The Last Jedi is as close to an art film as we’re likely to see from the franchise-centric studio era. It’s nuanced, almost completely free of anything that could be described as “fan service” and confounds expectations at every turn.
Some of that explains why it was so divisive among the audience. They couldn’t bear that Luke Skywalker was so reluctant to fly into battle and save the day, or that they might be expected to consider the plight of ordinary people caught in the crossfire of endless war, or that family heritage might not be the only determination of success.
It’s everything The Force Awakens, which was eminently enjoyable, wasn’t.
The Rise of Skywalker was sold as a big, emotional ending to the Star Wars series, one that was designed to appeal to all generations of fandom. While director J.J. Abrams repeatedly said he wasn’t throwing out some of the plot points from The Last Jedi that caused some of the most vocal haters but that the movie would hopefully meet everyone’s expectations.
Jedi director Rian Johnson’s recent comments that pandering to fans is a mistake, one that runs in the exact opposite direction of what constitutes “art” or what creators should attempt to do, reflect the unconventional approach he seems to have taken when he had his turn at the franchise plate. They certainly offer a clear insight into the mind that made such unexpected choices instead of engaging in two hours of fan service.
That was further on display when Johnson responded to a critic on Twitter, pointing out that it’s much more interesting to show the character of Luke Skywalker as a flawed, complicated character than as a super powered perfect hero who never feels regret or conflict.
Meeting everyone’s expectations is what products are meant to do, which gets to the point made by Martin Scorsese in his latest declaration that such films are crowding out smaller movies that have more artistic goals. That truth is evident anytime you look at your local multiplex, where the latest franchise blockbuster is playing on 10 screens while a more dramatic character drama will be on just one, and likely only at limited times.
It’s a sentiment echoed by Terry Gilliam, who is rightfully concerned that big studios with lots of money are playing it stupidly safe with the choices they make, creating stories with no real stakes and no grounding in reality.
What Johnson created in The Last Jedi was as close to an art film as I’ve ever seen in a franchise entry, with real stakes and a powerful sense of danger for everyone involved. Sure, it takes place in a universe where space wizards fly massive starships to exotic worlds, but everything else about the story was designed to make you unsure of what would happen next and care about the implications of how things transpired.
Luke feeling guilt over his actions and the effects they may have had was real.
Rey feeling unsure of her place in the universe because she didn’t know her family history felt real.
Poe not knowing how to transition from warrior to leader and making mistakes along the way felt real.
Rose feeling anger about how the poor of the universe are taken advantage of for the benefit of the wealthy felt real.
Yoda toying with his student for the lulz and teaching one final lesson as a result felt real.
If the point of art is to challenge audiences, most of the franchise films released in the last dozen years or so don’t meet the definition. Exceptions include Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a handful of others, with The Last Jedi at the top of that list. It takes risks few movies like it have even attempted and does so with panache and humor.
One thing it’s not: A bland, faceless product. It has a point of view and a message, not just a story, and that is so unique in this day and age to make it remarkable.