It has now been a year since the release of The Last Jedi, the eighth installment of the Skywalker saga.
Directed by Rian Johnson, the movie was met with near universal acclaim from critics, earning high praise as one of the best films in the saga. That reaction was contrasted a bit by a very vocal segment of fans adamant that the movie was terrible. And so here we are, a year later, with The Last Jedi remaining one of the more divisive movies in the saga.
In this article, I’m not about to get into all of the details or arguments that people make, and I have made it quite clear what my opinion is of the film: I think it is in the discussion for the best Star Wars film ever made, and it is my personal favorite. I would rank it third on my Star Wars film rankings overall (behind The Empire Strikes Back and A New Hope), but I think that it is definitely deserving of being in the discussion for the best. And part of the reason I think that is because of how tremendously and decisively The Last Jedi is determined to be a good movie, period, and not just a Star Wars movie.
Now, understand me on this: I absolutely love Star Wars, and I totally love all of the films and thoroughly enjoy them all. To me, the more Star Wars, the better. But I think that there are times where the Star Wars fandom can get in their own way; that is, fans have subverted expectations so subtly that they can then miss storytelling beats. This isn’t a movie that is interested in easter eggs or catering to fan expectations, though it certainly does include some of both. This is a movie that, first and foremost, seeks to be a good film set within the Star Wars universe. And that means that Rian Johnson employs some storytelling techniques that seem a bit… crazy, at least to Star Wars fans.
To illustrate what I mean, take the example of Rey’s parents. Quite frankly, I don’t care what your thoughts are on that reveal – that’s not my point in bringing this up. Rather, I want to address that complaint you may often hear: “her parents didn’t even matter! What a joke! They led us astray!” To be clear, The Force Awakens did lead us to wonder whether she was the daughter of Han Solo, and then whether she was the daughter of Luke Skywalker, but the larger picture is that the movie got us wondering, “who is she? Where and why does she belong in this story?” And that’s precisely the question you should have been asking, but not because Rey’s parents matter to you but because they matter to her. This is a classic storytelling technique that goes way back, but we’re used to having more information than the characters. In this instance, though, we’re on a journey with Rey. And so, when Rey confronts the truth she has always suspected and feels the gut-punch, we’re supposed to feel it too. We are supposed to wonder why it even matters. Because that’s exactly what Rey is trying to figure out: why does she matter, and how does she fit in to this story? The reveal of Rey’s parents is significant not because of the audience but because of Rey.
Or, to take as another example, the death of Snoke. Again, regardless of what your opinions are on that, many fans have complained that they didn’t reveal any backstory about the Supreme Leader, as if to suggest that it was Rian Johnson’s obligation to give us the Wikipedia page. But no movie is obligated to tell the entirety of a character’s backstory, especially a secondary character such as Snoke; the movie is obligated only to tell the viewer the necessary information to understand what’s happening. That’s precisely what Johnson does, as we know this: Snoke is a powerful being strong in the Force who seduced Kylo Ren and is now the master of Kylo and the leader of the First Order; and we know that he is a great threat when Rey is brought before him. That is actually far more information than we had about the Emperor in the original trilogy, by the way. But this is Star Wars, and in the Star Wars universe we are used to knowing as much as possible about a character. But the movies have never set out to reveal all of that fully (especially when dealing with a secondary character), nor should they. I am confident that we will learn more about Snoke one day, probably in the form of books and/or comics. But The Last Jedi told us everything we needed to know about him, and here’s the bottom line: Snoke wasn’t significant so much for what his past history has been but for what his present impact on Kylo was.
But The Last Jedi also declines to cater exactly to fan expectations, and it’s all the better for it. Rian Johnson had to begin with a Luke Skywalker who has lost hope and cut himself off from the Force – there was no other reasonable place to go – but he chose to teach us lessons through Luke and his failures. He chose to present a version of our hero in which Luke isn’t perfect – an apparently daring task, judging by the reaction. But he also chose to present a version of our hero restoring his hope, embracing his destiny, re-connecting to the Force, and saving the day heroically. Here’s the thing, though: fans spent decades reading stories about the EU version of Luke Skywalker, and now that the films are taking a different approach, it’s hard for some of these fans to grapple with. It is, to them, hard to let go of the past to embrace the present and the future. The EU, for as good as it was as times, tainted our view of what it means to be a Jedi, and tainted our view of Luke Skywalker. In reality, though, The Last Jedi understands the Jedi and the character of Luke Skywalker far better than most fans do.
Anyway, in all of this I’ve simply been sharing some of my thoughts on why there has been such a divisive response to the film, albeit from the perspective of having loved the film. There are some fans who unfortunately disliked the film for racist or misogynistic reasons, and those criticisms should just be dismissed without consideration. There were others who disliked the film but seemed to fail to understand it, whether because they failed to understand filmmaking, Star Wars, etc. And then there are some fans who simply didn’t enjoy the film, which is fine. I’m not saying that everyone can just be neatly categorized like this, but I do think that there is a significant lack of understanding about the film from those who seek to criticism it. And ultimately, they don’t want to go somewhere, they want to return to their nostalgia. I’m not bashing that as much as I’m urging them to heed the advice of Rose Tico: focus on what you love, not on what you hate.
So for me, I’ll continue focusing on The Last Jedi because I absolutely love it, and because I think there’s so much there to unpack, understand, and analyze. So anyway, on that note, be sure to check out all of my posts on The Last Jedi here, and below are links to some of the more prominent ones: