Thirty-seven years ago, The Empire Strikes Back subverted audience expectations by taking the story and characters in new directions that, for lack of better word, no one saw coming. Han Solo was frozen in carbonite late in the movie, and Luke Skywalker lost his right hand in the lightsaber duel with Darth Vader that revealed his biological connection to the man beneath the mask. Empire itself had a divided reaction, with some viewers angry that Darth Vader was Luke’s father, or that Han had been frozen, but thanks to the lack of internet in 1980, this division was nowhere near as caustic as it is now. Today, The Empire Strikes Back is lauded for the geoundbreaking risks it took in evolving the characters and story, and one would assume the risks involved in the storytelling of The Last Jedi would be received similarly. Oddly enough, it’s even more divisive than any if us could have expected, and thanks to the social media’s manner of letting every voice be heard no matter how asinine it may be, this division is infinitely more caustic.
I know a lot of my fellow Star Wars fans went into The Last Jedi with their own fan theories and fictions bouncing around in their minds, and their expectations understandably high. This is Star Wars after all. It’s okay if you didn’t like the movie for a variety of reasons, from the performances to the CGI to the score. It’s also perfectly okay if you loved this movie for the same reasons other seem to hate it. However, calling a movie “bad”, or claiming it has ruined your childhood because your fan theories didn’t pan out, isn’t well thought out, rationally minded criticism, and it doesn’t make a movie bad. That’s not how cinema works. This hyperbole laced tantruming makes me appreciate the rational conversations I’ve had with others who don’t like the movie, or don’t like it as much as I do, all the more. Remember folks, it’s just a movie.
I have seen The Last Jedi twice. Once for the experience of seeing the movie for the first time loud and writ large, the second to see if my reaction was strengthened or weakened by an additional viewing. After the second viewing, I came to the conclusion that most of the problems I had with the movie had dissappeared, and I was left with just one gaping problem that I simply can’t overlook. Thankfully, the rest of the movie built around that singular problem more than make up for the damages. I am happy to report that while it may not be my favourite entry in the series (I don’t know which one is, to be truthful), it is certainly beloved by me. Warts and all, I adore this motion picture.
By now you should may know the basic plot of the eighth film in the Skywalker saga. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) are battling the First Order in wide open space. Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) head to a gorgeous new locale known as Canto Bight to acquire assistance in fighting the First Order. And Rey (Daisy Ridley) is confined to Ahch-To, trying desperately to persuade a reluctant Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join the battle against The First Order and put an end to Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) reign. That’s not saying too much, is it?
The gaping problem I was referring to in an earlier paragraph comes in the form of the plot thread involving Finn and Rose and their adventure of sorts to Canto Bight. The events that unfold here are do not affect the main narrative of the movie, and only seem to affect the characters involved in this plot in the moment, or soonly. I appreciate being shown how rich war profiteers live, how their intense gambling and partying also seem second nature to them by the time we meet them. It’s a shame then that their modes of gambling are too Earth-like, lacking any real imagination or creativity.
I also took issue with the character of Rose, who I didn’t find to be a compelling character, and whose portrayal by Kelly Marie Tran lacked chemistry between herself and John Boyega (Finn). Had Rose’s arc ended shortly after she stuns Finn into a brief slumber, I would have been okay with it, but because Rian Johnson instead pairs her up with Finn, I felt like I was forced to suffer through watching a vaguely interesting character without a worthwhile character arc, who is as out of place in this movie as a Deadpool cameo would have in this year’s Logan. The forced and otherwise jarring and completely unnecessary romantic desire Rose holds for Finn (but he doesnt seem to reciprocate in the slightest), conjured up on the salty grounds of Crait that causes her to crash her speeder into his while he’s attempting a suicide run against a powerful First Order weapon, is as asinine as saying this movie ruined your childhood. It’s all fine entertainment, but this sole portion of the movie is its greatest weakness.
There’s plenty of greatness to be found elsewhere, but for my money’s worth, I found true greatness in three places. Firstly, the elongated opening scene, once the action kicks in after a couple of humourous gags, is a frontrunner for the best space battle in Star Wars film history, especially becausit contains a brilliant white knuckling sequence where Rose’s soon to be deceased sister Paige (Veronica Ngo) has to recover a device that will allow her to drop the enormous payload of bombs aboard the ship she’s on. Secondly, there is the popular throne room fight scene around three quarters of the way through the movie, wherein Rey and Kylo face off against Snoke’s well trained private guards. It’s a dazzling, inventive, and thrilling action scene, bound for iconic status in no time at all. And lastly, there’s the scene near the very end of the film in which Luke Force projects himself onto the battlefield of Crait to distract Kylo while the remaining Resistance fighters escape the clutches of the hell bent Sith, before Luke is revealed to still be on Ahch-To. He seemingly becomes one with the Force and peacefully vanishes into the air. That he does so to the tune of John Williams’ beautifully composed and iconic Binary Sunset track from Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope), made the moment all the more moving and powerful for this fan, whose favourite scene in Star Wars is in fact the original Binary Sunset, though this scene sure gives it a run for its money.
In the opening line of his review for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, the late movie critic Roger Ebert offered up the following sentiment: “If it were the first “Star Wars” movie, “The Phantom Menace” would be hailed as a visionary breakthrough. But this is the fourth movie of the famous series, and we think we know the territory; many of the early reviews have been blase, paying lip service to the visuals and wondering why the characters aren’t better developed. How quickly do we grow accustomed to wonders,”. That quote has stuck with me like dirt under my fingernails, and I can’t help but apply its unwavering logic to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. My mind wanders to the finale of my favourite movie of last year, La La Land, which posed a delightful what-could-have-been sequence, an alternate timeline if you will. Perhaps in another timeline of our human history, The Last Jedi was the first of the Star Wars movies, lauded by many for generations to come, and praised for the risks it took in creating something new and unique. Perhaps not. Who knows what could have been.