(Spoilers for The Last Jedi ahead!)
Sufficient time has passed since The Last Jedi‘s premiere. Sufficient to process what we really saw, what it meant, and what were its pluses and minuses with more sober mind than on the first, emotion-filled watching. What is The Jedi like with a bit of distance?
In this review, we’re going to go over some of the key elements of the film, and see how they add up.
The opening of the film makes the impression like it’s going to play the same old tune. The Force Awakens copied basic plot elements from A New Hope, starting with the evil guys’ chase for a plan-carrying droid and ending with the destruction of a superweapon. Similarly, The Last Jedi begins with the baddies’ fleet cracking down on the Resistance base and their transports running away, just like the Imperials assail the Rebel base in The Empire Strikes Back, and Rey starts her training with Luke, just like he did his training with Yoda.
Fortunately, this is where all plot similarity ends. The Rebels don’t fly into an asteroid field, get frozen in carbonite and Rey doesn’t get her hand chopped off (thinking of that, nobody has had their hands chopped off yet in the new trilogy – a strange omission).
In this alone, The Last Jedi is much better than The Force Awakens. The plot overall moves away from copying previously existing narrative and focuses more on communicating some messages to the audience. So much, in fact, that it obscures the narrative itself. Which, truth be told, isn’t the most powerful thing in The Last Jedi. In terms of events that take place, it is only about a bunch of ships running away from another bunch of ships. But that is why the plot itself is not important at all, but is merely a setting that serves as background against which to play the rest: the characters’ dilemmas and decisions. And that’s what is really worth concentrating on in The Last Jedi.
Can’t Just Go And Start Blowing Things Up
The Last Jedi is original especially in one thing: its heroes fail. Repeatedly. More specifically, they fail in their cocky, trigger-happy plans. This is refreshing compared to the average movie story type that has been around for years – where young arrogant cocky heroes tend to go against the odds and always succeed. If there are losses on the way (from one fallen sidekick to thousands of civilians), they are merrily ignored during the happy ending. The very first scene in The Last Jedi establishes that there is a cost and there are losses, and heavy ones. Poe Dameron gets rebuked by Leia for “playing a hero” without taking into account the consequences of his actions. Similar mistakes are repeated more times also by Finn and Rose, and by Poe again.
The heart of what they are doing wrong is later formulated in the following phrase: “We are not going to win by destroying what we hate, but by protecting what we love.” Blind aggression accomplishes nothing positive or constructive, and Finn doesn’t realise it on Canto Bight when he claims that merely damaging the casino town “was worth it”. Later, Finn still tries to blow up First Order’s battering ram cannon through his heroic self-sacrifice. It is a very emotional scene, and exactly the thing you’d see in many action films. But it is a perfect example of short-sighted, emotion-driven behaviour: what would it accomplish, had he succeeded?
…But This Is NOT A Bleak Story
The good thing is that while The Last Jedi doesn’t portray its heroes always triumphant, neither does it fall into the opposite extreme. Many films or series nowadays, in an attempt to be “realistic” (and surprise the audience), drown in nihilism. Poe’s or Finn’s failures aren’t self-serving: they show the futility of their actions (there is a “moral lesson” behind them), moreover, both actually learn from them and grow up.
The other theme underlying the story is “we are not going to do things differently than our predecessors did”. That concerns the Jedi and the current Force users (with the burning-the-tree scene, in which Yoda says that the true burden of masters is that they must be surpassed by their students) but also stepping out of the vicious circle of mutual destruction and the arrogant, aggressive method of “solving” problems.
The Last Jedi is packed with elements that underline these themes on many different levels. In his ghostly visit, Yoda talks about learning from one’s failures, which is exactly what all the heroes do. If some would think The Last Jedi is pessimistic and only consists of failures, I would argue that it isn’t true: the overall message is positive. The characters progress and their future selves are always better than their past selves. In this, the film also resonates with the “old” two trilogies, in which Anakin’s failure and tragedy have set up the stage for Luke to overcome it.
Luke, Ben, Snoke, Rey and the Dark Side
Aside from some tiny little details, there is only one thing that still, after repeated watching, doesn’t entirely sit well with me: some elements of Luke’s character. We still haven’t been told everything about his initial training of the young Jedi Knights, and we just have to trust that his failure was enough to make him run away from everything and close himself to the Force. What is much harder to believe is that he would – even if just instinctively and for a second – want to kill Ben Solo: he, the Luke who had saved the Galaxy by, at the crucial moment, throwing away his lightsaber and refusing to fight his father. Would his essence even permit the instinct to kill his nephew?
We are still waiting for further clarification of the events surrounding Ben Solo’s fall. Without it, it seems also impossible to discuss Kylo Ren’s own development and where it may end. In any case, The Last Jedi still beats around the bush regarding his actual past: reputedly, there was “darkness” in Ben, and Snoke had been working on him for some time, but we never learn the details. Just as we didn’t learn details about Snoke. It may not be relevant (especially now), and Snoke’s role would be fine just as the figurehead of the First Order, except… except if his powers (manifested by some tremendous feats in this episode) weren’t so great. Now it feels like we need an explanation how come he was so powerful.
Rey gets a lot of her own learning in this story, although it isn’t the kind Poe or Finn get. She doesn’t really fail, not more than a scientist fails when performing trial-and-error experiments. Rey is growing up, but very slowly, progressing like a blind human stumbling through a dark cave. She is trying to find her purpose “in all this”, and looks for answers in Luke and later also Kylo Ren. According to Yoda, it seems like she may already possess everything she needs, but she doesn’t realise it. It seems like Rey’s path is a lot about realising truths about herself rather than finding them outside. She makes a trip into the dark cave on Luke’s island which is a lot about learning something about herself. Her brief cooperation with Kylo Ren also has only one relevant outcome: she acknowledges the truth about her parents. It seems like her arc is indeed about growing up from “nobody” into somebody specific. Again, this seems rather like the matter of the future.
It’s Star Wars!
In my spoiler-free review, I have spent some time praising the space combat in the film and the visuals of the salt desert. I still stand behind it: introducing new environment, after recycling same-looking planets (especially desert ones). Because of this, it didn’t matter that the battle on Crait had obvious callbacks to the Battle of Hoth (walkers, speeders, troops in trenches).
The space battle at the beginning of the film and the second one later (when the command bridge gets hit) are still some of the best things in The Last Jedi in terms of execution. For the first time since the first Star Wars, there are space battles that are not interrupted by other levels of combat, that have clear objectives, that the audience can follow and that feature individual pilot characters you can remember and who even have names. It still isn’t the battle for Yavin, but it is close enough.
A High School Relationship Drama?
If I suspect The Last Jedi of anything underhanded, then it is toying with the fans who are invested in the characters’ romantic relationships. All of these are implied (sometimes massively), but on so many sides that it makes one fear that Episode IX is going to be a terrible love pentagram. If it isn’t, however, then it means half of the implied interactions were just a bait for invested fans, which is even worse.
I am not going to touch the explosive subject of Rey’s and Kylo Ren’s relationship with a ten foot pole – at least not in that way. Regarding their personal encounters, however, and their connection, I believe it was a very good way to establish a connection between them. Rey’s change from “I hate you and I won’t listen to a word you say” to “I believe you can be turned and I am going to start questioning what Luke told me”, however, seems a bit abrupt. The key to it may lie somewhere in the fact that it happens after Rey’s encounter with the darkness, but if that is the case, that connection is not made explicit enough.
I could talk about many aspects of the film for many pages, and there are many topics I avoided so far. Sufficient to say, The Last Jedi certainly has enough elements to keep digging into. There are many meta-levels and meta-meta-levels to discover.
It feels like the makers have put into The Last Jedi everything that the fans missed in The Force Awakens. There are still many questions left unanswered, however. Like TFA, TLJ suffers from not making enough sense without the context of the entire trilogy, and we so far have no idea how the whole story is going to end.
Visuals, music (new Luke’s theme inspired by the Imperial March) and the characters in TLJ are certainly something to be commended. The plot itself and the details of the setting are still somewhat lacking. Overall, however, TLJ is hundred times better than TFA and will have its place among the Star Wars classics – if the last part of the trilogy makes its narrative fall into place.