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Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Entry updated 3 January 2022. Tagged: Film.

Film (2017). Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (see The Walt Disney Company) presents a Lucasfilm production in association with Ram Bergman Productions. Directed by Rian Johnson. Written by Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas. Cast includes John Boyega, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Daniels, Laura Dern, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Domhnall Gleeson, Mark Hamill, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Frank Oz, Daisy Ridley, Andy Serkis, Joonas Suotamo, Benicio del Toro and Kelly Marie Tran. 152 minutes. Colour.

A battle fleet of First Order Spaceships pursues the Resistance to an abandoned Rebel Alliance Keep on the mineral planet of Crait.

"The greatest teacher, failure is," says former Jedi Grand Master Yoda (Oz) to former pupil Luke Skywalker (Hamill) some two thirds of the way into the two and a half hours running time of The Last Jedi, his appearance as a ghost of the Force – and, moreover, as a digitally-augmented puppet rather than as an entirely computer-generated image – not so much a surprise as a necessary motif of remembrance. "We are what they grow beyond," Yoda says of Skywalker's failure to provide moral compass to proteges Rey (Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Driver): "That is the true burden of all mastery."

That Yoda's intervention persuades Skywalker, the last-remaining adherent of the Jedi Order's Pariah Elite, to end his self-imposed exile on the aquatic planet of Ahch-To reveals the central concern of the Star Wars franchise with equilibrium – a balance not only between the light and dark sides of the Force, but also between past and present, teacher and student, passivity and aggression, bipartite, universal themes mediated through the Politics of imperial and liberal elites that express themselves through the tropes of Military SF. Exploits are set against a Sense of Wonder generated by the visual splendour of intergalactic Fantasy. That this sort of Science Fantasy so often achieves its affect – this is an emotional film and all the better for it – by drawing on the symbols and referents of Religion is no accident: the Heroes and Villains of the Star Wars films are here to simplify rather than exemplify the complexities of running a Galactic Empire and writer and director Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed hard-boiled Crime mystery Brick (2005) and Time-Loop drama Looper (2012), evidently comprehends the importance of clear dramatic polarity to the picaresque action-as-character mode of Star Wars oeuvre, a metier George Lucas himself imported from the wandering swordsmen of Wuxia and from Samurai films such as The Hidden Fortress (1958), and which Lucas seemed to lay aside during the interminable colour-by-numbers of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).

The action picks up where Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) left off: the First Order fleet has gained the ability to track Resistance vessels through Hyperspace – the existence of which Technology was foreshadowed in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) – and following a well-staged Space Opera battle in which Resistance TIE fighters spear-headed by an impetuous Poe Dameron (Isaac) score a pyrrhic victory over a First Order dreadnought, destroys the bridge of the Resistance flagship, forcing an injured General Leia Organa (Fisher) to use the Force to survive being blown into space. Dameron, disapproving of the apparently-passive strategy of Leia's replacement as commander of the remnants of the Resistance flotilla, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Dern), and, indeed, of his own demotion in rank, lends his support to a covert mission on the part of newcomer Rose Tico (Tran) and former stormtrooper Finn (Boyega) to disable the tracking device on the First Order's lead ship, lending the Resistance enough time to make one final leap into hyperspace.

The Slingshot Ending of The Force Awakens – and its implication that Rey formed some part of the Skywalker family heritage – is quickly and amusingly discarded in favour of an inter-generational stand-off between a depressive, self-pitying Luke Skywalker and an energetic but emotionally-bereft Rey, a difficult-but-necessary relationship which in turn informs the development of an intense light/dark, male/female, quasi-brother/sister affiliation between Rey and Kylo Ren. If there is one thing that buttresses the scope of The Last Jedi – aside, that is, from its faithful re-tread of the narrative beat of Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) much as did The Force Awakens that of Star Wars (1977) – it is this simple decision to dramatize the conflict in the balance of the Force through Rey and the former Ben Solo. The back-and-forth Telepathy between the two younger proponents of the Force (depicted here in the dialogue-through-montage style of a great many Wuxia films and ably augmented by subtle shifts in sound level and visual impact by film editor Bob Ducsay) lends the film an emotional core beyond that of nostalgia, victory or spectacle. "For those Force connections, I needed them to talk," writer and director Rian Johnson told entertainment website People in January 2018. "Every time we shot one of their sides, the other person was off camera. Even to the point where Adam flew to Ireland just to be off camera for Daisy's stuff, which was essential because they're such intimate conversations."

"Your parents threw you away like garbage and you can't stop needing them," Kylo Ren tells Rey, a prodigal son resenting his own oedipal impulses and able, as such, to perceive a similar Psychology at work in his counterpart. "I thought I'd find answers here," Rey says of the cave she has entered on the remote island of Ahch-To, recalling the shamanic journey of her teacher Luke Skywalker on the swamp planet of Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. She has activated her most heartfelt desire to ask the smoking mirror therein for a vision of her parents – as, indeed, did Harry Potter of the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001) – but instead of a buried family Memory or message of loving reassurance Rey receives a vision of herself, recurring without end in the darkness. "I was wrong," she tells Ren: "I've never felt so alone." "You're not alone," he replies. "Neither are you," she says.

Persuaded that she can call Kylo Ren back to the light, Rey walks into the trap set by Supreme Leader Snoke (Serkis) of the First Order – these are more or less neo-Nazi versions of the Nazi-like Empire defeated in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) – and his insatiable hunger to control every possible expression of the Psi Powers connected to the Force. "It was I who bridged your minds," Snoke tells Rey and Kylo Ren, "... Give me everything." As with much of the Wuxia on which Star Wars is based, movement expresses both spiritual elevation and the sudden irruption of characters' Inner Space into the environments over which they are fighting, here tied to Jedi-derived powers of Telekinesis and psychic projection. Basic New Wave techniques such as cutting back and forth between Adam Driver's scarred and ravaged face and the crimson lesions on the salt-surface of Crait during The Last Jedi's final showdown pays dividends to the film's creative combination of intimacy and spectacle. Rian Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin know what they are doing and have the budget and personnel to do it well.

Much of the rest of the film is dedicated to reminding people what they loved about the initial Star Wars trilogy and to marketing these memories to a younger audience. "I grew up not just watching those movies but playing with those toys," Rian Johnson said in an interview with filmmaker Terry Gilliam in September 2014 – the score of The Last Jedi (by John Williams, who scored the original Star Wars trilogy) quotes "Aquarela do Brasil" (1939) by Ary Barroso (1903-1964) as a nod to Gilliam's sf Dystopia Brazil (1985) – and this is where the most fruitful conjunction of Disney's commercial strategy and the previously-dashed hopes of Star Wars Fandom tends to occur. "The first movies I was making in my head were set in this world," Johnson told Gilliam. "A big part of it is that direct connection, almost like an automatic jacking back into childhood in a weird way." The only reference to a workforce beyond obedient droids (see Robots) and cute anthropomorphic creatures – sometimes these are bi-associated combinations of Earth-like fauna, sometimes visual quotations from the works of Beatrix Potter (1866-1943) or the Anime of Studio Ghibli – is to child labour, and to Toys as the means to escape Imperialist oppression. The movie would have been briefer and, perhaps, better if not for the detour to the Canto Bight casino on the desert world of Cantonica (one part Monte Carlo to two parts Hong Kong jockey club) on the part of Finn and Rose Tico, but this does provide a welcome, and perhaps necessary, broadening of the ethnic and dramatic range of the ensemble and the opportunity to introduce codebreaker DJ (Del Toro), who is an analogue of the Lando Calrissian character from The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi: "Good guys, bad guys; made up words ... it's all a machine, partner." Laura Dern and Carrie Fisher do a good job of counter-balancing the frenetic impetuosity around them and even manage an exchange or two in which they do not merely discuss the doings of male characters. The strategy and tactics of the space battles will, however, make very little sense to fans of the internal coherence of Genre SF: Vice-Admiral Holdo's final sacrifice to delay the pursuit of the First Order fleet makes somewhat of a mockery of the tactics she has employed up till that point; why did no-one ram the slow-moving and combustible behemoths of the First Order fleet sooner? The theme of The Last Jedi remains strong throughout, nevertheless: it is not only that the energy of youth must be combined with the wisdom of age to create lasting change but also that age must accommodate the dangerous activity of youth to be truly wise. "It's time to let all things die," Kylo Ren tells Rey after they have combined to kill arch-villain Snoke: "Snoke. Skywalker. The Rebels. Let it all die ... Rey, I want you to join me." Rey declines the offer on the part of her animus to rule the Empire at his side and Kylo Ren is instead reduced to filling the boots of his mentor in the dark side of the Force. "The Supreme Leader is dead," says General Hux (Gleeson) in incredulity as Kylo Ren tells him he has taken over from Snoke; then, as Kylo Ren applies the trademark telekinetic choke-hold: "Long live the Supreme Leader ..."

The novelization Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2018) is by Jason Fry. [MD]


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