December 2015 saw Star Wars return to our screens for the first time in over a decade. Although its arrival was met with initial praise – not to mention the third healthiest global box office of all time – there was a wee bit of anxiety kicking off behind the scenes over at Lucasfilm. Disney had not long procured the studio from franchise creator George Lucas, and the House of Mouse were convince the only way to reignite interest was by recreating the franchise’s golden years. Seeing as the last three installments left a sour taste in the mouths of many, a great deal of work was put into making this happen.
Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker were all cast to reprise their roles; nostalgia-crackerjack J.J Abrams was hired to direct the first installment; pledges were put in place to utilise animatronics over CGI; and the studio cooked up a script that meticulously jazzed up A New Hope’s (1977) screenplay for a 21st century audience.
The Force Awakens (2015) was a masterclass in how to recreate a classic in a way that felt fresh and inventive. Its entire purpose for existing was to entice old fans with a whiff of familiarity while simultaneously ushering in a new generation of viewers with a forumla that had proven popular 40-years prior.
Despite its success, this trick would only work so many times before growing tedious. Twelve months after The Force Awakens, Rogue One: a Star Wars Story (2016) hit theatres. Seeing as the film made over $1 billion at the box office, it was safe to say the idea of fashioning an entire feature around the iconography of yesteryears and pop culture nostalgia still hadn’t worn thin. Rogue One built an entire story on the periphery of A New Hope; placing major characters from the 1977 feature amidst the action, turning footnotes from the original opening crawl into entire narrative threads and even returned actors from the dead.
As fascinating as it was to see a whole movie sow itself into the fabrics of a pop culture classic in such fastideous fashion, it began to look as though Disney were going to spend a great number of years trying to recycle Lucas’s original trilogy until it no longer become profitable. Which is why the possibility of The Last Jedi (2017) turning out to be a remake of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) felt all too plausible during the runup to its release. In many ways, the latest installment to the Skywalker Saga was the make-or-break moment that would confirm whether Disney planned to move away from Nostalgia now that the franchise had been revived, or if retreading old tales remained on their agenda.
Rest assured, for all there is to say about Rian Johnson’s eight addition to the Skywalker saga, it’s certainly not a retelling of Empire. Although a couple of characteristics dotted about might remind you of Episode V, as a whole this is a different beast entirely. Whereas Abrams focused on charming audiences with a repackaged edition of the original, Johnson is more keen on shocking us all by turning the franchise on its head.
In many respects, The Last Jedi feels like a reaction to both The Force Awakens and the Saga as a whole. To some, this has become a deal breaker that destabilises the foundations of this new Trilogy. In the days since its premier, fans have taken to the web so they can denonce Johnson’s creative decisions. Whereas critics have flourished the movie with bountiful quantities of praise, a sizable portion of viewers have used IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes to voice their disdain.
Then there’s people like myself, who felt Johnson’s decision to depart from the status quo and offer something new served as a thrilling turning point for the series.
The Last Jedi is far from the greatest Star Wars movie. To call it perfect could certainly be an overstatement. Yet its imperfections make it all the more enthralling, namely because it loosens up the story, giving us something less calculated and more rebellious. Rarely does this feel as if it’s a refined studio piece designed to lure every human under the sun into their nearest multiplex (even though that’s exactly what it is). This doesn’t feel like the well oiled machine that Episode VII was. It’s baggier, bolder and more willing to world build than the more recent instalments.
Plot isn’t as central to this film as is normally the case in these sorts of movies. That’s not to say there’s no story, it’s just the narrative acts more as a backdrop than a paramount driving force. This is very much a two hour and 33 minute character piece in which we see the protagonists established last time round organically evolve and fall victim to circumstance; individuals caught up in events far bigger than themselves. The plot is more incidental than anything; acting as a backdrop that helps to remould and reshape them as individuals. Our heroes are all split up this time around, giving each one an equal amount of screentime to develop within. The story is certainly there, it’s just Johnson is far more concerned with the individuals at the centre of it than anything else.
Although this leads to some structural issues , on the whole this approach is considerably effective; giving us the sort of story Rogue One seemingly tried to tell. The narrative focuses less on the bigger picture and more on personal experience. As an audience we’re able to see these characters up close; warts and all. Their blemishes and flaws are placed in the spotlight for all to see.
Providing us with a more fastidious account as to who these people are allows The Last Jedi to critique the concept of folklore. This is very much a theme central to Episode VIII; the notion that the individuals behind legends are just as messed up as everybody else. It’s an idea depicted most effectively in Luke Skywalker, a man so frazzled and broken by his own guilt, he’s light years adrift from the legend many within this fictitious universe perceive him as being. By proxy, this re-imagining challenges pop culture lore surrounding Skywalker just as much. It uproots our collective understanding of Luke as an image and shows us a man battered and remoulded by time. Like everyone, he’s aged, exhausted by experience and poisoned by his self-inflicted isolation. In a lot of ways, this gives us the most honest portrayal of an older Luke than most would have offered. Many filmmakers would have no doubt tried giving us a Luke who lived up to the mythical hero culture turned him into during his time offscreen. By making such a choice, however, the character would have come across as false. This may well be a fantasy set in a Galaxy far far away, but that doesn’t mean those at the centre of the story should feel like cartoons. Giving us a Luke whose persona had crumbled over time gives us someone vulnerable, honest and authentic. It’s a cold yet genuine portrayal that feels more real than what we could’ve had.
Making a Star Wars film less fixated on plot loosens the narrative enough for Johnson to move the lens around a little more leniently than usual. There’s a habit for this film to momentarily take its eye off the ball so it can admire the fauna, flora and environments that our characters are journeying through. There’s a real Cameronesque approach to all of this which harks back to Avatar (2009) more than anything. Admittedly, there are times in which this becomes somewhat distracting (there’s a whole mini-movie plonked right in the middle where Finn and Rose go on a mini adventure to casino planet Cantonica), although it does help to make this universe feel expansive and diverse in a way it hasn’t done for some time. Whereas the previous two movies often fixated over imagery concerning the original trilogy, this one’s more inclined to remind us that a whole universe is suppose to exist around all of that nostalgia hullabaloo.
Some have compared the world building in the Last Jedi to that of the prequel films. There was indeed an attempt by Lucas to reach out and showcase ancillary environments throughout Episodes I through III. The main difference here is Johnson adds far more life and zest to these moments than Lucas ever did. Many of the moments play out as characters go about their business; serving more as a melodic backdrop than a nebulous slab of bonus scenery. Some of it may feel trivial, yet Johnson knows how to keep it in the backdrop enough to not make it too distracting (apart from Cantonica’s establishing shot, which is when the movie briefly goes a little bananas).
Pushing aspects that could easily become too distracting to the backdrop is something Johnson seems relatively adept at doing for the most part. In addition to the subtle inclusion of Porgs (which incidentally were only there to digitally mask a Puffin epidemic) another area Johnson does this well in is the movie’s nostalgia element. Seeing as Luke, Leia, Chewie, CP30, R2D2, the Millenium Falcon, TIE fighters and AT-ATs feature throughout, blasts from the past can be found from start to finish. Except unlike The Force Awakens and Rogue One, none of this ever really charges to the forefront of the action. The nostalgia factor is dialled back and the elements from the original trilogy feel like natural side notes to the story. The only time in which it does distract is probably when Yoda decides to rear his head. His presence within the film comes seemingly from nowhere and overpowers the scene.
Except throwing you off guard is kind of what The Last Jedi does in some respects. It’s a ruthlessly unpredictable piece of cinema that goes out of its way to disorientate those consuming it. So much so that it’s little wonder there’s such a divide when it comes to this one. Uncertainty is established almost right from the get go, when we’re introduced to the rebels getting their backsides handed to them moments after the opening crawl comes to a close. Before we’re so much as past our first scene, it looks as though the First Order have reigned supreme once and for all. Then comes our second sequence, which decides to turn the closing moments of the Force Awakens into the setup of a joke in which Luke tosses his lightsaber off a cliff for the grand punchline.
This kind of erratic rug pulling goes on right the way through, going so far as killing off a villain many presumed would be the trilogy’s bigbad. From the moment we first saw Snoke’s hologram in the Force Awakens, it seemed clear they were setting him up to be the new Palpatine. Seeing as we’d all gotten it into our heads that Disney were set on cloning the original trilogy, the idea that Kylo would slaughter him right at the end of Episode IX had already planted itself firmly into our subconscious. Which is why when Johnson decides to move that moment forward so it becomes a momentary plot beat during the middle movie’s second act, it discombobulates the very foundations of our collective cinematic schemata.
Killing Snoke at this moment is probably the point in which The Last Jedi becomes a true anarchist within the new trilogy. Suddenly everything we’ve come to foresee based upon expectation influenced by Lucas’s original vision is thrown into turmoil. As an audience we had become convinced this one would end with the dark side reigning supreme, Rey discovering she belonged to the Skywalker bloodline, and Luke reclaiming his hero status. Snoke’s death throws all of that out the window. The First Order are just as kaput as the rebels, Rey’s parents are nobodies and Luke’s a guilt-ridden fool who’s abandoned the force in favour of seclusion.
Johnson’s decision to toss the rulebook and jettison this trilogy down an entirely new road makes for one of the most exciting moments in Disney’s run of Star Wars features. It’s the point in which the shackles of the past are broken and we as an audience enter foreign territory. We’ve no idea what side Kylo is on, just how powerful a force of nature he’ll become, what desperate measures the First Order will take now they’re in tatters and what this fictitious world will look like by the time Episode IX finally concludes in 2019.
It’s little wonder the film has divided so many. The Last Jedi goes out of its way to unchain itself from the franchise’s past; challenging and subverting its characteristics in a bid to evoke an emotional response in its audience. This doesn’t simply decide to try something new, it tricks its audiences by distorting familiar characteristics before sending them into uncharted territory.
If you like dislike films that aren’t methodically structured around a tight-knit plot, refuse to fit seamlessly into their respective franchise, logically pay off plot points established in earlier films and keep you endlessly second guessing as to where it’s going, then you’ll probably not be a fan of this one. If you like films that shatter the status quo, relish in the unpredictable and detach themselves from the rules imposed upon them by a larger franchise, then this could well be your cup of tea.
Disney’s first two Star Wars films were largely about giving audiences a varnished redo of things that had been available since 1977. December 2017 marks the year in which the saga finally decides to branch away from the familiar and try something new. Formulas were ditched and expectation was jettisoned into the void.
The Last Jedi is far from perfect. In fact at times it’s a bit of a mess. It’s baggy, occasionally uneven and a little unstructured. Yet there’s plenty of uncertainty and innovation happening here to call it a failure.
A bold as brass reinvention of a 40-year-old franchise. Hats off to Disney and Rian Johnson for taking a risk on a film as anticipated as this one. Few filmmakers would take such a gamble, so it’s nice to see a bit of ingenuity upset the apple cart from time to time.