I: On Stakes, and Visuals
The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film that actually feels like a war with widespread stakes that could be felt. It’s not lifeless droids, disposable clones or unseen populations feeling the burden of war but rather real thinking feeling human beings. This ups the emotional stakes behind the film aided by Rian Johnson’s direction who at least visually speaking composes the best looking Star Wars entry to date.
While certainly not up to the visual prowess of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk per say in its harsh and jarring depiction of war, It is nonetheless impressive for a Star Wars film, that in the past has had issues with doing too much (Lucas and his over-indulgent use of CGI in both the prequels and remastered originals) or too little (budgetary concerns + technological limitations of the time hampering the originals despite its impressive feats under such constrictions). A central theme for this film and the franchise as a whole has been balance. The balance between good and evil, the light and the dark side and what is immediately striking about The Last Jedi is how it finds a balance between tradition and ambition in its visual aesthetic.
A common criticism against The Force Awakens was that it was essentially a modern era reboot of A New Hope. While these criticisms were made largely in reference to the film’s narrative, much of the same can be said of the world presented in The Force Awakens. From locations to the revamped versions of the Death Star, Cantina and even the Millennium Falcon itself – all these set pieces while bearing a fresh coat of paint have been visited before. Nostalgia and overwhelming excitement for the long-awaited return of the franchise allowed The Force Awakens to overcome such issues but that would not be the case again with The Last Jedi. Thankfully Johnson delivers introducing exotic locales like Canto Bight – Star Wars’ own version of Las Vegas (in space) and a full-fledged look at the island Luke has taken refuge in. Each of these locations features their own unique inhabitants from the delightful Porgs to the vulptices (the crystal foxes seen in the trailer) invoking the sense that these events were indeed happening in an expansive diverse galaxy rather than a never-ending cycle of replicant planets.
II: Poetry in Motion
But it is not just the new surroundings that make The Last Jedi feel fresh, it’s the kinetic energy that Johnson has infused from the opening battle and beyond that gives it an edge. That is not to say that J.J Abrams lacks talent as a filmmaker – The Force Awakens is still thoroughly enjoyable and certainly possesses shots worthy of admiration – however, it is a film chained to tradition that plays its hand very passively. The Last Jedi, on the other hand, pushes forward at a breakneck pace amplifying everything the series has done both in scope and technique. The space battles here are a series best (thus far) and the lightsaber battles move with a greater sense of controlled fluidity that finds the correct middle ground between the primitive choreography of the original trilogy and the all-out incoherent chaos that plagued the prequels.
Star Wars is known for running concurrent storylines running in parallel with one another, the latest entry is no different except this time the narrative splits in more directions than ever before. Impressively Johnson is able to juggle all these strands efficiently whilst maintaining its fervent motion forward. To accomplish this each arc is constructed with two things in mind:
1. Subversion of audience expectation
2. A tie into the overarching theme that ultimately allows all these separate arcs to unify under a central message.
However, efficiency does not necessarily always constitute effectiveness. There are instances that feel unearned both in terms of character and plot progression. This is a negative byproduct of Johnson’s need to satisfy fanbase expectation and answer the many loose ends left behind by The Force Awakens. Inevitably some of these answers will be red herrings meant to add mystery to the franchise and some will be built on further in future installments/spinoffs but almost assuredly some fans will be left unsatisfied by the answers Johnson chose to give (or didn’t give at all).
Speaking to that point, here you see the two different approaches to “mystery box” theory that Abrams discussed in his TED talk (which you can watch on the right) engaging his audiences by teasing answers to a continuous series of mysteries. He has done this throughout his career most prominently with the television series LOST but also with The Force Awakens.
TFA is full of mystery boxes, who are Rey’s parents? What is Luke doing on the island? Who is Snoke? These were some of the major mysteries that Abrams deliberately left unsolved at the conclusion of Episode VII. Clearly, these were effective as fan speculation and countless theories all of varying degrees of credibility ran rampant in the lead up to Last Jedi. Rian Johnson’s approach differs from Abrams falling in line with the second type of mystery box – what the audience thinks they are getting versus what they actually get or the act of subversion.
Every major plot point in The Last Jedi subscribes to this theory. Twists are present at every juncture accounting for some of the film’s best moments because each scene is set to have an expected outcome but ends up punctuating with an unexpected result. What stops Johnson from going full Shyamalan (the act of including a twist just to have a twist) though, is the unity of all these separate threads through one central overarching theme: Hope.
Beyond just The Last Jedi, hope is the overarching theme for Star Wars as a whole. Anakin was supposed to be the chosen one, the hope for humanity to rid the world of evil. Luke was a new hope, the one meant to restore balance to the force and Rey is the latest chosen one tasked with succeeding where both her predecessors failed. The message extends throughout in varying manifestations across the film. Whether that’s possessing hope for the future in escaping the sins of the past, manufacturing hope through sacrifice and struggle or hope against seemingly insurmountable odds; hope is the driving force of The Last Jedi and the ability to maintain hope is what gives us strength.
V: I AM ONE WITH THE FORCE AND THE FORCE IS WITH ME
Is that enough though? For some, maybe it’s not and that’s understandable because the pay-off (on the surface) is not as mind-bending as the hype would have led you to believe. To that end, it must be acknowledged that replicating an “I Am Your Father” level shock is an impossible feat to match. In this day and age, such a surprise just doesn’t exist anymore, we are too interconnected, too well trained in the basic narrative structure for such a widespread cataclysmic effect to occur anymore.
In not providing sufficient answers to many of the questions The Force Awakens left behind, is The Last Jedi a failure? No, If anything the major reveal in this film reinforces the central theme of the film moreso than any other action over its run time. There is no one new hope because as the film suggests time and time again, we all must have hope.