Written by Wyatt Reu |
Review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Warning: this article contains spoilers.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a multibillion-dollar blockbuster, a corporate cash cow if you will, a sequel (a dreaded term among cinephiles). Rian Johnson is the director of previous films such as Looper and Brother’s Gloom. Don’t worry if you didn’t know those, they’re practically irrelevant films especially in the shadow of a monstrosity like the Star Wars franchise. I expected this mainstream film, produced by Disney and merchandised and marketed to all hell to be nothing more than a cheap thrill: a two-hour distraction with lots of explosions, a shallow and underdeveloped plot, and a takeaway that would be nothing more than, “That was good.”
But, surprisingly, the movie is so much more than that.
What Rian Johnson, a relatively little-known director tasked with an enormous public responsibility, did with Star Wars – or in truth, through Star Wars – is create a mesmerizing and thought-provoking film that addresses and attacks some of the biggest ethical, political and philosophical issues of our time.
There is a scene in the movie where ex-stormtrooper and main character Finn and his new apprentice, who happens to be a young Japanese woman engineer named Rose (furthering the legacy of Star Wars’ inclusivity in casting), venture down to a new planet on which lies a Monaco-esque resort-type place for the super wealthy of the galaxy. There are quaint alleyways and string lights, a casino where patrons stride around in black tuxedos with glasses of champagne in their hands or claws, venturing from table to slot machine and vice a versa and out onto the balcony to watch the Star Wars version of a horse race.
Finn excitedly tells Rose something along the lines of, “Isn’t this place amazing?!” He represents an ordinary citizen with a naive admiration of the ultra-wealthy. Rose quickly dispels this notion by imploring him to “look closer.” Finn peers through a telescope to see a giant, empathetic, horse-like creature called Fathier, being abused and brutalized by a wealthy member while a caretaker, a small, poor boy looks on in despair, powerless to do anything to stop the torment of his beloved friend. Finn steps back in surprise, his fragile illusion shattered upon closer examination. Rose explains to him that the reason why all of these people are rich, how anyone in the galaxy could be this rich, is from funding the First Order – selling weapons and ships to the fascistic government that oppresses the galaxy, the order that Finn and Rose as members of the resistance are fighting against.
This is an incredibly powerful scene. It casts a direct light on the unfairness of economic inequality and the danger of naive admiration of wealth and power that is common especially with younger persons – the primary target audience for the Star Wars movies. Finn and the group later in the scene triumphantly set a band of these creatures free and ride them through the streets basically rampaging through the city and destroying the casino, finally concluding with the pack running onto a moonlit beach, up a cliff, and freely back into the wild. This scene is a powerful allegory for freedom and retribution, especially against the abuses that we became aware of through Finn’s realization. It is a criticism of the opulent and powerful who have the luxury of freedom and waste while the galaxy suffers in an oppression of which they, the rich themselves, are partially to blame.
Star Wars has always been about politics, the Empire in the classic movies and now the First Order symbolizing the right or conservativism and the Resistance the left; but this is the first Star Wars movie that has included the role and responsibility of the wealthy in the politics of the galaxy – the danger of political apathy within the ranks of the powerful that enables, in the case of Star Wars, the authoritarian rule of the First Order.
This scene is not just about wealth and power either, it also takes a profound stance against animal cruelty, introducing the concept of bioethics into the movie. This becomes a motif throughout the entirety of the film. Star Wars has always been known to include various species and types of humanoid figures to represent diversity but no Star Wars film has included animals both wild or domestic as advertently as The Last Jedi does.
In one of the initial scenes on Luke’s island (which is called Skellig Michael and is in Ireland for your information), Chewbacca, a beloved Star Wars monster, is cooking what looks like a chicken over a fire. We know, from previous scenes, that the island is inhabited by these cute furry creatures called “Porgs,” and this is what Chewbacca is about to eat. These little wide-eyed birds crowd around Chewbacca and look on in horror as he rotisseries their brethren over the fire. Chewbacca looks at them and starts to become self-conscious. He roars in embarrassment, and they flee, but one Porg stays and looks up at him with teary eyes. Chewbacca lets out a quiet relenting roar, throws away the grilled game he was holding and adopts the little fella as his companion. This could not be a more direct and intentional exploration of bioethics. It is only when Chewy is face to face with the bird, building a line of empathy with another life form, that he is unable to eat the Porg in its inanimate grilled form.
This is a message that viewers may take away from this film, one that should make them think more deeply about the food products they consume and the injustice of agribusiness. If the bioethical message could not be any clearer, in addition to the liberation of the Fathiers and the conversion of Chewbacca to circumstantial veganism, in one of the last scenes when the Rebels begin their final stand against the First Order, they are shown an alternative exit out of the cave they were trapped in by a wolfish-looking animal called a Vulpix. The Last Jedi shows us how these animals provide value to humans in ways beyond their deaths and subjugation.
The film works to build empathy between humans and animals through these scenes, but it also comments on the ways in which it is necessary for humans to build empathy amongst themselves.
Johnson takes a unique approach to explore the issues of subjectivity, which is especially germane with the rise of post-truth politics and the more normalized practice of discrediting news sources that provide alternative versions of stories. The film considers this concept through the tragedy between Luke and Kylo Ren, or Ben Solo at the time. In the first version of the story, which is integral to the plot, Luke tells Rey that Ben turned on him when he was his student. He was betrayed by his master who feared his power. The second story Rey receives is from Ben himself who claims that he awoke to Luke Skywalker attempting to murder him in sleep. Rey is conflicted at this point, like many of us are in circumstances like this. Two stories have been told about the same event and each version leads to drastically different consequences; the questions that arise from this issue are: Who do we believe? How do we find the truth?
Rey finds this answer by beating Luke in a duel and demanding that he tell the truth. Luke tells her that what happened was that, in a moment of instinct he thought he could kill Ben to prevent the consequences of the darkness that was inside of him, and quickly realized he could not bring himself to do it. However, Ben awoke with his master’s lightsaber above his head, and by then, it was already too late; Ben believed he had been betrayed by his master. The truth was found in a combination of the two stories, a balance, a compromise of the two tales which is reflective of the idea of balance that permeates the plot of the movie itself: the force.
I will tell you that I had low expectations for the movie. I sat through twenty minutes of trailers for movies that are, in actuality, shallow, placating, and superficial; movies whose sole purpose is to make big money for entertainment companies.
A good film is one that changes the way people think about important issues facing our society and our world. The way that Rian Johnson uses this multibillion-dollar entertainment behemoth to explore these issues, the solutions to which will have profound impacts on our future, is unprecedented in the Star Wars franchise.
The movie is entertaining. It is funny, features brilliant actors whose spectacular scenes are both thrilling and cathartic. It satisfies the needs of the industry, of Disney and Lucasfilm and the many millions of dollars that went into funding its production. But it also goes beyond this expectation. It satisfies a need for hope in a generation of young Star Wars’ viewers who will be tasked with answering these questions and changing our world for the better.