May 1, 2020
5 burning questions about Star Wars: The Last Jedi
In a review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I wrote that it turned out that one of the least interesting questions about The Force Awakens was “is it a good movie?” The reason is that it was so similar in terms of storyline and structure to the original Star Wars: A New Hope that it became irrelevant to analyze it as an original product. It was almost a remake, designed to do a competent job in restarting the franchise and passing the baton to newly introduced characters. And in that, it succeeded.
But once that’s out of the way, asking that same question of the next chapter in the trilogy can hardly be called irrelevant or uninteresting. The Last Jedi had to succeed on its own merits, without the training wheels of the previous film’s similarities to rely on. Even if it tried to be another near-remake, it couldn’t turn to the same tricks again. I want to talk about how the movie answered (or didn’t answer) a few questions, which will to a significant extent be a response to what I thought were keys to making the film a successful one.
Spoiler warning: Plot details will be discussed.
So let me start with the obvious:
1. Is it a good movie?
The answer is yes, yes it is. It’s competently made, and there are a lot of great action sequences and a surprising amount of humor considering the somewhat bleak storyline. The new characters of this trilogy travel in some fascinating directions, including Kylo Ren, who goes from being a conflicted Darth Vader acolyte to trying to forge his own path while scarred and influenced by past events. Mark Hamill does a terrific job playing a haunted and disillusioned Jedi master, different but still recognizable as the Luke we saw in Return of the Jedi. Also, the brief Yoda cameo is a great gift to the fans, as we see the more playful, mischievous Yoda from Empire Strikes Back that we only occasionally got in the prequels.
As with The Force Awakens, I would say that if you liked Empire Strikes Back, I don’t see why you wouldn’t enjoy The Last Jedi in that, again, the latter borrows a lot from the former in terms of storyline and structure. It plays a similar role in the trilogy to Empire Strikes Back. The victory at the end of the previous film turns out to be a short-lived one, and the Empire/First Order is once again in control of the conflict, in pursuit of a fleeing, outgunned group of rebels while the young hope of the new Jedi order is trained by a wise and reclusive Jedi master. Which leads me to my next question…
2. Is it sufficiently original to deflect the kind of response that The Force Awakens got from some quarters?
Namely, that Disney is in many ways making this new trilogy a quasi-remake of the beloved original trilogy, out of a fear of the kind of response that the prequels sometimes received?
Again, the answer is mostly yes. The writing does a clever job of turning expectations around in various scenes to keep this from feeling like too different a movie from the original trilogy. The throne room confrontation with Snoke, Kylo Ren, and Rey starts out feeling very familiar, but then goes in two different directions from where a similar confrontation in Return of the Jedi did. Also, Rey’s moment in the cave feels like Luke’s similar one in Empire Strikes Back, but once again goes a different way, as does a potential revelation about her lineage.
3. Do we get sufficient backstory to explain how we went from the Rebel Alliance’s triumph in Return of the Jedi to their dire situation in The Force Awakens?
The answer there is no. There’s still no explanation within the onscreen content to show how the New Order rose to become so powerful so quickly, or how the Rebels/Resistance squandered victory so completely as to be on the verge of the total defeat we see in The Last Jedi. The demise of Luke’s new Jedi students is given very little explanation. Yes, Snoke was influencing Kylo Ren from afar and turned him to the Dark Side, and Ren took some followers with him, but that doesn’t explain what happened to the rest of the Jedi. Was there the equivalent of Palpatine’s Order 66 by Snoke? Was it carried out by the army of the First Order? And of course, the mystery of Snoke is casually tossed aside, perhaps to be taken up by books or fan fiction.
4. Is Luke’s disillusionment with the Jedi order satisfactorily explained?
Ever since Luke’s shocking line from the trailer, “The Jedi must end,” there’s been much speculation on what it could mean. It called back to rumors before the start of the new trilogy, that perhaps Luke had fallen to the Dark Side. Or, had Luke perhaps just rejected both paths out of a sense of fatalism? Fortunately, the answer turned out to be nothing of the sort. Luke still followed the path of the Light Side; it’s just that he’d realized that the failures of the Jedi leadership had disastrous consequences for so many. This part almost seemed like a direct acknowledgment of some of the criticisms of the prequel trilogy, some of which included that the Jedi seemed out of touch, and overly rigid in their teachings and rules about relationships within the Jedi order, and that they had been too easily duped by Darth Sidious. These failures that Luke speaks of seem even more glaring within the context of this new trilogy, when the cycle of failure has been repeated again. With the fall of Luke’s Jedi order, it seems history has repeated as tragedy, with farce perhaps still on the way.
5. Does the middle chapter effectively set up the conclusion?
After Empire Strikes Back, there were enough plot lines set up so that the viewer could somewhat see the direction that the concluding chapter would go in. Han would need to be rescued at some point during it, Luke would most likely be confronting Vader again and dealing with the “I am your father” revelation, and perhaps the emperor himself would show up in person after audiences got a brief glimpse of him in the previous film. I don’t really see the conclusion set up as well for the last movie of this trilogy. I don’t think they’re going to repeat the storyline of Luke and Vader in Return of the Jedi with Rey and Kylo Ren, because The Last Jedi went down that path and seemed to reject it. Also, while the Resistance forces did escape, the movie made them seem so outmatched that it’s hard to see a plausible path to victory with only one film left. Will they repeat the “race to stop a superweapon” storyline that’s a little stale at this point?
So I would say the answer to this last question leans more toward no, but I’ll be glad to be proven wrong.