of perfectly crafted lines in order to drag everyone onboard the Disney train. Simply, because it was designed to resuscitate the franchise from the shaky history of its lackluster prequels: to be as open and accessible to audiences’ money as possible with low risk maneuvers. For Disney would be damned if one dime of returns from their whopping $4.05bn purchase of Lucasfilm would fall through the fingers of a single unsatisfied demographic.
Episode Seven was good because it didn’t need a striking plot: it needed to establish rich characters in a familiar galaxy far, far away, which the same nostalgic masses that birthed the success of the original trilogy would keep coming back to see grow. If anything, an adventurous, risky plot would have restricted it down a narrow path, turning people off from the getgo to never revisit.
However Disney would not get away with it again. The real test has come: with the whole world aboard the wagon, the conglomerate has to now do something radically different and spectacular with its epic, by expanding the franchise into new crevices of previously unexplored thought to make these new films even worth existing by having something new to add to the story.
So did the Last Jedi Succeed? Yes, yes it did. So much.
“the conglomerate has to now do something radically different and spectacular with its epic”
It must be infuriatingly difficult to find a hole to fill when it comes to Star Wars: surely everything has been done with its nine films’ metaphors about redemption, destiny, family, dark, light, sacrifice, duty, resurrection, and all the kinds of patronising words you’d find tattooed on your mate’s sleeve who just returned from backpacking in South-East Asia. But The Last Jedi simply turns every single one of these themes on its head, and instead poses the bleak question of is it all so black-and-white? What does it actually mean to be ‘light’ or ‘dark’, which previous Star Wars films have simply glorified as unquestionable destiny and prophecy?
Midway through this film, as the legendary Luke Skywalker burns down the last Jedi temple along with its archives in a rage over the true corruption of the ‘light side’, Yoda, sitting on a rock next to him, simply says “exactly pageturners, they were not”, and finishes the job himself. With the rulebook of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ thrown out the window, what follows is perhaps one of the most unpredictable and tense standoffs in Star Wars since the “I am your father” line, in which we just wait to see who will inevitably turn to the light or dark side first: protagonist Rey or antagonist Kylo Ren. With them both powerful, conflicted and angry about the lies of their own separate paths of light and dark, everyone standing in Supreme Leader Snoke’s throne room knows one of them will crack. And they both do. In a bolt of escapism from destiny, Kylo murders his Sith master, and him and Rey join forces to kill everything in the room to save each other. Rey reaches for Kylo’s hand in offer turn away from their destinies, to rule or abandon the galaxy without a predetermined path, and by the end we are left wondering if that’s indeed what will happen.
(END OF SPOILERS)
The notion of ‘the chosen one’ predictably fulfilling a predetermined prophecy because they are ‘special’ is shot to pieces through this film, and instead replaced with a galaxy in which any choice can be made at any moment by two leads who no longer believe the stories they were told. In a franchise becoming stale surrounded by thousands of incessant YouTube videos able to analyse and predict every single death, yawningly obvious triumphant ending and same-old struggle between the ‘bad guys’ and ‘good guys’, this reversal shakes it up and grips us with brand new concepts of turning away from destiny. After this film, I cannot even begin to predict the events of Episode Nine if I tried.
However aside from making Star Wars thematically fresh and mysterious again, the Last Jedi is not perfect. With the amazing and unique plot twists just before the finale, the subsequent ending sequence feels ultimately unnecessary and pointless in comparison. Being the longest ever Star Wars film to date, I see no reason why the last 20 minutes on a completely unrelated planet were not simply cut and fed into the opening of the ninth installment. The awesome messages of this film had already been delivered perfectly by this point, and it could go home then and there with the golden trophy of its 93% Rotten Tomatoes score. Nonetheless, the final sequence is visually spectacular and interesting, undoubtedly crafted as trailer-bait, but by no means essential.
On top of that, this film is lightly seasoned with absolutely mind bogglingly cartoonish choices in its tiniest details: Most last for a brief few seconds at a time, but there are a couple of seriously ludicrous things in what a character does or says (looking at you, Leia) which made me question what the hell I was watching, as well as my sanity. But once again, they were not necessarily vital to the plot, only slightly distracting.
The meat of the story essentially splits into the three quests of our heros Rey, Poe and Finn: The latter two fight to keep the last ranks of the Resistance alive as their ship flees the First Order while Rey embarks on a personal journey that twists her fate, until all three cross paths at an incredible climax aboard Snoke’s capital ship. While Rey and Poe’s narratives are exceptionally good, bringing new, unexpected reversals into frame airtight with difficult decisions, Finn’s takes a strange departure with bizarre scenes of a comically moustache-twirling casino and roller coaster rides aboard giant fluffy fox-like creatures. It is action packed, fun and designed to explore the ethical questions of the wider galaxy to give the consequences of characters’ choices more weight, but may too closely ride the line between wacky-cartoon and space-adventure for some. However this particular arc also sees a couple of interesting side characters and ultimately expands the universe’s boundaries: something which the previous film had no time to develop from its focus on the main trio.
It is a surprisingly fantastic installment that takes some radically refreshing departures from nostalgia that it desperately needed to do in order to survive as a film, rather than a tribute. The action and acting is even more stellar in this film than the last: especially with Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamil and Adam Driver expressing the shared theme of inner conflict with dangerous underlying power, keeping audiences guessing at what they will do next. A big complaint haunting the last film was protagonist Rey being a ‘Mary Sue’, i.e. able to do everything perfectly without challenge or tension. However in this film, fundamental thematic flaws are exposed in every single character: dragging them to the dirt in order to fight for what they, at least, ‘think’ they believe in.
“… this reversal shakes it up and grips us with brand new concepts of turning away from destiny”
This film has been insanely divisive among fans and critics, with one of the highest critical scores for a Star Wars film on Rotten Tomatoes yet also one of the lowest ratings for audiences. Let us not forget that The Empire Strikes Back, arguably one of the greatest Star Wars film, had no real theme, rules or expectations to keep to, and when it first came out even had worse reviews than A New Hope from how different it really was. The similar thing with The Last Jedi is you need to go into the cinema not expecting the film to suckle up to the same-old restrictive prisons of ‘destiny’, ‘hope’, ‘light’ and dark’. It blows these narrow-thinking concepts out the water and very much does its own thing, with characters making genuine and relatable choices rather than running by a scientific film formula dictating towards more of the predictability we have seen before.
The unexplored and fresh questions it brings to centre made me forget about all the other episodes for a couple of hours from how much the sequels can now truly stand on their own, and view The Last Jedi as a striking film about going against the grain in an epic universe where outcomes are usually set in stone.
The Last Jedi: 9/10