[This post contains spoilers for the film.]
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, the sequel to 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, was written before “The Force Awakens” was released. Writer-director Rian Johnson was not given any sequel set-up by “The Force Awakens” director J. J. Abrams, Disney, or the “Lucasfilm Story Group” who oversee “Star Wars” since George Lucas sold it to Disney in 2012. “I’m sure they talked about where it [the sequel trilogy of films] might go early on, but when they came to me there was no mapped story presented beyond [The Force Awakens]” says Johnson.
Johnson clearly wanted to say something with “The Last Jedi”, instead of just going through the “Star Wars” motions. Indeed, the film is filled with subversions of “Star Wars” storytelling – there is no lightsaber-on-lightsaber battle in the film, most endeavours by the main characters end in failure, the good-vs-evil conflict at the centre of the series is scrutinised and critiqued (as are “Star Wars” hallmarks like the Jedi order), and the very star of the franchise Luke Skywalker is depicted as a washed-up failure for most of the runtime.
“The Force Awakens” coasted by on the sheer frenetic energy of having “Star Wars” back at all. What’s more, it was back in crowd-pleasing form, Disney fare, instead of through Lucas’ independent prequel trilogy very much a product of his own peculiar vision. A proper sequel series to the original 1970s-1980s “Star Wars” films, with the original cast back, it wasn’t that outlandish that Disney and director J. J. Abrams scrapped the story treatments for a sequel trilogy Lucas sold Disney along with the rights to “Star Wars”, and instead went with the most crowd-pleasing fare possible – recycling the story of the original, massively successful 1977 “Star Wars” film. A soft reboot in this style, gently rejigging the universe back to how it used to be and serving up a lot of what people enjoyed about “Star Wars” originally made sense in that regard, but the further the series would go, the more shallow a move that would seem. This is compounded by the fact Johnson, with “The Last Jedi”, had to write a sequel to a movie that he hadn’t seen (indeed, it wouldn’t come out for months after Johnson began writing the script for “The Last Jedi”), filled with story beats he had no input on. “The Force Awakens” feels like fanfiction in the sense that it’s filled with shallow characters carrying out a redux of an original work’s story, but “The Last Jedi” feels like fanfiction in the sense it disregards the preceding story material the writer was less fond of (the typical Abrams mystery boxes, like Rey’s parents and the character of Snoke, Han Solo, the mystical setup around Luke Skywalker, Finn’s journey) and veers in adulatory directions based off favourite characters (Rey and Kylo Ren’s burgeoning relationship) and new material thematically adrift from the earlier work (critiquing the good-vs-evil thematics behind “Star Wars”, capitalist critique, animal and child abuse, arms trading, etc.).
This is not necessarily an entirely bad thing. After all, the original “Star Wars” trilogy was reportedly far less planned than Lucas likes to make out in his revisionist-history style recounts flipping between there being multiple “Star Wars” films extensively planned from the get-go. The original films were iterative (Darth Vader wasn’t originally planned to be Luke’s father after all) and the product of many voices working collaboratively.
The film tries to have its cake and eat it too, offering a grey synthesis to the Jedi/Sith thesis-antithesis (a binary opposition that the sequel films themselves, for the record, codified, since there was no “light side of the Force” before the first “The Force Awakens” teaser referenced it – previously, the spirituality of “Star Wars” played to a more eastern understanding without such diametric good/evil oppositions) but falling back into the same old oppositions by the end. The film went so subversive at points that this doesn’t work so well, leaving me with a vaguely uneasy feeling, as the problems it raised were too complicated to be dismissed by trite dialogue back in the style of the earlier “Star Wars” films. Luke can’t exactly just say “I am not the last Jedi” (cue cut to Rey) when the film took down the Jedi and Luke so viciously without appropriately building them back up that would have enabled an earned reconstruction. Johnson can’t exactly return to the empire vs rebel dynamic so triumphantly at the end when it was taken down with so much political realism in the second act of the film (Benicio Del Toro’s “DJ” character literally explaining the profit motives behind arms trading and why perpetual conflict benefits those with the funds to help perpetuate it, and the depravity to want to do so). Rey can’t exactly just have squirrelled away the ancient Jedi texts in a way to reassure the audience and have us see her as a modern, synthesised version of a Jedi, taking lessons from the old with style of the new, after Yoda and Luke’s conversation (a bizarre scene which seemed to mistake Yoda’s feigned performance in “The Empire Strikes Back” as his actual character – is it so surprising to see the film literally misread the series’ past?) so brutally tore down the worth of such prior wisdom. Johnson breaks his toys well enough, but he just vaguely gestures at them being put back together, without having done any of the actual work to justifiably do so, or without going so far as to build new toys outright. Rey actually turning to the “dark side” with Kylo would have been a legitimately new direction (and Rey’s bizarrely unremarked-upon behaviour, so aggressive towards Luke and dismissive of morality beyond herself, never goes anywhere), the Resistance/Rebels actually losing at the end would have been a legitimately new approach, Finn dying, Kylo actually progressing beyond inner conflict, anything beyond a superficial takedown then reenactment of earlier “Star Wars” tropes.
The prequel films violated the continuity of the original films in some ways (like Leia’s account of remembering her mother in “Return of the Jedi” being invalidated in “Revenge of the Sith”), and violated thematic underpinnings of the original trilogy in others (reducing the Force to ostensibly the product of microorganisms, “midichlorians”, instead of a more universal, spiritual energy), but they broadly shared the same thematic and tonal underpinnings, sometimes even to bizarre extents (Lucas wanting the actors to emulate the style of films thirty years prior to the style of films he was emulating with the original trilogy). But the level of plot and lore contrivances in “The Last Jedi” is strange, aspects like the stunning-looking hyperspace ram performed by Admiral Holdo upon Snoke’s spaceship making so much of the previous films fall apart. Why didn’t the Rebels hyperspace ram an unmanned X-wing into the Death Star in “Star Wars”? Why didn’t the Empire just ram the generator on Hoth in “The Empire Strikes Back”? Or the shield generator on Endor? Why didn’t the Resistance hyperspace ram Starkiller base in “The Force Awakens”? In “The Last Jedi” itself, why didn’t the First Order just ram the little base the Resistance (or Rebels, as the film began to literally rebrand them as towards the end) towards the end? The film never stops to offer any answers to any lore questions in this sense, and it’s only when let go of the film’s pace that issues like that start to linger. Why didn’t Admiral Holdo just tell her plan (a plan entirely nullified by the mere existence of windows, which her secret ships could clearly be seen out of)?
Perhaps the best way to understand and even appreciate the film is to not treat it as a “Star Wars” sequel at all. Luke’s actor Mark Hamill has described taking this approach, finding the film’s take on Luke simply too at odds with his characterisation in the earlier films to brook (would Luke consider murdering his nephew, sequester himself away from a galaxy in peril, brush over his friend Han Solo’s death?). “I said to Rian, “Jedis don’t give up’. I mean, even if [Luke[ had a problem, he would maybe take a year to try and regroup, but if he made a mistake, he would try to right that wrong, so right there, we had a fundamental difference. But it’s not my story anymore, it’s somebody else’s story, and Rian needed me to be a certain way to make the ending effective. That’s the crux of my problem. Luke would never say that. I’m sorry….Well, in this version…see, I’m talking about the George Lucas ‘Star Wars’, this is the next generation of ‘Star Wars’. I almost had to think of Luke as another character. Maybe he’s ‘Jake Skywalker’, he’s not my Luke Skywalker. But I had to do what Rian wanted me to do because it serves the story well. Listen, I still haven’t accepted it completely, but it’s only a movie”. Perhaps it’s notable that Hamill signed on for sequel films back when Lucas owned “Star Wars”, not Disney.
Revolving so much of the film around failure was an interesting choice (one the script didn’t always ably support, mostly in Holdo and Poe’s spotty subplots and Luke’s offbeat characterisation), and the biggest “failure” of the film (Finn and Rose’s sideshoot adventure to the casino planet Canto Bight) is in some ways one of its greatest strengths. It’s completely adrift from the film as “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”, but it captures some of the creativity and oddball sense of novelty and innovation of the prequels. The Justin Theroux cameo was a particular highlight. The material around the disadvantaged children and animals fit bizarrely with the rest of the film (not to mention series) in terms of tone and thematics, but worked on its own terms (even playing into less well-articulated aspects like Luke sequestering himself because of the never-ending conflict of good and evil). I enjoyed Johnson doing his own thing, as it were, in subplots like this, more than his half-hearted subversions of “Star Wars” through aspects like Luke’s characterisation or reverting the universe back to the same empire vs rebels setup of decades past. Even then, when Johnson actually hits his themes hard enough (like Luke gulping down coloured milk grotesquely in perhaps the film’s most pointed refutation of “Star Wars” nostalgia), there’s a peculiar, inviting magic to it, but it falls apart when the film hollowly just reverts back to typical “Star Wars” fare at the end, nothing more than superficial subversions, but a tad too viscous to make the endings feel comfortable. The script feels undercooked too, so many contrivances and logical gaps and moments where it felt like Johnson was writerly trying to force characters into certain positions he hadn’t really justified (where the film takes Luke in the end stands out the most here). Even actors like Laura Dern and Mark Hamill can’t surmount that. Rey and Kylo Ren’s relationship works best (I particularly liked how Johnson used basic cinematic language to portray their Force bond conversations, that was clever and cinematic), until the film chickens out on doing anything daring with it. The most interesting answer it can come up with is “nothing”, its response to the mystery boxes J. J. Abrams set up in “The Force Awakens”.
Ultimately, perhaps “nothing” is all that can be invested in a universe that has already invalidated the original films through regressing the galaxy to the same empire vs rebels standoff the heroes Luke, Han, and Leia spent a saga triumphing over. What’s the point in investing in a new go-around with new characters if those behind the franchise have no issue undoing story beats just to prop up endless content? Perhaps it’s best to not think of “Star Wars” as a series of films now so much as just another egg in the basket of Disney brand recognition. If a film that nullifies any story developments to regress everything back to a decades-old status quo that’s proven very marketable can be hailed as groundbreaking and subversive, then they’re certainly skilled enough to sell anything. “Star Wars” is in a timeless limbo that can endlessly support the same types of merchandise and stories proven highly marketable.
The film has its merits. Johnson is a capable filmmaker. Most of the cast is good, some are even very good. The score is a paltry effort compared to the heights Williams hit with the original and prequel trilogy (and lacks even some of the brilliance of his “The Force Awakens” score, like the evocative Rey theme), but paltry Williams is still leagues better than so many other scores. Some of the visuals of the film are fantastic, though Johnson has the frustrating habit of never iterating on them – the Lynch’s Twin Peaks meets Kurosawa’s Kagemusha visuals of Snoke’s throne room are shot the exact same way every time, the initially breathtaking red/white visuals of the ships on the salt plains of Crait are shot the exact same way every time, the stunning island of Skellig Michael is underutilised and covered in CGI eyesores, and so on. A universe that once felt so big feels so small here. I don’t think “Star Wars” was an appropriate property to really deconstruct in this way, and while Disney certainly has the money and competence to perpetually extend more and more films out of a franchise that couldn’t support them in its original conception, the contortions necessary to make that universe fit for such endless content end up violating so much of what made that universe so captivating and successful in the first place. Half-heartened social commentary and injection of “grey” politics and morality, before hastily pulling back on those points, doesn’t feel daring so much as like a cowardly attempt at looking different, the marketing’s red motif writ large. The worst, clumsiest aspect of this is the film’s Marvelesque humour, constantly undercutting itself with endless equips that distort all characters into the indistinct, snarky caricature. The original and prequel films had heart, so much heart, so much earnestness, and weren’t ashamed of it. They were funny, and they were heartfelt. The gags here are a less elegant style of humour of a more cynical age. That modern sense of humour conflicts with the naive fairytale timelessness of the earlier films, it’s too contemporary and self-aware – any attempt to “modernise” “Star Wars” is misguided because it was always the product of past times, of Flash Gordon serials and offbeat Kurosawa films and early twentieth-century cinema, not other action-adventure-comedy cinematic peers. Perhaps Disney can build something new and interesting out of those ruins, but at what point is “Star Wars” no longer “Star Wars”? If Johnson answered anything with this film, perhaps it was that. Two speeders, and a broom.