Warning: this post contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, so please do not read before watching the film if you want to avoid them. Image copyright – StarWars.com.
So the latest Star Wars blockbuster The Last Jedi has hit cinemas, the eighth instalment of the “saga” films following on from 2015’s The Force Awakens. And if you’re at all plugged into the internet, then you’ve probably heard that the film has disappointed and even angered a portion of the fanbase.
I’ve heard such complaints as the film “isn’t Star Wars,” that it “rewrites the mythology” or that it “ruins Luke Skywalker.” And I can see where these complaints stem from, despite the fact that I don’t necessarily agree with them.
But the key to truly enjoying TLJ – at least for me – was divorcing myself from expectation.
Easier said than done, right?
On the surface, you might be thinking, there was a weight of expectation for TFA, so what’s different? Well yes, that’s true. Abrams had the difficult job of reintroducing Star Wars to a modern audience, with mostly new characters, and it was one of the most anticipated films of all time. A cultural event, even.
But that was also TFA’s strength. The expectation was to nail the tone and make us care about characters we’d never met – not easy, but Abrams delivered a nostalgia-fuelled adventure with charismatic characters who largely followed the plot blueprint of A New Hope. It was hugely well-received, with the stand-out criticism being that it “played it safe.”
And that’s where Johnson picked up the ball for Episode XIII, taking the saga films into uncharted territory with the characters Abrams made us fall in love with. And say what you will, but I’d argue you can’t accuse Johnson of playing it safe.
The difficulty with TLJ is that expectations were even higher this time. Building on the success of TFA and the strong foundation left by Abrams, Johnson was tasked with meeting or subverting the wealth of expectation fans were levelling at the film. We’ve had two years to speculate and theorise and create fantasies in our heads of what was going to happen next. All spurred on by those questions set up in TFA: Who are Rey’s parents? Who is Snoke? Will we see Luke fight the First Order?
We all wanted the perfect film: familiar and yet new. An almost impossible task.
In the second trailer for TLJ, Luke even states “this is not going to go the way you think.” And in that vein, Johnson purposefully sidesteps or subverts expectations at every turn, from Luke throwing his father’s lightsaber over his shoulder, to Snoke’s sudden death, to the reveal of Rey’s parents as “nobodies”, and ending with Luke facing down his nephew and the First Order on Crait as a Force-projection.
The film didn’t go the way I thought. At all. And that surprise can easily turn to disappointment and even outrage. But once I’d let go of my expectation and took the time to really think about how the narrative went, and how the characters developed, I have to say that TLJ is one of my favourite Star Wars instalments so far. Of course, I understand that if the film’s direction didn’t land with you, then that’s completely fine, but for me I think Johnson did something truly special here.
Let’s take Luke. I can’t be the only one who saw his X-Wing buried beneath the waves off the shore of Ahch-To and thought, he’s going to raise that Yoda-style by the end of the film and fly off to face down Kylo Ren with lightsaber in hand, right? I thought I wanted that. But actually, what Johnson gave me was a more complex, nuanced, interesting version of Luke Skywalker who, even after deciding to make the last heroic stand to give the Resistance a chance at survival, did so in a way that made sense to his character and the legend of Luke Skywalker, Jedi Master.
Luke didn’t go charging in with a lightsaber to save the day. He understood the nature of the Force and the mistakes of the Jedi Order – as well as his own failures – and he knew his place was not to war. He didn’t betray his resolution to remain on Ahch-To, and instead he used one of the most powerful examples of Force ability to save the day without a single act of violence. And then staring off into those twin suns, dissipating into the Force with “peace and purpose” – what a send-off.
That’s just one of the ways that I think Johnson has delivered a fantastic Star Wars film. There are so many other moments I could deep-dive into, not least of which is the reveal of Rey’s parents: a reminder that heroism isn’t a Skywalker trait, that power and self-worth isn’t where you come from but who you are as a person, and that it’s our choices that define us. The entire film is rooted in the characters, in their choices and the consequences of those choices – and it’s in this way that it boldly treads a new path. Helped along all the way by some stellar performances, from everyone involved actually (though Adam Driver stole the show for me).
So like I said before, divorce yourself from expectation. That’s my advice for enjoying The Last Jedi.
And I for one can’t wait to enjoy it on a second (and third, and fourth) viewing…