First off, I’d like to offer my sincerest apologies to Rian Johnson. After a couple of years (and a few rewatches), I believe The Last Jedi is well overdue for a reappraisal. Johnson’s vision for Star Wars was controversial with fans, to say the least, but after reconsidering the myopic views of the original Star Wars trilogy, I have to say I’ve come to appreciate what he was trying to accomplish with his film.
Some critics complained about The Force Awakens and its slavish devotion to nostalgia, but I excused this decision as a way to wash the rotten taste of the prequels out of our mouths. I still defend that choice because it’s exactly what Star Wars fans needed at the time. We all needed a reminder of what made Star Wars magical, but a quality story needs more than callbacks to succeed at the end of the day. Rian Johnson set out to do just that in The Last Jedi.
The Last Jedi was not perfect by any means, especially when it comes to poorly timed humor, but the overall message is exactly what this saga needed. Movies are a reflection of our current culture, and when George Lucas created the first Star Wars film, his tone reflected an era of contrast between good and evil, heroes and villains, the light side and the dark. There was simply no room for any shades of gray in his old fashioned world of two-dimensional evil space wizards.
Fast forward to 2017, and clearly, the world is a different place. In a post-9/11 America, we’ve learned so much about the consequences of our black and white views of the world. Many of us have learned there are heroes and villains on both sides of every conflict. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. While it’s easier to dehumanize our enemies, it’s far more constructive to take our own actions into consideration when we look to solve problems around the world. Acknowledging the existence of these shades of gray exemplifies the culture we live in today, and this impacts everything from politics to pop culture.
Enter The Last Jedi. Johnson wasn’t content with rehashing a bunch of old Star Wars tropes, and he used his full power as a writer and director to see this new vision to its conclusion. Instead, he took this opportunity to break down and subvert the hubris of our old ways of thinking. The Last Jedi forces us to see some of the unintended consequences of war, from the exploitation of animals to the tolls of war profiteering.
This new Star Wars reaches its boiling point once Ben Solo (Kylo Ren, whatever) offers his hand to Rey, imploring her to join him and let the past die:
This is also the moment that Ben tells Rey the truth about her parents; a truth she has been searching for since she was a child. The truth is that her parents were nothing more than junk traders who sold her away for drinking money, that she is nothing in this galaxy… but not to him. This moment was so shattering upon my first viewing because everyone and their mother spent countless hours on the internet theorizing about who her parents were and why she was important. Instead, Rey isn’t a Kenobi or whoever she was theorized to be the child of. She is a nobody, and yet she is still strong with the Force.
“What is in a name?” This is one of the pointed questions that William Shakespeare asked audiences vicariously through his most famous work Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare’s point was to demonstrate that names don’t really matter, it’s the quality of the subject in question. It doesn’t matter what your surname is, what matters is what you do with your life that defines who you are.
It seems that Rian Johnson read his Shakespear as a child and took this opportunity to remind us that dynasties aren’t important. The Force doesn’t just belong to special magical bloodlines. The Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi, it doesn’t belong to the Sith. It’s a Force of nature that seeks a balance between the light and the dark.
All of this was now established Star Wars canon… until J.J. Abrams decided that it wasn’t and upended much of Johnson’s work in Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker.
Let me start off by saying I didn’t hate this film. This was a fun entry into the Star Wars canon that did an adequate job of wrapping up an overall haphazard trilogy, but the issues with this movie are numerous.
WARNING: LOTS OF SPOILERS AHEAD
The plot of the movie goes something like this:
There are “whispers” throughout the galaxy of Emperor Palpatine’s return (you know, because in Abram’s world of nostalgia, no one ever actually dies), and Kylo Ren has left in search of the old Sith lord. Ren eventually finds decrepit ol’ Palpatine in some faraway star system and is offered the chance to rule the galaxy with the help of Palp’s large fleet of rebuilt star destroyers. All Kylo Ren has to do is kill Rey. How Palpatine survived the explosion of Death Star II: Electric Boogaloo or how he came into possession of all of these star destroyers are never explained because fuck it, why not? Star Wars needs a bad guy, and J.J.’s out of ideas.
Meanwhile, Rey is still training to become a Jedi under the watchful eye of her new master, CGI Leia. Unfortunately, Rey is struggling to master Luke’s old lightsaber because of her troubling visions. Long story short on that point, Rey is scared she will turn to the dark side and sit on the throne of the Sith with Kylo Ren at her side. Okay, fine.
The next hour of the movie is an ADHD fueled series of set pieces that only serve the purpose of creating some kind of struggle to find this Sith device that will help find the star system where Palpatine is chilling. All the while Kylo Ren is chasing around Rey like some creepy stalker boyfriend because he wants her to join him and kill Palpatine.
A few space chases and two lightsaber fights later, Kylo Ren has a change of heart when he loses to Rey, has some schizophrenic vision of his dead dad, and decides to become a good guy when he senses that his mother, Leia, has died of natural causes… I think. Maybe she got interstellar cancer from being jettisoned into space in the last movie. I don’t know. Things just happen in J.J. Abrams films, don’t think about it.
Rey then goes through some sort of short-lived existential crisis, which ultimately results in her finding the way to Palp’s evil Sith star system. Oh, I forgot, somewhere in the midst of all of this, Rey learns that her parents weren’t nobody and that she is Palpatine’s granddaughter because hey, there’s nothing like subverting expectations that have already been subverted. Why did we even watch the last movie?
Also, side note, if Rey is Palpatine’s granddaughter, that means someone had to get nasty with the evil emperor at some point. In J.J. Abram’s twisted mind, his one stroke of originality for this movie was to casually imply that some poor woman had sex with this wrinkled, old space wizard at some unspecified point of time.
Getting back to the story, the rebellion, erm, I mean, the resistance finds out where this Sith star system is, attempts to destroy the fleet of star destroyers, and eventually succeeds after some tensionless battle. Nobody of consequence dies, of course. At the same time, Rey confronts her grandpa, who tries to convince her to kill him so she will become the Sith Empress… completely ignoring the fact that he wanted Kylo Ren to kill her up until this point. Kylo Ren, or now “good guy,” Ben Solo follows Rey to Palpatine’s lair to ensure she doesn’t join the dark side. They battle it out with Palpatine, Rey defeats the emperor, Ben dies (but not before they kiss), and the galaxy is saved. Yippee! Finally, after everything, Rey visits Luke’s old childhood home on Tatooine, where she assumes the name Rey Skywalker, and we cut to the credits.
Whew, that was a whole lot of something. First off, let me start with the things I liked about the movie:
- The humor was much more spot-on in this film than The Last Jedi. There weren’t any awkwardly placed mom jokes, so that’s a plus.
- Ben Solo’s redemption was interesting at certain points since he was conflicted from the very first film. This progression made total sense in my mind.
- Ben’s death made complete sense. I mean, was the resistance just going to let him off the hook just because he loves Rey?
- The lightsaber battles were cool, I guess.
That’s all I can think of off the top of my head, which is kind of sad. Now onto my problems with the film.
My biggest issue with Episode IX is the obvious fact that J.J. Abrams doesn’t have a creative storytelling bone in his body. The man simply cannot create a story that isn’t blatantly derivative or dependent on other work. This was extremely apparent in his retread of Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan with his Trek sequel, and it’s just as evident now in his latest offering. Of course, Abrams would bring Palpatine back because he lacks the creative vision to follow a challenging film like The Last Jedi. This movie was so chock full of callbacks to Return of the Jedi that I found myself rolling my eyes on more than one occasion.
Abrams tossed out everything controversial about the last film in hopes of creating a milquetoast fan pleaser but ended up with a second rate fan fiction plot. Rian Johnson wasn’t obligated to stick to Abram’s original vision after The Force Awakens because the first film was left so wide open, there were numerous ways it could’ve gone. In fact, Abrams intended to leave the direction of the saga up to the subsequent film directors without any real pre-planned ideas involved (sort of like Lost).
The film works on an emotional level in some ways because it tries to pull at our nostalgic heartstrings for Star Wars, but fails on a deeper, logical storytelling level. This film solely relies on your ability to unplug your brain and subsist on a spoon-fed diet of ‘member berries and CGI junk food. I swear I’m gonna get the runs tomorrow.
I’d like to think that I’m being too hard on J.J., and this was just the work of the evil, greedy Disney looking to maximize profits by dumping a metric fuckton of fan service on the public. However, put in the context of Abrams’s filmography, I think my blame is in the right place. J.J. Abrams is a lazy storyteller who makes beautiful looking films, and The Rise of Skywalker is the perfect microcosm of this problem.
Like I said before, I didn’t hate this film. In fact, it was quite entertaining at certain points. However, it is crucial that you forget that logic exists while watching this movie, otherwise you’ll find yourself facepalming and shaking your head at the plot every twenty minutes or so. Thanks, Jar Jar Abrams.