FANS OF SCIENCE FICTION franchises are notoriously difficult to please, to the point that deviation from their narrow expectations is taken not just as a mistake, but as nothing less than heresy. It is no surprise, then, that the chief criticisms of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017) have come from long-time fans. So bitter and heated has the atmosphere become, that director Rian Johnson has been accused of the worst crime of all: literally killing Star Wars.
Yet The Last Jedi has received overwhelmingly positive critical reviews from critics and audiences alike. On his radio programme, Mark Kermode called it a ‘brilliant balancing act’ that ‘appears to have been constructed around coherent character arcs’ like ‘a series of stones skipping across the water’; any flaws he identified were secondary to how well the broader drama and narrative worked. Other film critics have gone as far as to call it the best Star Wars film yet, surpassing even The Empire Strikes Back. Audiences have cheered and laughed and applauded. So why is there such a disconnect with the fans?
Rian Johnson had a challenge ahead of him. Though entertaining and accomplished, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015) played it safe, leaving too many questions for others to answer. In the typical style of J.J. Abrams, vague questions were used as narrative hooks, rather than to create a genuine sense of mystery. In this fevered atmosphere of speculation, fans emerged with half-baked theories and clichéd, masturbatory predictions: Rey’s parentage, the identity of Snoke, and the future role of Luke Skywalker were among their favourite topics. Johnson couldn’t come up with a simple explanation without disappointing the fanboys, but neither could he wade deep into the extended universe without alienating casual viewers. Instead, he did something wholly unexpected and totally subversive.
Rather than playing to the expectations of the fans, Rian Johnson chose to deconstruct them. As a result, this film is probably more unexpected and original than any that came before it. Rey, as it turns out, is a nobody, Snoke is exposed as a fraud, and Luke’s character far removed from his heroic expectations. Indeed, Luke’s first act in the film is to totally subvert the moment of high dramatic tension at the end of The Force Awakens by lobbing his father’s lightsaber over his shoulder. ‘This is not going to go the way that you think,’ he says, speaking not just to Rey but to all the Star Wars fans anticipating the swaggering, lightsaber swinging Jedi master promised by the fan-pandering Rogue One (Gareth Edwards, 2016).
It’s a relentless, exhausting film, but you are left with a sense that everything that happens matters in some way. Even the casino scene, which upon first inspection seems like a diversion, eventually blends into an overarching whole. That whole is marked by failure: a failure to act, a failure to obey, a failure to see the bigger picture, and a failure to live up to expectations. This is manifested in the arrogance that led to Snoke’s death, in Poe Dameron’s unwillingness to follow orders putting his friends in danger, and in Finn and Rose’s pointless and reckless gambit to save the Resistance.
Where the film really succeeds is in the interactions between Kylo Ren and Rey.
However, the theme is most clearly embodied by Luke Skywalker, who we find a bitter, jaded man keen to tell Rey – and, more pointedly, the audience – that he is not the legendary Jedi warrior she wants him to be. Instead of wading into the conflict swinging his famous green lightsaber around, he wants to die, taking the Jedi, the past, and Star Wars convention with him. Mark Hamill’s performance is top notch in these scenes, perfectly portraying the grumpy space hermit with plenty of Luke’s traditional good humour and charm. You get a real sense of his isolation, his failure, and his rejection of the past, and in this way Rian Johnson is telling the fans to do the same.
Where the film really succeeds is in the interactions between Kylo Ren and Rey, whose on-screen chemistry and the best performance of the saga from Adam Driver, add an extra dimension to the film’s drama. This connection, both through the Force and in their battle against Snoke’s henchmen, gives weight to Ren’s momentous decision to take charge of the First Order, and Rey’s rejection of his invitation to join him. My only concern is that Rey will be used as little more than a plot device for Kylo Ren’s redemption by the more pedestrian J.J. Abrams.
Rian Johnson clearly knows what makes Star Wars such an enduring favourite. He knows what drives the fans. What makes The Last Jedi different, however, is that he doesn’t care; the film’s rejection of nostalgia and convention is what sets it apart from its predecessors. Johnson knows – and it’s through Luke that he explains this – that fans want lightsaber battles and epic feats of heroism; they want the Darth Vader hallway scene from Rogue One playing on repeat behind a soaring John Williams soundtrack. Instead of giving the fans what they wanted, Johnson took their expectations and threw them over his shoulder. And they hate it.
It is by no means a perfect film. Snoke’s sudden death and lack of backstory grate, while the diversionary casino plot needed shoring up. Laura Dern’s character would have benefited from more screentime, but her heroic and spectacular sacrifice remains a highlight. But Star Wars has never been high culture. It is pulpy space opera, and The Last Jedi embraces this, offering something new and original while sticking to its roots. The new characters remain excellent – although Finn and Rose are short-changed somewhat – with proper, compelling character arcs. Adam Driver can feel aggrieved if his performance doesn’t earn him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
Luke could never live up to the expectations fans have built up over the last 34 years. In The Last Jedi, he comes to terms with this, fading away at peace with the Force and assured of his future role – one foreshadowed, I’m sure, by Yoda’s appearance as a force ghost. In doing so, Rian Johnson wants the fans to do the same, to, as Kylo Ren says, ‘let the past die. Kill it if you have to.’ Unfortunately, he’s underestimated just how fickle Star Wars fans really are. When J.J. Abrams returns to direct Episode IX, due for release in 2019, he will undoubtedly play it safer than Johnson has, but The Last Jedi has done enough to drag this venerable franchise towards a more dynamic future.