“Look closer,” Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) says to Finn (John Boyega) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi as the two of them are in the middle of a rogue mission that could help save the floundering Resistance from the threat of the First Order.
That same advice could be handed to those who have felt the film, written and directed by Rian Johnson, fell short of being worthy to stand as the eighth episode in the Star Wars saga.
The movie picks up seemingly within a day of the end of 2015’s The Force Awakens, with the Resistance having destroyed the First Order’s Starkiller Base but far from victorious against the enemy. Without going into spoiler territory we then follow the continued adventures of Rey (Daisy Ridley) as she works to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to show her the ways of the Jedi and what her place in the universe is. Meanwhile Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) keep the Resistance fighting as best they can with the help of Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), an effort Rose and Finn are ultimately instrumental in. On the other side of the battle, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) continue vying for the affection of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).
Most all of that was presented in the massive, albeit time-compressed, marketing campaign mounted by Disney over the last seven or eight months of 2017. That campaign presented a dark chapter in the saga, one that was fraught with the potential for danger. Would Rey succumb to the Dark Side of the Force? Would the Resistance and all its heroes be snuffed out for good?
None of that prepared me for what might be the most thoughtful and thought-provoking entry in the entire Star Wars saga.
MILD SPOILERS BELOW. DON’T CLICK IF YOU’RE STILL WAITING TO BE SURPRISED.
While the focus of the story is, understandably, on the main heroes and villains, the focus of the heroes in particular is elsewhere. Specifically, it’s on the people who are consistently and sometimes tragically impacted by the ever-present specter of not just tyranny but also war. Who are the people who are dying? Who are the people who feel the boot heel and whip? Who are the, for lack of a better phrase, “small” people in this story?
What Johnson has crafted is a story that takes a bigger perspective of the universe than what happens to the members of the Skywalker and Solo families. That’s evident throughout the movie and is a point of view offered not just by Rose – the most obvious source of insight into the everyday soldiers and citizens just trying to exist in their respective worlds – but even by Rey herself as well as others.
That’s a question that’s never really been asked before within a Star Wars film, though Rogue One came closest. And it’s asked in the context of a story that is constantly taking the air out of not just the mysteries and questions established by The Force Awakens but also by undercutting everyone’s actions with disarming humor that contrasts starkly with the drama driving the action.
Throughout this and the first movie, Kylo Ren intones dramatically about how he and others have to “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” That’s an interesting line considering how Johnson’s film is both respectful of what’s come before (including the Prequels) while also asking the audience to let go completely of that history. There are a couple moments – one in particular – where that break is communicated clearly as physical objects are destroyed and more.
It’s not just the Star Wars franchise itself that Johnson tips his hat to, though. It’s also the series’ cinematic inspirations. The first movie was clearly inspired by (to the point of being a loose remake of) Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. As he’s taking us through one storyline in particular, Johnson reaches back to another Kurosawa classic, forcing the audience to determine what truth looks and sounds like. He remembers one of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s final lessons from Return of the Jedi, when he told Luke that a great many things in life depend greatly on our own point of view.
Which is the whole point of the movie, and one too many critics and others have seemingly missed. Johnson has upended the point of view we all thought we’d shared for the last 40 years. Not only is the past giving way to the present, but the future may well be defined by someone wholly unrelated to the bloodline we’ve been following to date.
That focus on what can inspire you to action if you’re not called by some higher power or destined to lead by virtue of high social status is what’s truly unique about The Last Jedi and what makes it unlike what’s come before. It opens up the Star Wars universe in ways that haven’t been dealt with on screen so far. And it’s incredibly timely for a society where role models are shown to be abusers of their power, leaders are openly corrupt and the everyday populace must do what it can – protesting in the streets, running for office yourself, whatever – to lead the charge for the next generation.
Unlike other Star Wars films that end with celebration or determination to tackle a temporary setback, The Last Jedi presents a hope for the future that lies in the hands of the most unlikely. Perhaps that’s what’s turning people off. But that, combined with Johnson’s knack for humor and emotionally-pure drama, made it an important and personal entry in the saga.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.