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Question Club: Breaking down our favorite things about The Last Jedi

Question Club: Breaking down our favorite things about The Last Jedi


And addressing some of our nagging doubts

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The Last Jedi takes a lot of large steps forward for Star Wars, both for this latest trilogy, and for the franchise as a whole. There are some big changes here — in the characters and the scope of the narrative, especially. Our initial Last Jedi review talks about some of the movie’s broadest themes and ideas without plot spoilers, but this is a spoiler-heavy space, so if you haven’t seen the film yet, this may not be the conversation for you. Let’s talk Last Jedi: the big reveals, the twists, and above all, how it met or didn’t meet our expectations.

How are you feeling about the direction Last Jedi takes the Star Wars franchise?

Thuy: The Last Jedi answers a few of the questions The Force Awakens raised: what does Luke first say to Rey? Who are Rey’s parents? Is Snoke a giant? I’ve watched a lot of theory videos (like how Snoke is really Mace Windu and the infamous Jar Jar Binks is a Sith Lord), but every one of them addressing The Last Jedi was pretty much wrong. So the new film was surprising in many ways. It’s structured differently from past films, despite throwbacks to previous installments. I think Rey and Kylo Ren had the most interesting, dynamic storyline. I liked where the sequel took both characters, especially when we see their Force connection, and get a deeper look into Kylo’s psyche. He has so much depth, and really great character development, especially when compared to Anakin’s character arc in the prequel trilogies. Last Jedi leaves open some questions for the next film, and kept me satisfied, but still wanting more.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

Bryan: The Last Jedi is the rare franchise movie embraces its series’s tropes and subverts them at the same time. What stood out to me as the most dramatic subversion was that this was the first Star Wars film, arguably since the original A New Hope, that felt wholly informed by its director’s sensibilities. Sure, Irvin Kershner gave The Empire Strikes Back a sense of gravitas that didn’t seem to interest George Lucas, and The Force Awakens was full of J.J. Abrams’ stylistic flair. But The Last Jedi is definitively a Rian Johnson movie, perhaps even more than it is a Star Wars film. From the irreverent, slapstick humor and gorgeous, jaw-dropping visuals (Vice Admiral Holdo’s sacrifice, I’m looking at you) to the thoughtful rethink of the Jedi mythos Star Wars fans have taken for granted, Last Jedi boldly steps away from the rest of the franchise. Johnson has refined his unique style over the course of his career, but the fact that he was free to express it fully here is thrilling. Turning Star Wars into a property people will want to revisit year and after year is going to require diversity in perspective, tone, and approach. The Last Jedi appears to be proof that filmmakers will be given the freedom to reimagine Lucas’ world in ways he never would have thought of. That’s a direction I’ve very much interested in.

Chaim: Tasha touched on this in her review, but if there’s a running thread through the film, it’s about letting go of the past and forging a new path forward. For a longtime Star Wars fan who’s read far, far more of the now-defunct Expanded Universe than is necessarily healthy, that’s an exciting message. Abandoning older characters and plotlines — even ones as well-loved as Han Solo and Luke Skywalker — in favor of a new generation of heroes who aren’t necessarily tied to the Skywalkers is a wonderful direction for the franchise, and I’m looking forward even more now than ever to see where it goes next.

Tasha: Generational shift for a franchise is rough, and it runs the risk of looking blatantly commercial, especially when it’s too obviously about abandoning expensive, famous, in-demand legacy actors in favor of cheaper, prettier new replacements. (Look how clumsily and transparently Glee handled it. Or to jump generations back, how the original animated Transformers movie casually killed off all the old characters in the beginning to make way for new toys.) So one of the things that’s impressed me most about Force Awakens and now Last Jedi is the way it’s respected and acknowledged the past while moving on to the future. With the new film, we get to see that Han Solo’s death had lasting meaning, that Luke and Leia are older but still very much the same people they always were, and that change is inevitable. I’m glad to see the old characters getting so much screen time and having so much impact. It’s such a relief that Carrie Fisher got some real character beats before she died, and that Luke goes out on such a powerful moment. But Johnson’s “let go of the past” message is welcome here as well, and he makes it meaningful.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

What did the new characters bring to the table for you?

Thuy: Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo was a highlight, especially as a foil to Poe. It was interesting to see how they had the same goal, but executed it completely differently. Conflict among the good guys in Star Wars is rare and exciting (especially when Poe declares mutiny to a shocked C-3PO), and it helped keep the drawn-out middle of the film moving. I was happy to see Kelly Marie Rose as Rose Tico. Having an Asian woman as part of the ensemble is a step toward better reflecting society, and she was great. I would have liked to have seen her develop more, but that’s hard, given the already long runtime of the film. I felt like her friendship with Finn was really worthwhile, though I question the romantic aspect. (Their kiss seemed unjustified, but she does think she’s dying.) Benicio Del Toro’s DJ is a terrific character, but he sidetracks the main narrative. It’s nice to have a character with some shades of gray.

Chaim: I’m with Thuy in that Vice Admiral Holdo was served the best of the new characters — I’m glad to have proof that there are other important people in this universe besides our protagonists. Rose and DJ aren’t as worthwhile; Rose felt like another case of introducing a new character who can re-examine the world with a fresh face, and DJ was hard for me to take seriously as anything other than “Benicio del Toro doing another weird Benicio del Toro character,” especially since Rose and Finn’s entire journey with him was ultimately revealed as pointless.

Tasha: That’s where I landed as well. If future installments draw out Rose’s headstrong, pugnacious attitude, they could make her into something unique. I was bothered by her sabotaging Finn’s glorious suicide, not because I wanted him dead (or wanted another “crash my ship into the bad guys to defeat them” move in a film that already has two of them), but because he’s trying to save his friends, and she wrecks that plan without having one of her own. She needed more to do in this movie besides undoing other people’s choices.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

Bryan: I think Rose and DJ will both pay dividends later down the road. So much care goes into setting up Rose’s sister — can we all just take a moment to appreciate that opening bombing run again? — that I expected her to be more of a fully realized character. Instead, she’s sidelined with quests that don’t develop her character or forward the plot. I got the sense that Johnson had a version of Rose he wanted to deliver, and he wasn’t quite able to. Same goes for DJ — Benicio del Toro channels a little of The Usual Suspects’ Fenster here, with the exaggerated speech affectation. I’ll pretty much watch that character sit silently and eat cornflakes, and I’ll consider it entertaining. But DJ plays like a setup that never pays off. Perhaps it’s the way he echoes Han Solo — dumping and running when the money dictates it — but unlike Solo, he doesn’t come through in the end with a satisfying reversal. This could all be an additional bit of meta-commentary about heroes, tropes, and expectations, but his arc wasn’t self-contained enough to feel like a complete thought for that approach to fly, either. I have a feeling we’ll be seeing Rose and DJ in Episode IX.

Tasha: I hope so. DJ was pretty close to a nothing for me, an accent and a smirk and a stutter, but not a real character. That said, he brings in something we haven’t seen enough of in the Star Wars cinematic universe: he puts a face on the perspective of amoral apathy of “Don’t choose sides, it’ll get you killed.” Han Solo offered that ideology in the first Star Wars, then abandoned it before the movie was out. But this galaxy is clearly full of people who are trying to live their lives without taking sides, and if future franchise installments (maybe Johnson’s side trilogy?) dig deeper into the universe of people who are ignoring the First Order / Resistance battle, he could be a significant herald of their perspective, even if he doesn’t continue as a character.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

Bryan: Also, Vice Admiral Holdo is fantastic. Strong, resilient, and ever so sure in her conviction — even while being faced down by rogue hotshots like Poe, who are usually great at rallying a room. Keeping somebody like Poe at bay the way Holdo does requires true strength and conviction, and the only disappointing thing about her (and Laura Dern’s performance) is that we won’t get to see her back for another round.

Tasha: Absolutely. You said the most subversive thing in Last Jedi was Johnson getting to put his personal stamp on the property. I think the most subversive thing in the film is the message that Holdo’s experience, wisdom, and leadership ability might be just as worthwhile as Poe’s cockiness and guts. I wish the film didn’t undermine that idea by having Holdo’s plan fall apart so rapidly and fatally, but at least she got to go out in style, with the best shot of the movie.

How did you feel about the ways the characters introduced in The Force Awakens develop here?

Tasha: Poe’s development stands out to me most. Maybe Johnson felt the most sense of freedom with that character, since The Force Awakens doesn’t tell us much about him, except that he’s resourceful, cheerful, and willing to make friends fast. After Last Jedi, we still don’t know much about Poe’s backstory, but we sure know how his arrogance comes out in a crisis, and how reluctant he is to back down when he thinks he’s right. The way Johnson uses that dynamic seems tremendously daring after so many “lone hero blows things up” movies, with Luke and Lando and Anakin each hopping into a small ship to take out some massive weapon. Poe isn’t a bad guy, but we see over and over throughout the movie that his cocky confidence gets people killed, undermines legitimate plans, and doesn’t even necessarily lead to victory.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

Chaim: I’ll second that. In Star Wars, being the “best star pilot in the galaxy” has been foundational. Watching Johnson turn that on its head was fantastic. I’d also highlight Kylo Ren’s revealed backstory and general deepening as a character. The fact that Luke did at least think about murdering him in his sleep doesn’t justify all the terrible things Kylo has done, but it moves him away from being just another angry man in a black mask and cape who shouts a lot.

Thuy: I was glad to see more of Rey’s struggles, and her acceptance of her parents abandoning her on Jakku. (Thank heaven she isn’t yet another Skywalker / Kenobi / Solo.) Finn’s arc was solid, but the middle act when they go look for the “master breaker” didn’t add much. I missed seeing Finn and Rey together. Their friendship was one of the best parts of The Force Awakens. I also really loved Maz, but she was barely in this movie. Will we ever learn where she comes from, or how she got Luke’s lightsaber? I was also devastated when Phasma was killed off. She was one of my favorite characters because she’s the first main female villain in Star Wars, and she’s rebellious and ruthless. I feel there’s a depth to her that wasn’t explored fully in the films. She got her own novel, but it wasn’t reflected on film. I’ll miss her.

Chaim: Phasma truly does seem destined to be the next Boba Fett: cool armor, barely any lines, dies almost immediately by falling into a pit, and yet destined to be a fan favorite.

Bryan: The way the film handles some of these characters was both impressive and disappointing. Snoke’s backstory was a huge question mark, and fans expected some sort of answer, just as they expected significance in Rey’s parentage, and the ongoing adventures of Captain Phasma. The Last Jedi boldly pushes all those elements off the table.

It’s just one of the ways the film makes its broader thematic point that obsessing over the past is futile, and self-realization lies in the future. Legends, heroes, and villains make for good stories, but they’re useful because they’re inspiring, not because the people that made those heroic (or evil) stands are somehow greater-than unto themselves. It’s bold, different, and utterly courageous. But it’s inevitably frustrating, because we as an audience expect things to resolve in a different way. It’s what we’ve been trained to do.

In a sense, the movie puts viewers through the same process of awakening and realization that Rey goes through, and it is not satisfying in several ways. But that is the point in and of itself. As Luke says, “This is not going to go the way you think.” Accepting that basic truth is key to appreciating what Johnson is doing in this movie.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

What are the movie’s biggest strengths and weaknesses?

Chaim: The best thing about The Last Jedi is the way it simply give the audience what it wants. The set piece battles are some of the most impressive in a Star Wars film, from the almost World War II-esque bombing run in the beginning to the Rey / Kylo team-up to the climactic moments with Luke facing down the entire fury of the First Order. Johnson simply delivers in a huge way on the big moments.

Tasha: The fight against the Praetorian Guard was a particular thrill, in part because we get to see weapons expressly designed to use against lightsabers, and we get to watch Kylo and Rey properly put through their paces as combatants. I’m a little tired of Star Wars space dogfights, which largely look the same to me at this point, but the personal battles are still exciting, and that sequence, with its vivid, dramatic red lighting, was visually distinctive in a way Star Wars hasn’t been in a while.

Thuy: That was probably my favorite scene, because they both really do kick ass. And what’s Star Wars without amazing lightsaber battles? Kylo and Rey’s developing relationship was one of the movie’s big strengths.

Chaim: But the movie doesn’t rely solely on big sequences to carry the day. It leans heavily on character developments, on Luke and Rey clashing over the past and future of the Jedi, or Poe running the worst mutiny in history.

Tasha: The moment where Leia shoots him may be my favorite thing in the film, both because she was overdue for some decisive physical action, and because it works so sharply against the hotshot-hero dynamic the Star Wars films love. The downside there is that his sulky little mutiny doesn’t just cost them some time and cost him some dignity. Sending Finn and Rose out on their mission directly leads to DJ giving up the Resistance to the First Order, which gets most of the Resistance killed. As much as I loved the movie subverting Poe, he ultimately faces no consequences for getting virtually all his allies killed.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

Chaim: And it doesn’t help that Finn and Rose’s mission makes the middle of the movie drag. The entire sequence in Canto Bight felt like an overextended attempt at recapturing the magic of Mos Eisley’s famous cantina. And the comedy undercuts more dramatic moments.

Thuy: It’s a little flat, only because it’s arguably unnecessary. It was cute in that it developed Finn and Rose’s friendship, but their riding on those goat-wolves was too CGI-heavy, and too much like Obi Wan Kenobi riding his varactyl and General Grievous in his giant wheel in Revenge of the Sith: a little chaotic and visually confusing. Maz’s brief scene was also a weakness. I wanted to know more about her. She’s so mystifying! Her sequence was a bit of an unsatisfying tease for Maz fans.

But overall, the humor was irreverent and funny, especially the scene when Luke just throws his lightsaber away. We waited two years to see what would happen with that face-off, and then the film entirely subverts the scene. Yoda’s brief return was a really nice sequence, and I’m glad Johnson returned to a physical puppet, instead of CGI Yoda from the prequels.

Bryan: I think the greatest strength of the film is the bold way it moves forward with new visual and thematic ideas. Star Wars is pretty set in its ways, and there is an undeniable, familiar beauty to that. But it can’t last forever, and The Last Jedi does a damn good job of elevating what could have been simpler genre material with some thoughtful, challenging ideas. And visually, the film is just stunning. There are many jaw-dropping moments of visual grace in this film — from starfighter battles to saber duels to the raw beauty of Skellig Michael — and Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin really have set a new bar for what this franchise can look like.

I agree that the Canto Bight scene slows things down. The design work is great, and DJ is a classic Star Wars scoundrel. But the space casino and Finn and Rose’s whole plot doesn’t quite earn its stay, particularly when the movie is coming in at two and a half hours. I do think they may pay off later in the grand design.

Image: Disney / Lucasfilm

What do you think about Last Jedi’s loose ends?

Chaim: Last Jedi left fewer of them than The Force Awakens, apart from leftover ideas that Last Jedi glosses over or ignores, like what Snoke’s deal was, how the First Order seems to have sprung up from out of nowhere, or where the so-called Knights of Ren are. But I was satisfied with Last Jedi’s unanswered questions, because they’re part of an ongoing story, instead of irrelevant mystery boxes like Rey’s parentage. The questions of whether the Resistance will convince its allies to join the fight, or what will happen next with Rey’s training as a fledgling Jedi, seem like natural stories to tell next, as opposed to niggling plot details.

Thuy: I still have questions about where Luke’s trainees went after the Kylo Ren incident, and I want Maz’s unknowns filled in. (Where did she get Luke’s lightsaber?) These questions still leave a lot of room for exploration in Star Wars IX. I’m planning to spend another two years watching YouTube theory videos, if only to satiate my curiosity.

Bryan: What loose ends? The Last Jedi, probably more than any other Star Wars film ever made, is a totally self-contained entity, wrapping up all its storylines and thematic ideas without any need for a follow-up. Yes, the First Order and Supreme Leader Kylo Ren are out there still, but the coda — in which young children are inspired by the Resistance — all but cancels that out. “This is all going to work out,” the movie seems to be saying in its final moments, “because the inspiration and hope these new characters provide will ultimately turn the tide.” Rey has rescued the ancient Jedi texts, so we know the wisdom of the Order will be reborn at some point.

It’s in stark contrast to the rest of the films. This is a franchise originally designed to be a serial, where every episode would lead to another in that old Flash Gordon style. The Last Jedi, on the other hand, doesn’t bother with that cliffhanger feel. It’s yet another example of letting go of the old to embrace the new, and walking out of the theater, I was trying to think about what burning questions I had — and there weren’t any. The exception was a meta-question, in terms of wondering how Abrams is going to handle the loss of Carrie Fisher in Episode IX. The original trilogy of Luke, Leia, and Han will be completely gone — save for an occasional Luke Force-ghost appearance, I imagine — which will put the movie in new territory.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? With The Last Jedi, Johnson wants to thrust the audience into the future, whether they’re ready for it or not. What lights up screens in 2019 will be dramatically, inexorably informed by the relative closure of The Last Jedi. Walking into the theater, I didn’t have any idea where Johnson would take this particular entry. Walking back out, I suddenly don’t have any idea where the entire Skywalker saga could be going. I haven’t felt that way about Star Wars since 1983. And you know what? It’s pretty nice.