Coming out of The Force Awakens in 2015, many fans voiced their concerns that Episode VII was merely a carbon copy of Episode IV: A New Hope. Director J.J. Abrams was described as being “too safe” and didn’t take many chances in further expanding upon this incredible universe. While The Force Awakens was still received in a fairly positive light, new director Rian Johnson had a difficult task before him: continue down that safe path that Abrams paved or ruffle up the feathers, so to speak.
And boy, did he do some ruffling.
There were quite a few questionable decisions that Johnson made in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi that we won’t know how big of an impact they’ll be until this current trilogy concludes with Episode IX. One of the biggest mysteries heading into The Last Jedi was Rey’s parentage. Many fan theories linked her with the Skywalkers or even Obi-Won Kenobi, due to her raw power of the Force. She had to be some long-lost relative of either of those Jedi names, there was no other way to explain it.
Well, Johnson took those theories and threw them out the window. In the aftermath of Supreme Leader Snoke’s surprising demise (more on that later), Kylo Ren tells Rey that “she came from nothing” and that “her parents sold her for drinking money”. That’s a bit of a disappointment, considering most Star Wars fans had been trying to piece together Rey’s origins for the past two years. Johnson’s message behind this revelation is that heroes can come from anywhere, which includes nothing. You don’t need to be born into power to amount to greatness. While I admire this concept, I’m still holding out hope that this was one big fake out for the ultimate reveal in Episode IX. Fans have already begun creating new theories, the most interesting one being that Rey might be a clone from Luke Skywalker’s severed hand.
Now, let’s circle back to Snoke. Abrams built this polarizing villain in The Force Awakens who was shrouded in a cloud of mystery. This “being” was the one responsible for turning young Ben Solo to the Dark Side, the leader of the tyrannical First Order, and determined to destroy Luke. It was never explained where or how Snoke became to be in Episode VII, and now, it looks like we may never know those answers. While it’s unknown what sort of plan Abrams had in store for Snoke, Johnson decided the Supreme Leader had overstayed his welcome. Kylo Ren dispatched his former master and ascended to the top of the First Order hierarchy. Snoke’s early demise was a shocker to say the least and makes the upcoming Episode IX that much more intriguing, but still leaves me wanting more. I understand we aren’t owed anything from Johnson, or Abrams to that extent, but it’s strange that Johnson included moments in the movie where Snoke proved to be a pretty important character, like when Luke explained to Rey that Snoke had already turned Ben to the Dark Side in his flashback while at his Jedi temple. Johnson’s explanation behind Ben succumbing to the Dark Side feels incomplete. Again, we can hope at the very least that Snoke and Kylo’s early relationship gets flushed out in the next movie.
If there’s one thing that this new trilogy has not had a lot of, it’s lightsaber battles. This notion doesn’t change with The Last Jedi, but it does feature the best lightsaber fight scene of the new films. After Snoke’s shocking demise, Kylo Ren and Rey team-up to take down the former Supreme Leader’s Elite Praetorian Guards. Seeing Kylo and Rey work together, even if it was for different reasons, was pretty cool to see. The continued character development for Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver throughout The Last Jedi was very interesting to watch, as they both struggled with the ideals of the Light and Dark Sides of the Force. Kylo seems overwhelmed by the idea that he is destined to be the new Vader and wants to pave his own path in the galaxy (possibly explaining why he ended up killing Snoke). He also believes it’s too late for him to return to the Light. Rey, on the other hand, appeared to have been inching closer to the Dark Side. On Ahch-To, she descended into the mysterious dark hole that Luke told her was the Dark Side to search for answers about her parents. And following her team-up battle, she gave the brief impression that she was at least thinking about joining Kylo and the First Order. Although Rey ultimately escaped Kylo’s grasp and seemed to be fully committed to the Light, I can’t help but think there’s more behind her lack of resistant toward the Dark Side. Maybe the idea of “balance in the Force” is effectively using both the Light and the Dark Sides?
Even though Rey and Kylo’s character developments continued in a proper way, others did not yield the same progression. John Boyega’s Ex-Stormtrooper Finn is an intriguing character. Since The Force Awakens, we’ve seen him defect from the First Order, join the Resistance by accident, try to flee the Resistance to find Rey, lead a virtual suicide mission with newcomer and fan-favorite Rose, attempt an actual suicide mission but fail due to Rose, and then seemingly engage in a confusing and quite rushed romantic relationship with Rose. To put it simply: Finn’s development has been all over the place. Is he a coward? A hero? Somewhere in between? Johnson didn’t do Finn any favors with how his story played out in The Last Jedi. Instead of feeling like Finn is a definitive member of this new trinity with Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron and Rey that mirrors the original big three of Luke, Han Solo, and Leia, Finn comes across more as a complicated third wheel. Sure he’s proven his ability to rise up to the occasion in fighting the First Order, but something just feels “off” with his overall character. And the romance with Rose, if it’ll blossom into that in the final installment, doesn’t seem right (and that’s not because I personally endorse the idea of Poe and Finn getting together). There never seemed to be any chemistry between the two, other than Rose gawking over Finn when they first met because she thought he was some famous hero. The two spent less than 24 hours with each other during the failed mission in disabling the First Order’s tracking device and that somehow correlates to romantic feelings? I’m not buying it. I’m going to keep my dream of Poe and Finn finding happiness together alive.
The use of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi was a little puzzling as well. Mark Hamill was a treasure once again as the former Jedi Master, but with what was viewed as one of the biggest moments of cinema in 2017, the return of Luke Skywalker, I couldn’t help but feel a bit underwhelmed. Essentially a hermit now following the horrific events at his Jedi temple, Luke seems to be a fraction of the hero we last saw in Return of the Jedi. While he eventually decides to teach Rey some Jedi lessons (which were a bit on the lame side), Luke never really displayed his tremendous Jedi power. Having him speak with Force ghost Yoda and seeing R2-D2 try to convince him to help the Resistance by playing the old Leia “You’re My Only Hope” recording was a nice shout-out to nostalgia, but other than that, what really was Luke’s purpose? He filled in the plot hole of what happened to him following Episode VI and how he’s mostly responsible for Ben taking that final step toward the Dark Side. So why was Luke so sheepish to help the Resistance? Wouldn’t he have been eager to right his wrong and try and bring Ben back to the Light, just like he brought Anakin back? Even though it was a clever plan of Luke’s to use the Force to project an image of himself to confuse Kylo Ren, did he really have to die? I’m assuming Luke will be back in Episode IX as a Force ghost to give Rey additional guidance, just for the simple fact that I’m not sure his ending in The Last Jedi truly honors him.
Johnson and his team had big shoes to fill, as anyone would when it comes to properly making a Star Wars film. Coming off of what was basically A New Hope 2.0, it was up to Johnson to deviate from that path and not re-create The Empire Strikes Back. He might’ve not hit the right cords for some fans, he did accomplish what he set out to do and that was to create an overall compelling, fun, and intense Star Wars adventure. The subtle inclusion of witty humor throughout the movie made it feel fresh, and the character developments of Rey and Kylo were done perfectly. Finn and Snoke felt underutilized, and the overall reveal of Rey’s origins were a huge disappointment. Luke’s overall arc felt slightly confusing and out of place for the former Rebel hero. However, with so much stacked against Johnson, he was still able to deliver a quality middle entry in this trilogy.
Final Score: 8.75/10
*Special Carrie Fisher note*
Johnson’s portrayal of Leia could not have been executed any better. Actress Carrie Fisher’s death in 2016 was devastating, but Johnson effectively showcased why everyone grew up loving her. The hope, wisdom, and courage she’s presented over her illustrious career has impacted so many people. The Last Jedi properly displayed how strong and important Leia is to the Resistance, and in extension, Fisher in real life. The end credits put every fan’s emotions toward Fisher very nicely:
In loving memory of our princess, Carrie Fisher.