It almost goes without saying, but spoilers ahead.
To call Episode VIII a decisive film may soon become an understatement, with nearly every aspect receiving equal amounts of praise and scorn from fans and critics alike. One thing that can be agreed on however, is that the film took the series in a new direction, actively repelling what the series represents to many.
If you ever take a class in story writing most likely within the first lesson you’ll be looking at a PowerPoint slide titled “The Hero’s Journey” next to a Star Wars poster. Since the concept’s popularisation from friend of Lucas, Joseph Campbell, the two have been near inseparable.
The young nobody with a mysterious heritage and a natural ability faces a seemingly unbeatable foe – they rise, fall to their lowest, only to rise again triumphant. The Force Awakens retraced these points to a tee, delighting in its heritage and nostalgia to the point where many deemed it more a remake than a sequel.
The Last Jedi actively takes the opposite approach. It no longer creates parallels between its counterpart film, but mocks them. A snowy planet showdown isn’t at the start of the film it’s at the end, and it’s not even snow! The tree reminiscent of the cave where Luke fights himself in training isn’t a place of darkness, but a place of light. There’s a sunken X-Wing, begging to be lifted out of the water, but when Luke does return it’s revealed he never even left the planet. These small moments are when the film seems to be looking at The Force Awakens and holding it’s hands up, acknowledging it’s predecessors faults with harmless changes.
Then come the deeper cuts. Every single question, theory, and point of interest from The Force Awakens has been answered or deemed unimportant, thrown aside like the lightsabre handed to Luke.
Kylo’s helmet, the most iconic part of his character is destroyed within his first scene.
Rey’s lineage results in nothing, leaving the great mystery of her life a disappointment… but most importantly their rivalry is almost all but resolved by these things, before being ignited once more of course. Star Wars boldly destroyed any hints at lore or mysteries to strengthen a meaningful bond in its characters moving forward, and it succeeds brilliantly.
It doesn’t just disregard its literal content, but it’s thematic elements as well. All Star Wars films have talked of balance to no end but none have presented it so thoroughly – there are no absolute evils, and there is no absolute good. In the past Luke has feared the dark side (an ideology whose ripples are shown to create the situation they’re in) but now Rey doesn’t hide from it, she embraces it, and upon realising it doesn’t offer her what she desires most, decides she doesn’t need it.
While Rey makes peace with the dark side Kylo turns on it, realising both sides have offered him nothing but pain and disappointment, as he vows to destroy their foundations. The Last Jedi taunts it’s predecessors’ simplistic moralities as Luke mocks his students – “Amazing, every word that you just said was wrong”.
That’s not to say that there is nothing lost in this pursuing of difference.
The lack of a major time gap between the two films doesn’t so much create a greater sense of continuing story, as it does shrink down the imagined scale of the galactic wide war.
By trying to avoid the expected there’s no death scene for Leia, despite having a clear opportunity to do so while continuing to build on its characters without re-treading The Force Awakens. Resolutions to smaller conflicts such as Captain Phasma feel rushed and forced, aiding the films destructive ideals, but also bogging it down.
Classic characters are killed off-screen to allow new characters to briefly hold the spotlight, only to die as well. Although the classic characters for those parts may, admittedly, not be as developed as those newly introduced the disregard for people’s affection for them feels more like a misstep then meaningful blow.
If The Force Awakens was a puzzle set, trying to depict A New Hope down to every detail, then The Last Jedi scrambles its pieces, trying to make a mosaic. Sure it’s different, and sometimes it really works, but in the end it’s still the same pieces, and that’s almost the trouble.
The multiple storylines of Empire return, but seem out of place, cutting back and forth between a small character drama, action romp, and slow burning coup at a pace akin to sitting centre court at a pro tennis match. Neither storyline really gets the time to develop or sink in for a majority of the film as it’s too worried you’ll stop caring for something else by slowing down.
But where The Last Jedi really makes its mark is by changing the film it’s reflecting entirely. The throne room centrepiece of the film all too obviously plays out like the finale to Return of the Jedi, with the all powerful evil force showing the hero their friends imminent demise, only for the hero to team up with said baddies right hand man and take him down once and for all…
Then it continues.
With Return of the Jedi that was it, they won, happy ending, roll credits. Here it’s not only the middle of the trilogy but it’s nearly the middle of the film. It’s decimated the story structure that Star Wars itself helped to popularise, sliced in two like its aptly killed villain.
The Last Jedi has forcible torn itself free of everything, and while it was by no means clean it does what it intended. Past, present, and (until now) predestined future have been struck, and the series can go anywhere it wants now.
The Last Jedi treats it’s heritage like the Luke’ Jedi texts, something to be burned as nothing more can be learned from them. It’s Kylo’s parents, something holding him back from his true potential, and it’s Rey’s parents, something that could never be lived up to and at the same time was never really anything at all.
The Force Awakens fed into people’s expectations, The Last Jedi has dashed them. Now it’s time to see if it can rise again, to see if this new trilogy can earn it’s own legacy.
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