What makes a good Star Wars film? Is it adhering to the traditions of the original trilogy, or offering the audience something new—an angle they have never seen before?
Director Rian Johnson takes a risk with his first foray into the Star Wars universe and attempts to give his audience very much the latter.
The only question is: does it deliver?
At first glance, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is radically different from its predecessors. While Johnson gives us many subtle (and not so subtle) parallels to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, his storytelling often diverges into a tale of his own making, and that has proven to be a bit jarring for fans of the films so far.
One of many recurring themes of The Last Jedi is the difficulty of letting go of the past and moving forward into a new era.
Kylo Ren even tells Rey to “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.”
These words act as a lesson both for the character of Rey, as well as the audience; so does Luke’s warning that “This is not going to go the way you think!” Johnson’s repetitious message of change and divergence from well-established norms are an attempt to cushion the blow for diehard fans, urging the characters and the audience to come to terms with this new reality.
Another example is the revelatory moment between Luke and the Force Ghost of Master Yoda, when Yoda states, “We are what they grow beyond.” While the implied “they” here refers to the new generation of Jedi, it is also the director suggesting that the time of the old ways and original characters has passed. It is time to pass the torch and legacy on to the next generation of Star Wars characters led by Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren.
However, Johnson’s film includes many contradictions to his promises of “newness” and “moving forward.”
One such moment involves the ancient Jedi texts that Luke keeps within a sacred Force Tree, which he says are “all that remains of the Jedi religion.”
When Luke and Force Ghost Yoda watch the tree burn, the books are assumed all but destroyed in the blaze. This is intended by Johnson as a cathartic moment, a sign that we are progressing from the old ways (bound in leather and rigid in their instruction) and towards the new.
At the end of the film, however, while aboard the Millennium Falcon, Finn rummages through a random drawer revealing the same ancient texts, presumed destroyed, preserved within. While this fleeting moment can be construed as Johnson’s nod to the old ways, Rey’s continued inability to let go of the past mirrors Johnson’s own, and Rey’s implied reliance on the texts may also resemble the director’s reliance on the original source material as not just a jumping-off point, but a continued and necessary guide.
Another contradiction to the stated theme of “killing the past” is Johnson’s inability to transcend traditional and all-too-familiar tropes of the series.
The Force Awakens introduced audiences to a new and mysterious villain by the name of Supreme Leader Snoke. While fans had been hoping to learn more about the background/origin of this powerful and imposing figure, Snoke is instead portrayed as a monologuing, mustache-twirling villain who we never get a chance to learn anything about.
Instead of providing a new motivation for his villain, Johnson gives Snoke the same desire to turn the hero to the Dark Side of the Force that defined Emperor Palpatine, the villain of the original trilogy. And like Palpatine before him, this inevitably leads to Snoke’s demise at the hands of his apprentice. It is an almost beat-for-beat remake of the climax of Return of the Jedi.
Snoke’s untimely death is made all the more frustrating by the fact that it comes far too early in the trilogy. Supreme Leader Snoke is an extremely powerful force user, and a figure to be reckoned with, as is clearly shown during his scene with Rey and Kylo Ren. However, we are not given nearly enough time with him, or insight into his background, and like the character of Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace, he is quickly dispatched and forgotten.
While The Last Jedi did not feel like a complete rehashing of previous films, this moment, and many others, directly referenced scenes in the original trilogy. The result is that the visual language of the film is at odds with its themes.
One major complaint among fans over the past two years was that The Force Awakens felt too much like A New Hope. Now many fans have complained that The Last Jedi doesn’t even feel like a Star Wars film. But it’s not so much that Johnson failed to make a good Star Wars film, but that he relied too heavily on old tropes and imagery to help drive his story when his intention was to give us something new. Then again, in the places where he did offer entirely original material, some of it (like the Canto Bight Casino sequence) was unnecessary or underdeveloped.
Given that Lucasfilm has recently hired Johnson to direct the next trilogy in the long-running saga, it will be interesting to see if he can deliver a series of films that can finally detach themselves from the original trilogy.
There is hope, however. In The Last Jedi, Rey explained to Luke that “something…awakened, but now I need to know how to wield it.” Director Rian Johnson has the potential to take the series into new heights and has been handed a great responsibility by the studio.
Now, he just needs to know how to wield it.