Editor’s Note: This review gets into major SPOILERS.
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
I remember when “Star Wars” made me cry.
The year was 1979. George Lucas’s worldwide phenomenon had been a phenomenon for two years before finally making it to Malaysian screens. I was just a tiny tot then, but when you’re a tiny tot with two older brothers frothing at the mouth over the arrival of “that space movie with the laser swords”, you’d naturally want in on the action too.
Alas, it was not to be. Despite my tearful pleas, my father decided I was too young to visit that galaxy far, far away. All I could do was reach out with my grubby little hands from behind the prison-like bars of our front gate, watching as the family car disappeared into the distance. It is one of the most vivid memories of my childhood, and funnily enough that initial absence of “Star Wars” probably cemented my lifelong obsession with it. Cinema is an inherently emotional art-form, but nothing else makes me feel the way “Star Wars” does, for better or worse.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is the closest any of these movies in the last four decades has come to making me cry.
Quick qualifier 1: I mean that in a positive way. Quick qualifier 2: No, it’s not because my dad refused to let me watch it. In fact, I’ve seen it twice now, and both times I found myself getting choked up in the film’s powerful moments. Of which there are many.
So let’s get this out of the way upfront: I wholeheartedly love “The Last Jedi”. It is not without flaws, and it features a borderline eccentric stylistic flourish that doesn’t always feel in line with what’s been presented before. But that’s just window-dressing. Where the film really sets itself apart creatively is in just how astonishingly bold it is with the choices it makes for its mythology and characters. The film is loaded with twists, surprises, and new ideas.
Apparently, this has infuriated a sizeable portion of fandom. There is even a petition going on right now requesting Disney/Lucasfilm to officially remove the film from “Star Wars” canon. Yup, that’s how much some fanboys hate it. Does their anger have any merit? This is what I am here to examine.
The biggest outcry is over the film’s handling of beloved Original Trilogy characters. As it is, we’ve already lost Han Solo in “The Force Awakens”. Going into this episode, I was dreading them killing off yet another of my childhood heroes. Actually, that wasn’t even the fear. We all know that these new films are a passing of the torch to a new generation, so at some point the old guard will have to exit the story. What really worried me was HOW they’d get to the exit. If it was unearned, then it would feel like a betrayal. A betrayal of our love and faith in these characters, and of our time spent with them over the many years.
Let’s start with Luke. Because in many ways, this episode is very much his story. At the end of “Return Of The Jedi”, the promise was that he would be the one to rekindle the Jedi Order, to usher in a new age for the Light Side. We now discover that he failed to do that, and in his failure renounced the Jedi way, shut himself off completely from the Force, and retreated to a remote island to die.
I understand the pain fans must feel. To see your hero — the very embodiment of hope — reduced to an empty shell. I would be upset too… If he had stayed that way. The thing is, Johnson isn’t interested in portraying standard archetypes. As far as he’s concerned, that’s all been done and dusted, and it’s time to do something else with them.
That something else means tearing down the legend of Luke Skywalker. Johnson isn’t doing this for the cheap shock factor. It serves several purposes. Not least of which is the health of the franchise. For “Star Wars” to remain vital, relevant, and most of all, fresh for audiences, it needs to grow. Sometimes, growth requires uprooting something that has become too entrenched in the familiar and the expected. Sure, the filmmakers could’ve given us the Luke we knew and wanted — the sagely, successful Jedi master. But that would leave hardly any room for growth, and that’s not only boring, it also underserves what the character can still offer us on a dramatic or thematic level. Instead, Johnson has given us a Luke who still has lessons to learn.
Fans have roundly rejected the notion that Luke could ever consider killing his own nephew (Ben Solo), even if it was because he sensed the rising darkness in him. “That’s not Luke! He would never do that!” Well, the truth is, he would. One subtle yet poignant point made in “Return Of The Jedi” was how much like his father Luke had turned into. He won the lightsaber duel with Darth Vader only because in one fleeting moment of fury he gave in to the Dark Side, and that fury gave him overpowering strength.
Fans tend to forget that the Dark Side has always been at risk of consuming Luke. And he knows it. That’s why old Luke stopped wearing a glove to conceal his robotic hand — as a constant reminder not to become his father. And that’s why it was not at all out of character for Luke to have had murderous impulses. Besides, it’s not a betrayal of the character since ultimately the Light Side prevailed and Luke stayed his hand.
This however, establishes one of the film’s biggest revelations and one of its most dramatically rich ideas. How a man so driven by a strict moral code can have the tiniest lapse in judgement, and how that lapse can destroy the people he loves and everything he has built. Basically, the galaxy’s greatest hero created the galaxy’s worst monster and everyone has been paying the price ever since. If I were Luke, the overwhelming guilt would’ve caused me to give up on everything too. It’s sobering stuff, and way more complex than anything a space fantasy with laser swords has ever offered us. It’s something we never would’ve gotten had Luke remained all hunky-dory.
My only issue with the choice to paint Luke as damaged goods is that every minute spent on his refusal to train Rey deprives us of one more minute of him being the mentor figure we’ve been waiting to see since 1983. What little we do get in the way of Jedi training is great, and ranges from the insightful to the flat-out hilarious, sometimes all in the same scene (Luke trolling Rey about “feeling the Force” by tickling her hand is one of the funniest gags of the year). What’s most crucial about all this is that at the end of the day, Luke is still recognisably Luke, while also being clear that time and circumstance have taken their toll.
Speaking of not having enough moments between Rey and Luke, part of the blame goes to the subplot involving Poe, Finn, and new character Rose. Johnson had the right idea to give these characters a meaningful role in the story. Unfortunately, he makes a misjudged call to elaborate on this subplot at length, to the point where it starts to feel like an interference to the things that really matter. Even though there are thematic points here that tie into the big picture, like the slave children symbolising a new hope for the resistance and the Force, the way that whole business on Canto Bight is fleshed out is somewhat inefficient. The stampede sequence is especially unnecessary, and comes off like an excuse to have an action sequence.
In stark contrast, every single moment on the island feels essential. If the hero is only as good as the villain, then we have a terrific match in Rey and Kylo Ren. To be honest, “Star Wars” hasn’t exactly been the best at deep characterisation. Johnson bucks the trend with a series of superbly written and acted scenes featuring the two of them linked psychically. It’s a great way to use the Force as a device to expose the inner workings of both individuals. Their exchanges flit back and forth between antagonism and empathy. It makes for rather absorbing drama.
It’s becoming increasingly clear since Johnson took the reins that this push-pull dynamic is meant to be the core of the new trilogy. He’s taken it in a direction that manages to be unexpected even while feeling right for the characters, particularly Kylo. If fans can look past Adam Driver’s gawky features and their snarky attitude about Kylo being a poor man’s Vader, they’ll see a villain that the Anakin of the Prequels (and I’d argue, to some extent even the Vader of the OT) was supposed to be but never quite achieved: compelling and tragic. His misguided belief in “killing the past” has ironically put him in danger of repeating the past failures of his grandfather. Moving forward it would be really interesting to see if there is anything left to redeem, or if this will finally destroy him.
Rey is comparatively more straightforward, but I still like what they’re doing with her. Despite hints that there is also darkness within her, Rey has thus far remained more true to the Jedi code than even Luke. Throughout the film, Rey’s resolve is tested to breaking point, with the burning need to know about her own past answered in brutal fashion. She’s a nobody, a child of nobodies who simply abandoned her. And yet, as a total mirror opposite of Kylo, she is able to rise above the ugliness of her past and remain a good person, committed to doing what’s right. The only question is where do the filmmakers take her from here, as she runs the risk of being stuck in the clichéd, can-do-no-wrong saviour role. I do hope there are still things left for her to learn about herself and the ways of the Force.
Ah, the ways of the Force. This brings me right back to Luke and what I mentioned about the character’s continued growth. Who better to school a Jedi master than THE master himself, Yoda? You can call it fan service, but I think it’s a masterstroke to bring him back, even for just one scene. And what a scene, hands-down among the best moments of the entire saga.
There’s a saying, when the student is ready the teacher will appear. Yoda appears at exactly the right time in Luke’s life, the point where he has lost all faith in his religion. As he is about to burn down the sacred Jedi Tree and the ancient religious books inside, Force Ghost Yoda does it for him. By raising just one finger to summon lightning from the sky! (Confession: my inner geek went absolutely bananas.) Luke is ready to tear down everything he held dear, but as far as Yoda sees it, this means his protégé is ready to discard the wrong dogma and wrong view of the Jedi Order he’d been clinging to.
That’s when Yoda lays down true Jedi wisdom. A lesson about how teachers shouldn’t only pass on their strengths but their weaknesses too, for that is how students can transcend the limits of the teacher’s knowledge. After that, the path students take is theirs alone to choose. It’s beautifully summed up in Yoda’s line, “Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.”
You can almost feel Luke straightening out and levelling up at this point. Boy, does he level up. When all hope seems lost for the Resistance, Luke returns to finally reclaim his rightful mantle: the legend that is Luke Skywalker. One man against an entire army of bad guys, an act he previously sneered at as foolhardy, fairytale nonsense. Johnson gives this showdown the epically heroic feel it deserves, from Luke’s solitary walk out towards the First Order’s war machines, to his casual taunt after an attack no mortal could possibly survive, to his lightsaber face-off with Kylo that recalls Samurai duels out of old ‘Jidaigeki’ films. And yes, that is where the term Jedi came from.
Then it’s revealed that Luke isn’t actually there but has projected himself via the Force, and it’s one of the film’s biggest bait & switch surprises. I get it if fans feel cheated. To them, this doesn’t count as a real showdown. Personally, I think this is a show-stopping display of the most badass Jedi ability ever. To be able to transfer your consciousness across the galaxy and manifest yourself as a tangible presence? That is some Buddha-level shit, man.
Which is perfect, because according to Lucas the Jedi religion is based primarily on Buddhism. After attaining the Jedi equivalent of Nirvana, Luke fades away like his mentors before him. How are fans supposed to react to this? I know I am torn. I hate the fact that yet another of my childhood heroes is now gone. On the flip side, I love his path to the exit. Sitting cross-legged, gazing serenely at the twin sunset in quiet contemplation, it is a poetic summation of everything the Jedi are truly about. It is also a loving send-off to one of Cinema’s most mythic heroes. Through his sacrifice, Luke leaves on his own terms. Or as Rey puts it, “with peace and purpose”. So his death is genuinely earned. Besides, since he’s become one with the Force, there’s always the chance he could return in Episode IX as a Force Ghost.
Sadly, there will be no such chance for Princess Leia to return. At least not as played by Carrie Fisher. So it comes as quite a consolation that her final outing is such an indelible one. Leia finally gets to demonstrate some of that Skywalker talent for wielding the Force, and if anyone has a problem with this then they’re just being petty jerks. Yeah, it’s kind of startling to see Leia flying through space, but I choose to dwell on the magic of the moment. More importantly, in this film Leia comes off regal, sharp, and self-sufficient. That’s the Leia we know and love.
Her reunion with Luke is a wonderfully tender and intimate moment, and my heart aches every time I think of it. Especially when we know this is the very last time they will share the screen. But beyond nostalgia, this scene is so powerful because of the meaning Johnson invests in it for the story, and because of the performances. Whether she was rusty in the last film or if she just had a better director and stronger material this time, Fisher fares much better here, giving us a soulful portrait of a woman who’s lost so much yet refuses to let it defeat her. I will miss her dearly.
While Mark Hamill has never been known as a great actor, you wouldn’t realise it if this was your first taste of him. Perhaps it’s the years of doing a variety of acting work, from theatre to voiceovers, perhaps it’s that Johnson is such a skilled actor’s director, or perhaps Hamill has just been harbouring a pent-up passion to return to this role for so very long. Whatever the case, Hamill is brilliant here. As written, this wasn’t an easy role to play. It’s complicated, often unflattering, and rarely showy. Hamill admitted in interviews he had problems with the way Johnson had chosen to essay Luke, though it seems like this pushed him artistically in the best ways. If this is to be his last go at the role that made his career, then Hamill sure is going out on one hell of a high note.
The rest of the main cast is pretty solid too. Adam Driver is a firm favourite in my book. He takes what could easily be an overly bombastic role in a lesser actor’s hands and turns in a nuanced, cultured performance. He still plays it larger than life when it’s called for, but his Kylo Ren is going to be remembered for his humanity. Daisy Ridley is more mature here, which isn’t a knock on her acting before. It’s just that there’s way more going on in her eyes now, and she knows how to underplay it to make the subtle emotions come through even clearer. Also, both Ridley and Driver impress with their lightsabers. They ace the fluid choreography by Chinese stunt director Liang Yang, giving us one of the saga’s more memorable fight scenes.
Oscar Isaac and John Boyega are given more to do and they don’t waste the opportunity, especially the former. The filmmakers are obviously setting up Isaac’s Poe for a leadership role, and the actor has the screen presence for it. Boyega is thankfully less shouty this round, and way more watchable now that he’s not trying so hard — a main complaint I had with him in “The Force Awakens”.
Newcomer Kelly Marie Tran is just okay. To her credit, she puts in a committed performance, but the role simply isn’t all that interesting. Then there’s Domhnall Gleeson and Benicio del Toro, who come across like Johnson gave them both a totally different set of acting instructions: amp up the camp. I don’t dislike it, I just find it distracting at times. It doesn’t help that Gleeson’s General Hux is given the bulk of the film’s more goofy humour.
Of course, I can’t discuss a “Star Wars” movie without addressing the action. The opening space battle is pretty damn good, with the geography of what’s happening always clearly laid out, allowing us to appreciate the scale and the stakes. We’re made to feel the good guys’ losses, with noble sacrifices and daring manoeuvres first getting us cheering then worrying for the fate of the Resistance. John Williams’s classic score as always serves the big set pieces really well, and a couple of the quieter emotional moments too. The CG and creature effects are top-notch as expected, apart from a few instances of surprisingly weak puppet work.
Johnson and his effects team also come up with a rather novel use of a hyperspace jump — as a weapon to rip through the First Order ships. Visually, it’s frickin’ cool. As is the look of the film, for the most part. The cinematography by Johnson’s regular collaborator Steve Yedlin gives us tonnes of instantly iconic imagery. The colour red is employed as a recurring motif and it’s quite striking. Occasionally however, Johnson’s quirky indie filmmaking sensibilities result in design choices that stand out like a sore thumb, even for a sci-fi property. There’s just something not quite “Star Wars” about the casino’s denizens on Canto Bight.
That aside, “The Last Jedi” is every inch a true-blue “Star Wars” movie, made by a guy who loves and understands the franchise. There are fanboys who vehemently claim otherwise, and the way I see it their anger stems mostly from a mismatch of expectations. They wanted things to be a certain way, and this film simply refused to play as expected. But why is that a bad thing? Answer: it’s not. I always say, judge a film on its own terms, not yours.
Johnson is determined to move the saga forwards decisively, and in a way that opens up the narrative possibilities instead of narrowing them down to the point where things start to feel recycled or predictable. Those were precisely the accusations thrown at “The Force Awakens”. I never saw it that way. That one had the responsibility to rescue the franchise from the negative impression left by the Prequels, and to do that it had to resurrect some of the familiar OT elements. It did that very well too.
Thematically, “The Force Awakens” embodied the notion that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Johnson recognised this, and his film is in some ways a direct reaction to that. “The Last Jedi” is all about how choices have lasting and far-reaching repercussions. He also set out to streamline things, trimming elements that have no place or do not serve the big picture. Think Rey has to be born of the legacy characters? That’s just limiting, so no. Think Kylo is Vader-lite? Well, then let’s get rid of his helmet and his attachment to his lineage. Think Snoke has a bigger part to play in all this? Nope, he’s just a repeat of Emperor Palpatine, so let’s get rid of him so we can focus on the real villain’s development. Frankly, I applaud them killing off Snoke, and even more so, the utterly useless character Phasma.
Bold creative choices are never easy to make, particularly within the rigid confines of studio blockbuster machinery, and the microscopic scrutiny of a rabid fanbase. That’s why Johnson should be celebrated rather than vilified for what he’s done. “The Last Jedi” isn’t just a great “Star Wars” film, it’s one of the best films of the year.
Life has somehow brought me full circle back to the beginning of my journey as a “Star Wars” fan. I am now in my father’s position, with a son of my own. Just the other night, as I was leaving home with my wife for our 2nd viewing, I suddenly saw my little boy reaching out from behind the front gate with his grubby little hands, tears rolling down his cheeks as he pleaded for us to bring him along. Heartbreaking as that scene was, it was way past his bedtime so including him was out of the question.
But this episode will have a happier ending. He’s coming along with me for my 3rd viewing.