SPOILER TERRITORY AHEAD
Seriously, don’t read anymore unless you already know what happens in The Last Jedi…
To say that The Last Jedi upends viewer expectations is an understatement. Almost every outstanding question left at the end of The Force Awakens is answered in this new installment of the Star Wars saga, but probably not in the way anyone expected. That mysterious BIG BAD we were introduced to, Supreme Leader Snoke? … Apparently, he’s not that important since he dies before the end of the film. Rey’s parents? Complete nobodies (which is probably the right call). Is Rey a love interest to Finn and/or is Finn a love interest to Poe? Turns out, Rian Johnson ships Rey and Kylo Ren (Reylo? ReyRen? KyRey), Finn’s taking smooches from a new character called Rose Tico, and Poe just really loves BB-8 like the cute droid puppy that it is. And good ol’ Luke Skywalker? He’s genuinely gotten more powerful since the last time we met, but farm boy pulls a Ben Kenobi by the end of the movie (clearly an homage to the Obi-Wan vs. Darth Vader fight from A New Hope). We also lose Gwendolyn Christie’s Captain Phasma, who at least gets to have one cool moment before she falls in battle (literally).
But perhaps the most notable development The Last Jedi gives us, beyond nuking half of its villain stable, is that this film seemingly undoes one of the biggest fan gripes in Star Wars history (no, not the holiday special). The Force has returned to being a mysterious energy that binds all things rather than an intergalactic blood disease. We even get a brief glimpse at the end of the film where a slave/orphan casually uses the Force to move a broom, just as he looks up into the night sky at a passing Resistance ship. The implication seems to be that the galaxy is finally coming out of it’s No More Mutants period with new force-sensitive beings sprouting up across the galaxy. In other words, enough happens in The Last Jedi to set up what could be a compelling final act for this trilogy, but general audiences and hardcore fans don’t see it that way.
Differences of opinion between fans and critics is nothing new, but this latest disconnect between feels surprisingly stark. Where critics heap laurels and praise onto The Last Jedi for the gumption to subvert audience expectations, each new fan review bathes in vitriol and disappointment. The most common complaint I’ve seen lobbied at The Last Jedi since its debut on Friday is “sloppy,” from the acting to the storytelling. As I reflect on my viewing this weekend, I think I can understand where some of these complaints are coming from, even if I don’t share their opinions.
Movies of this magnitude, with such a deeply devoted fanbases, are designed to court speculation. For the past two years, the denizens of Reddit, Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter have inundated those platforms with fan theories to the questions left by The Force Awakens. Many expected The Last Jedi to answer these questions, but not outright dismiss them. Basically, Disney now has to deal with a bunch of irate fans who feel as burned as Anakin on Mustafar…
I, like many of these people (albeit less angrily), am now left wondering where Star Wars goes from here. The Last Jedi represents the midpoint of this new trilogy, and looking back at the two that came before it, I can’t think of an instance where I’ve felt more uncertain about the future of these characters or the endgame driving this narrative. By this point in the original trilogy, audiences were witness to something very unconventional in cinema at the time: a story where the bad guys won. Han was frozen in carbonite, Luke was left humbled and disfigured after his battle against Darth Vader, and the Rebels were on the run.
Attack of the Clones ends on a similar downbeat note, with our heroes’ reluctant acceptance of a newly formed clone army and the embers that would ultimately spark the birth of the Empire.
For both of these films—maybe less for Empire—I think it’s fair to say that one could at least guess about the bigger narrative at play. The prequels were about a hero’s downfall and the birth of the galactic Empire. The original trilogy was about the hero’s journey and a father’s redemption. Now with The Last Jedi in the books, I’m struggling to decipher its big idea. What is the larger story Disney hopes to tell through this new trilogy? With one film to go, I wish that didn’t feel so ambiguous, but we may have a few hints.
Given how the events of the film play out, my best guess is that we’re looking at a story that strives to argue there is no such thing as good or evil; that the Sith’s/Jedi’s and First Order’s/Resistance’s way of thinking is antiquated. An argument for nuanced discussion rather than black and white absolutes. The revelation of Rey’s parentage, Luke’s attempt on Kylo’s life as a boy, and the rebirth of the Force, and Rey’s willingness to work with Kylo all speak to this larger idea, especially since Kylo seems more resolved in his commitment to the dark side after they killed Snoke. Given the climate of the world right now, perhaps it’s the right message, at the right time. Or maybe I’m wrong, and J.J. will just undo everything Johnson set up come Episode IX. We only have to wait two more years for the answer, but I hope they stick the landing.