When I saw The Last Jedi on opening night I was disappointed. There were parts of it I enjoyed, but overall it left me with an unpleasant, deflated feeling. I think there were two reasons for this. One was simply that it was a late showing, I was a little under the weather, and I had to be up for work early. The other reason for my disappointment was it wasn’t the film I thought that I wanted.
Since then I’ve been back and forth. I’ve read almost everything online about it, both positive and negative. For a time I was angry with it. I felt that it killed the nobility of both Luke Skywalker and the Jedi. But now my opinion has shifted. On a second viewing I enjoyed it a lot more and gained respect for the creative choices Johnson and co. made.
As many defenders of the film have pointed out, Last Jedi is primarily a disruptor of nostalgia. It isn’t just that it takes the story in a new direction; It disrupts and questions essential tenets of the Star Wars universe itself. As I thought more deeply about the things in the film that upset me, I realized that some of my own calcified opinions about Star Wars were themselves in need of shaking up.
One thing I’ve found helpful is to reflect on where I originally wanted the story to go. I think what I was looking for was a Luke who responded to Rey by grabbing the lightsaber, firing it, rediscovering his resolve and heroic nature. From there he would train her as Yoda trained him. She would sense the Resistance in danger and rush to help them and confront Kylo. Luke would warn her it was too soon. She’d go anyway, have an intense saber fight with Kylo, and get wounded in some significant way. That’s what my brain was looking for because that’s the frame of Empire Strikes Back. That frame worked so well it’s no wonder I would want to see it done over.
The thing with repetition of a story is it feels good at first but ultimately isn’t satisfying. That’s the overall problem with nostalgia in pop culture. I enjoyed the new Beauty and the Beast. But there wasn’t much new about it, other than the novelty of seeing the story done by live actors. And I find that I have little desire to rewatch it. The original cartoon is still definitive for me. When I want the story that’s what I’ll return to(or even, gasp, the original written story).
So if Last Jedi had been more like Empire it probably would have satisfied me more on my first viewing. But I think I would be less likely to return to it. It also wouldn’t have generated the kind of discussion which Last Jedi is. If anything, all of the myriad responses and viewpoints on Last Jedi are proof that it’s a powerful film. You can’t talk this much about a dull or uninteresting story.
Ultimately I think the character of Luke comes out stronger in Last Jedi. For me Luke has always been etched into stone as the badass of Return of the Jedi in the black cloak. He’s the man who almost single-handedly revived the Jedi and saved the Republic. It’s hard to see cracks in our idols. But I’ve come to see that Last Jedi shows Luke cracked in order to show him reborn. When he confronts his own failure and the Jedi’s, we also must look at our own deification of the original films. The Jedi were far from perfect in those films. Through their misreading of Anakin they destroyed themselves and brought down the Republic. Obi-Wan patronized Luke and twisted the truth by lying to him about his paternity. To contemplate and face up to the failure of religion can itself lead to a strengthening of religion, which is perhaps the core theme of the film.
It’s hard to contemplate the heroic Luke killing Ben Solo. But it’s pretty clear this was a momentary response of despair to his realization that Solo had let the dark side in. Luke wouldn’t have actually gone through with it, yet in that moment of failure and weakness Ben Solo was lost for good and brought Luke’s whole Jedi restoration project crashing down. This is damn powerful drama and just the kind of complication the Star Wars universe needs to stay interesting. Especially because the story makes it clear that the Jedi are far from finished. Luke rejoins the fight, his long dark night of existential despair a necessary catharsis to carrying the Jedi forward. As Yoda reminds him, failure is a necessary teacher.
I still don’t think Last Jedi is a perfect film. The First Order/Resistance chase felt a little repetitive. And The First Order itself isn’t quite as interesting or complex as it could be. I would have liked a little more explication about how the First Order gained such dominance after the total ass-whipping the Empire suffered in Return of the Jedi. You’d expect republican values in the galaxy to be just a little stronger and more prevalent than a few harassed ships in flight.
While I loved Canto Bight, I still thought that whole subplot was a bit clunky and didn’t fit very well in the overall narrative. But quite frankly, there are more than a few plot elements in the original trilogy that can be critiqued as well. Those are immortal films, but we’ve also set them in stone and put them beyond criticism when even they have their imperfections. A lot like the Jedi when you think about it.
Obviously the pivotal scene in Last Jedi was the Rey/Snoke/Kylo scene. It’s one of the greatest scenes the franchise has ever done, and takes the conflict in an unexpected direction. Luke’s final battle was a fitting way for him to pass the torch and join the ranks of Obi-Wan and Yoda. As I think about the third film of this trilogy I now find myself anticipating it all the more. I can’t imagine what will happen because Johnson has made it next to impossible for Abrams to simply recreate Return of the Jedi. In this he has done fans and the Star Wars universe a major service. You can relive the greatness of a story by doing it over. But you can only move a story forward by doing something different.