Review by John Keegan

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Warning: There will be SPOILERS!


When the first new Star Wars film hit theaters in 2015, even the most generous of fans pointed out that it tred familiar ground.  Many blamed JJ Abrams, who has made a career out of taking nostalgia and reshaping it, sometimes with little or no revision in the process.  But some asked if it was simply a matter of playing things safe, and longed to see a Star Wars film that stretched outside of the familiar confines of the franchise.  While “Rogue One” was a step in that direction, many looked to “The Last Jedi” for a sign that Star Wars could do more than retell the same familiar stories, again and again.

 


 

More than simply seeking to fulfill that promise, “The Last Jedi” takes that philosophy and makes it an inherent part of the story.  First and foremost is the theme of breaking the patterns and cycles of the past.  There is an ongoing tension of honoring what has come before without becoming trapped in the fear of moving beyond it.  And as much as this is meaningful to the characters, it’s equally meant for the audience.  To grow, one must minimize expectation and live in the now.

 

This is built into the DNA of the new trilogy.  Should the story be about the previous generations and worship of the established heroes of the original trilogy, or should it be about the next generation and what they need?   Kylo Ren is chided early on for his inability to let go of the trappings of his grandfather and chart his own destiny, and it’s a valid criticism.  What’s most ironic is that he is told this by Snoke, who is literally trying to bring back the Empire in a slightly new guise.

 

 


 

But it’s not so different on the other side of the equation.  Rey is trapped in the expectation that she will be trained as a Jedi by the famous Luke Skywalker, but Luke is himself still caught in the grip of his own regret and remorse.  Luke comes to a surprisingly dark conclusion: that he must be the last of the Jedi, because the Jedi themselves helped fuel and perpetuate everything that went wrong in the galaxy.  And frankly, he’s right; if nothing else, the prequels show us that the Jedi brought about their own end and countless worlds suffered as a result. 

 

Luke’s recriminations reduce down to a more personal level, however.  The truth about what happened with Ben at Luke’s new Jedi academy is a testimony to living in the past.  Luke is so terrified at the idea that the darkness within Ben might turn him into a monster that he brings about the very thing he fears.  He can’t bear to impart his teachings and let Ben find his own path, and that plunges the galaxy in another cycle of the familiar old conflict.

 


 

Luke went to self-imposed exile to let the Jedi die with him, regardless of the cost to everyone else.  Why not just tear it all down entirely?  It’s a tempting perspective, and one echoed by Kylo Ren at a crucial point at the end of the second act.  But as true a necessity as it might be, it is also incomplete.  Simply living to dismantle the dogmas of the past is still living in the past.  To serve the present and the future, one must learn from the failures of the past and forge something better out of them.  The Jedi don’t need to die; they need to be reborn by a new generation with the freedom to honor what was yet evolve into something potentially better.

 

It might fail, but that is also a message of the film.  If Kylo and Luke are trapped in familiar cycles and try to break out of them, Leia is already showing the wisdom of adaptability and trying her hardest to teach those with potential to see past dying for vengeance and immediate wars to serving a higher purpose.  She wants Poe to be more than just a war hero or an awesome pilot; she wants him to be an inspiring leader.  And that’s because she knows that she and other familiar faces of the Rebellion must ultimately step aside to let the new voices of hope be heard.  And that can’t happen if those new voices can’t learn from adversity and failure.

 


 

It’s all very much rooted in classical mythological and storytelling tropes, and as one might suspect, the key difference between the heroes and villains of the story is their ability to embrace this message.  Kylo doesn’t understand that “killing one’s parents” is a metaphor and seeks only to take command of a world soaked in the trappings of former glory.  The Rebellion turns its face to new sources of hope not just because it’s the only path for survival, but because relying on the resources of the past is simply not enough.  A society built on slavish worship of an idealized past will consume itself in the pursuit of ever-elusive former glories that can never be matched, because the flawless perfection of the past never truly existed.

 

The acceptance of failure, and learning from it, is important to accepting some elements of the plot.  Some subplots and missions don’t work out, and there is a temptation to declare that this is bad writing.  In the larger context, however, such criticisms appear to miss the point.  Finn and new hero Rose spend a lot of time on a mission that Poe helps initiate, and it falls apart completely.  Was it a waste of time?  Not to the characters, for certain; they are doing what they think will provide a convenient solution to their problem, and it turns out that a typical action-movie gambit is foolhardy at best and disastrous at worst.  But the criticism is also only valid in hindsight, and exposes a belief that failure holds no value.  Leia points out otherwise: failure happens, and you have to be able to adapt.  The film itself provides the retort to the criticism.

 


 

That’s not to say that the film is flawless.  One reason that the subplot for Finn feels like a lost opportunity of screen time is that the writers continue to write the character as hapless comic relief.  Finn is constantly saddled with silly moments and one-liners, much as was the case in “The Force Awakens”, and John Boyega still struggles to make those moments work with the same casual effortlessness as Oscar Isaac.  Even Daisy Ridley manages to play some comedic beats more convincingly.  Finn is just not getting the kind of good material that Poe and Rey enjoy, and considering Poe wasn’t even supposed to still be alive at this point, that’s troubling.  One could also say that Finn’s story here serves Poe’s growth more than his own, and since humor is often subjective, giving him the more slapstick moments can make his scenes grating.

 

The overall injection of humor is also a weakness, particularly in the first act.  It’s nothing new; “The Force Awakens” introduced a brand of humor that had been absent from Star Wars, and this is even more of the same.  But some beats are played too broadly and it flirts with descent into farce.  There’s a sense that much of this is meant to misdirect the audience into assuming the film will have a lighter tone, but it undercuts characters like Hux to a surprising degree.  Hux is definitely too self-important to be left unscathed, but it becomes impossible to take his less humorous moments seriously when he’s made into a joke at the onset.

 


 

In the end, it’s not hard to see why the film is already polarizing; one’s ability to embrace a Star Wars film that doesn’t just offer more of the same or focus entirely on “grit” will largely determine one’s reaction to “The Last Jedi”.  It takes chances, and it’s not afraid to try something new and potentially fail if it means that the franchise can evolve and grow from the lessons it provides.  Everything about “The Last Jedi” is about serving the future of the franchise, and it will be interesting to see if those devoted to what was will be open to what could be.



Our Grade:
B+
The Good:
  • The film takes a lot more chances than its predecessor
  • There are some genuine twists in the story that give the second and third acts heft
  • There are solid thematic underpinnings to the film vs. being a mere nostalgia trip
The Bad:
  • The humor is sometimes too broad and threatens to undermine some characters entirely
  • Finn continues to be the least developed of the new characters

John Keegan aka "criticalmyth", is one of the hosts of the "Critical Myth" podcast heard here on VOG Network's radio feed Monday, Wednesday & Friday. You can follow him on twitter at @criticalmyth

Review by - 12/15/2017 1:24 PM482 views

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