The Last Jedi - some of its most controversial moments are its best
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Originally posted in December 2017.
By the time you read this, there will already be around six billion hot takes and think pieces on Star Wars: The Last Jedi. This one will likely be no different, but I thought it might be a nice idea to reflect on the film and see how it is far more reverent to the series than you might think.
Rian Johnson's film seems to have split Star Wars fans down the middle - in a particularly nasty way. This isn't reflective on the film at all - in this writer's opinion it's one of the strongest entries in the series, and many of the most vocal criticisms are ones which were highlights of the film to me. This article will be full of spoilers so don't read if you haven't seen it already.
Let's start by looking at the humour - many felt it was out of place in the film and took away something from some of the more dramatic moments; but the film would be extremely dour if the humour was removed. One thing you'll notice throughout the film is that Johnson has worked in some stylistic elements of the prequels - and the humour is one of them. Nothing as crass as George Lucas' worst work, he's found a middle ground that embraces both the sardonic wit that pervaded Rogue One and The Force Awakens yet has hints of the slapstick that was rife throughout the most maligned films of the trilogy.
This is most obvious during the Canto Bight sequence - which we'll look at in more detail later - and largely centred around BB-8 - yet BB-8's behaviour was entirely in line with his character as introduced in The Force Awakens. I see the humour of The Last Jedi as being an important addition to the film. Similarly, there has been criticism of the humour during the Ahch-To scenes - particular on the part of Mark Hamill - clearly selectively forgetting similar moments with Yoda and Luke on Degobah.
Talking of Canto Bight - again, this is a successful attempt at bridging the prequel trilogy with the sequels - reminding us that almost everything we see in films since Revenge of the Sith is set amongst the planets of the Outer Rim. Canto Bight demonstrates the the decadence and shiny locations we saw in the prequels still exist, largely untouched by the fight between the Empire, and later the First Order and the Rebellion and Resistance. By visiting locations that remind us of the prequels, The Last Jedi helps to show that all nine films are set within the same universe despite the stylistic differences that were on show in Episodes I-III.
One of the moments of pure joy in the film was the moment where we saw Leia make use of her latent abilities in manipulating the force. This was a huge payoff and confirmation, as if we needed it, that Leia shares her brothers Force sensitivity but choses largely not to use it. The moment when she regains consciousness and pulls herself back towards the Resistance lead ship is beautifully realised and entirely in keeping of what we know about the abilities of the Jedi. Why is is hard to believe that Leia could use the Force to survive in space while the super speed we've not seen any major character make use of outside of the prequels is fine?
While the film is largely not a retread of The Empire Strikes Back, the training of Rey with Luke actually shares some similarities of that Luke had with Yoda. Much has been said about the fact that Rey was only Ahch-To for a short period of time, but is it really any different to the time Luke spent on Degobah? Or are we supposed to believe that Han and Leia spent months in the belly of the Asteroid monster or on Cloud City? We saw plenty of evidence of the passage of time on Ahch-To and it should be clear now that hard core training isn't what actually makes a Jedi.
While on Ahch-To, we have more links with the past - Luke describes to Rey how the Jedi fell due to their hubris and how they, with all their power, failed to see the rise of the Sith and the turning of Anakin by Darth Sidious. The prequels may have their issues, but the storylines of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are the natural evolution of the events that kicked off with Anakin's birth. The themes that the Jedi and the Sith aren't in control of the force, and of events, has been there from the start - and Luke is right - it is time for the Jedi to end.
In the years since The Force Awakens was released there were countless discussions and theories about the questions that film raised - articles demanding that The Last Jedi must answer these questions. Thankfully, Rian Johnson chose ignore all of that and when he did provide answers they weren't what we expected. The fact that Rey's parents were nobodies again fits entirely with what we know and the answer was always in plain sight - Anakin's mother was slave, did he have a father? According to her, no. OK, so Luke and Leia are descended from Anakin and therefore provide evidence that there is some genetic aspect to being force sensitive - but the Jedi don't generally have partners or children so the need for Rey to have some extremely important ancestor really doesn't make sense. That they were nobody is actually the most obvious and sensible answer.
The death of Snoke with no answers to who he was or where he came from - well, where have we seen that before? Oh yes - Emperor Palpatine - a character with no background until one was retconned as part of the prequel storyline. There was no complaint that we didn't know who he was - and the need for every character to have some kind of link to another has the effect of compressing the universe to a nonsensical point. We know nothing of Snoke now other than he was clearly very strong with the Force - was he Sith? Probably not. Will we ever find out more? Of course we will. Be it in a certain recently announced trilogy being scoped and directed by Rian Johnson, or in one of the countless spin-off books or comics that are deftly filling in some of the blank spaces.
There are some truly stunning moments of pure cinema in The Last Jedi too - those silent moments when we see Snoke's ship split in too in Admiral Holdo's fiery suicide run. The seat edge thrill of the opening scenes and that bombing run on the Dreadnought. And Finn's heroic, yet suicidal, attempt at stopping the battering ram canon before it destroyed the Resistance only defence. It's very much a story about how anyone can be a hero, no matter what their background.
The fact that Rian Johnson packed the film with so many surprises that largely avoided any fan theory or leak shows just how tight a ship was run this time. Any film is open to criticism - and it's absolutely fine to like, hate or be indifferent to any film. The Last Jedi is no different - while I'm accepting and embrace many of the things others criticise, my opinion is worth no more than anyone else's. We should remember that no-one is gatekeeper to other's opinions and the recent fallout around The Last Jedi is something that should concern us all.