The Last Jedi illustrates an important point: Star Wars is finally growing up
What makes Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi truly remarkable is that the film took the brave risk of breaking away from the usual Star Wars formula.
When George Lucas created the original Star Wars trilogy in 1977, the world was a very different place.
It had just witnessed the massive cinematic universe which Lucas had created, full of Jedi, Sith, lightsabers, space cowboys, elaborate spaceship battles, and one of the most iconic and complex antagonists cinema has ever seen: Darth Vader.
Science fiction would never be the same again.
It is perhaps because of this rich legacy of the original Star Wars trilogy that we often tend to ignore the highly simplistic characters and overall plot of Star Wars movies behind all the sexy and exciting special effects and action.
This is especially true of the movies which followed the original trilogy. In fact, many die-hard Star Wars fans also like to pretend that the prequel trilogy of the ‘90s and early 2000s never existed. Even The Force Awakens could not escape this bad habit.
The biggest problem with the Star Wars franchise had been that it refused to evolve, being stuck with the same character archetypes and childish central themes which were popular in the pop culture of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
In fact, even Lucas has admitted that Star Wars has always been for children and was intended to be enjoyed by “12-year-olds”.
What makes Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi truly remarkable is that the film took the brave risk of breaking away from the stale tradition of sticking to the same old formula of making a Star Wars movie, and finally offered us something more mature.
Despite the fact that not all issues were addressed and Star Wars still has a lot of growing up to do, The Last Jedi has finally given us a film also meant for people older than 12.
Depiction of alien races
The biggest flaw in Star Wars movies, which even The Last Jedi did not address, has been the clownish depiction of alien races in the films.
In its brilliant analysis of Rick and Morty, Wisecrack explains that “most science fiction is convinced that humanity, is, metaphorically, the centre of the universe. Whether we’re battling the empire, or trying to get all the aliens to just be friends, humanity — or, things that look like humanity — take centre stage.”
And the Star Wars franchise, despite being set in the vast cosmos which is supposed to be full of complex alien life form, is obsessed with human beings.
With the prominent exception of Master Yoda, almost all the other major characters in the franchise are human beings. Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia Organa, Han Solo, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Sidious, Padme Amidala, Qui-Gon Jinn, Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron, Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, Mace Windu, Rose Tico, Count Dooku, and General Hux are all human characters. Even characters like Darth Maul and Emperor Snoke have human-like features.
Chewbacca, one of the prominent alien characters in the franchise, is nearly always reduced to Han Solo’s sidekick.
And Star Wars’ ideas of something as advanced as artificial intelligence are either droids like R2-D2, BB-8, and C-3PO, who are nothing but pets or servants to their human masters, or stereotypical evil villains like General Grievous (could the name get any more gimmicky?).
The other aliens like the buffoon Jar Jar Binks, Jabba the Hutt, or porgs (seen in The Last Jedi) are meant to do nothing apart from either providing silly comic relief or showcasing grand special effects.
Star Wars has always treated alien characters like some animals in zoo cages which the viewers are supposed to marvel at and be amazed at their quirky physical appearance or ‘funny’ way of talking.
This issue, apart from having undertones of racial discrimination, also makes the alien characters appear more like lifeless objects. Even video games like Mass Effect 2 — which don’t have the kind of time and resources available to cinema — have created alien characters who are more complex and interesting.
Predictable plot and characters
Journalist Bill Borrows, in a 2015 article in The Telegraph, described this problem perfectly when he wrote: “Here’s the pitch for Star Wars, the original film, on one side of a stamp: ‘Good vs Bad. In space. And [spoiler alert!] good wins…but does it?’ No wonder two studios turned it down.”
Take away all the grand stunts and visual effects and that’s exactly what most Star Wars films boil down to. After all, the franchise was created in an era when portraying grey characters in mainstream pop culture was not as common as it is now. The Jedi are good. The Sith are bad. Period.
Such clear black-and-white distinction of characters is the reason why the good guys like Luke Skywalker (in the first three films), Princess Leia, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Rey, etc are such boring boy scouts and obsessed with doing the right thing. And the bad guys like Darth Sidious, Emperor Snoke, and Count Dooku are mindlessly evil villains with the same old boring desire for domination.
The exception here, of course, is the main reason why the original trilogy has such a special place in cinema: Darth Vader. There is a reason why Darth Vader is often considered to be more popular than Luke Skywalker among Star Wars fans. Vader was the only character in the original trilogy who saved it from becoming it a completely predictable story with the ‘I am your father’ plot twist.
But perhaps the biggest evidence that Star Wars has been living in the ‘70s and ‘80s for a long time now is that it has not only been unable to create a villain as good as Vader but is still unsuccessfully trying to milk the character’s legacy as much as possible. After all, the entire prequel trilogy revolved around how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.
Star Wars is still pining for Darth Vader. And Kylo Ren is the rebound.
If the black mask and attire were not enough to convince you that Ren was Star Wars’ attempt at creating Darth Vader II, you should consider the fact that Ren wears his Vader-like mask without any specific reason.
Darth Vader in the original trilogy wore his mask and armour because he needed the mobile life support system built in them after his near-fatal duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi. Ren, on the other hand, has no such reason. It, thus, makes him look like some Vader fanboy.
And as if the similarity was not obvious enough, the father-son plot twist is also applied to Ren in The Force Awakens. When a movie starts using a plot twist with a new character who is clearly copied from an older character who had gone through a similar plot twist, any viewer will see it coming.
The Force Awakens suffers from other such obvious parallels. Rey is the new poor protagonist trying to survive on a desert planet, like Luke. Poe is the new charming and street-smart space cowboy with an attitude and a penchant for witty comebacks, like Han Solo. The First Order is the new Galactic Empire. We are not even told how the First Order attained power after the Skywalkers so convincingly defeated the Empire in Return of the Jedi.
Speaking of lazy storytelling (which, sadly, is becoming increasingly common in mainstream cinema these days), when Rey and Finn are trying to escape the First Order on Jakku, Rey tells Finn that the Millenium Falcon is “garbage” which “hasn’t flown in years”.
And then suddenly, Rey is not only able to fly the spaceship but also fly it with such exceptional skill that they are able to escape two modern TIE fighters of the First Order.
How does Rey — a poor scavenger struggling to survive — suddenly develop skills to manoeuvre a “garbage” ship which “hasn’t flown in years” with such finesse that she’s able to outsmart two experienced First Order pilots in modern TIE fighters? Who cares, right? Look! Bright lightsabers, funny aliens! Yippee!
The significance of The Last Jedi
The good news, though, is that The Last Jedi adds much-needed depth to the characters and plot.
The main reason why The Last Jedi is a delightful deviation from the past is undoubtedly Mark Hamill’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker, which is his best performance as Skywalker ever.
Director Rian Johnson has depicted Luke in such a mature way that the character not only changes the way the viewers will look at Jedi and Sith but also adds rich backstory and context to Kylo Ren. All the best scenes in The Last Jedi have Luke Skywalker in them.
The Last Jedi also treats its villain Ren with a pleasantly surprising amount of sensitivity. Even though his motivations are still not entirely convincing, Ren appears as a more refined and relatable character now.
The protagonist Rey also has to make some tough choices, which put her boy scout image to test. Daisy Ridley, thus, uses these opportunities to show us how talented an actor she is.
It is both exciting and a bit sad to see the late Carrie Fisher deliver a powerful performance as Leia, whose character returns to the qualities which had initially shown her to be a fierce, determined leader. One of the most intriguing performances also comes from Laura Dern, who plays Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo. The decisions taken by her in the movie shed new and unexpected light on Poe Dameron.
Even the lightsaber fight scenes are much more elaborate and better choreographed than the other Star Wars movies.
The best part about The Last Jedi is just when you start thinking that it is yet another typical Star Wars film with the same predictable content, it will surprise you.
It offers genuinely creative twists with a climax and ending so moving that it will remind you of an iconic scene from A New Hope.
Star Wars still has a long way to go. But with The Last Jedi, the franchise has shown that it is willing to grow into something more and thus, regaining its greatness.
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