What They Grow Beyond – A Closer Look at The Last Jedi

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When it was announced that Rian Johnson would be writing and directing the next installment of my favorite fictional universe, I honestly had trouble believing it could actually be happening. Johnson had cemented himself as the director whose career I was most eager to see grow with his sci-fi masterpiece Looper, so the fact that he’d be telling a story in the saga films felt too good to be true. Once I came to terms with it, I knew it would be something special.

That said, I was not prepared for just how much of a Johnson film The Last Jedi is, or how subversive and transformative it would be to the series as a whole. So to explore all of the interesting things going on in the film, I’ve selected a number of key scenes and moments that encapsulate this. It should go without saying that what follows is chock full of SPOILERS. So leave now if you haven’t seen it, as it’s best experienced knowing as little as possible.

Escape

From the very first scene it’s clear that this is unlike any Star Wars movie before it. Yes, it opens with a pan down to a ship approaching a planet and an ensuing space battle, but it feels different. For the first time in a saga film, we are given a truly personal face to the soldiers and pilots who are risking and even giving their lives at the behest of our heroes. Johnson accomplishes this primarily through the heroism and sacrifice of Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo). Paige is a pilot of one of the Resistance Bombers that Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) – against the orders of General Leia Organa – ordered to take out the dreadnaught. Paige doesn’t have any dialogue outside of tactical chatter, but Johnson is an excellent visual storyteller so we quickly come to care about her. Through a few expressions and gestures we see that Paige is brave, has a strong faith in the Force, and has someone waiting for her at home – shown by the Force symbol half she wears around her neck. The shot of Paige grabbing the switch that will drop the bombs at the last moment is one of triumph and sadness, even though we just met this character.

While the surviving pilots, and the crew on the lead Resistance cruiser, celebrate this small victory, we cut to Leia as she looks at a view screen showing the the losses, on both sides, suffered during the battle with the heartbroken expression of a war weary general. Poe comes to her with the adrenaline fueled excitement of victory, and she demotes him for disobeying orders. He looks at her with confusion as to why he’s being chewed out for succeeding, to which Leia responds by asking him “But at what cost?”. I can’t recall a line to that effect being uttered in this series before, but it is just the first example of the subversive anti-war message Johnson injected into The Last Jedi.

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The Last Jedi

That’s not the only way Johnson subverts expectations with this film; he also does it when we are brought back to the final moment of The Force Awakens, Rey holding out her lightsaber to the long-missing Luke Skywalker. Fans, myself included, speculated wildly as to what would come after this moment. What would Luke reveal to Rey and in turn to the audience? Would he reveal that he is Rey’s father, or at least knows who her parents were? Instead of some grand reveal, Luke simply looks at her blankly and tosses his newly returned lightsaber over his shoulder. It’s a funny and succinct portrait of Luke’s state of mind, but more importantly it tells us everything we need to know about the kind of story we can expect. One where we should cast aside our expectations and personal theories, and see what the artist has to offer (that’s something we should always do, but that’s a fight for another day).

It was clear after seeing The Force Awakens that something went awry with the Jedi training temple Luke started, since Ben Solo went to the dark side. So the simple beat of Luke tossing the lightsaber off a cliff speaks to how much of a toll that had on him. It also suggests that Luke, at least partially, blames himself for Ben’s fall — something which is confirmed later on.

Another Skywalker

After the Resistance fleet’s narrow escape from the First Order, Kylo Ren leads the enemy forces after them with their new ability to track through hyperspace. This forces the Resistance to simply stay out of range as they scramble to come up with a plan before running out of fuel. It also makes this the first Star Wars film with a true ticking clock narrative, adding to the the stakes and tension of the piece. Kylo senses Leia on the bridge and she senses him, but he is unable to fire. Unable to kill his mother like he did his father. Two TIE fighters zoom past him and fire on the bridge causing Leia to be sucked into the vacuum. For a split second I thought that’s how Leia would die, but I knew Johnson wouldn’t be so cruel. Then… it happens. Leia finally uses the Force in a way fans have been waiting for over 30 years.

The feeling of watching Leia fling herself through space with her clearly substantial Force abilities is beyond my ability to accurately describe. Obviously some of the power of the scene is due to the fact that Carrie Fisher passed away, but mostly its from how Fisher plays it, how Johnson shoots it, and how Williams scores it. It’s a truly beautiful moment. It’s one of many wonderful moments in the film that honor Fisher’s legacy.

Meeting Your Heroes

Though Leia survived the attack on the bridge, she’s now in a coma. She drops the beacon that will allow Rey to find her way back, Finn picks it up and attempts to leave the fleet to warn her. Enter Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), sister of Paige who gave her life earlier. Rose is the beating heart of this movie, she represents the best kind of fan. The kind who loves these larger than life characters but also one who keeps them honest. She sees that Finn is about to do the wrong thing, for arguably good reasons, but the wrong thing nonetheless and she doesn’t allow it.

That’s not to say The Last Jedi is promoting the idea that art should give in to fan entitlement, quite the opposite in fact. Simply that fans should want the Star Wars universe to become more complex; to do things that they don’t expect while staying true to the core of the series. But Rose is more than just a symbol, she’s also a fantastic character and Kelly Marie Tran is just as exciting a discovery as Daisy Ridley.

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Out of Balance

The Rey, Luke, and Kylo storyline is where The Last Jedi is most like the other films in Rian Johnson’s oeuvre, as it deals with issues of loss and trying to outrun past mistakes; as well as dealing with people trying to find their place in the world. Mark Hamill gives the performance of a lifetime as this sad and broken version of Luke Skywalker. The way he sells his fear of the insane power he senses in Rey and the sense of defeat he fills his early scenes with is nothing short of astounding. Just as impressive is how he plays Luke once he finds the redemption through Rey’s desire to find a different way. A better way. Hamill and Ridley have outstanding chemistry, playing off one another with aplomb.

The best parts of the film are easily the conversations Rey and Kylo Ren have through the Force. It is the most visually and narratively interesting use of the mystic side of Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back, and maybe even more so than that legendary sequence on Dagobah. Johnson directs the hell out of these scenes and Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver do their best work of the trilogy yet. We never see Rey and Kylo on screen together during these segments which reinforces their distance from one not there both physically and philosophically.

Rey hears both Luke and Ben’s versions of what happened when Ben fell, but as usual the truth is somewhere in the middle. When Luke sensed the darkness in his nephew he went to confront him, and “in a moment of pure instinct” he ignites his lightsaber. He realizes his mistake immediately, but it’s too late. Ben Solo saw his master about to strike him down and the damage was done.

Lousy, Beautiful Town

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Finn and Rose’s mission to Canto Bight follows the same template as most of the cantina sequences, but Johnson uses these similarities to the previous films to say something new. Finn has never seen anything like the opulence of this haven for the ultra rich and he’s impressed. Rose, meanwhile, is disgusted by this place. She tells Finn to look past the façade and see what it’s really made up of. People not only apathetic of the war tearing across the Galaxy, but profiting from it. This is yet another perspective we’ve never seen in this series. Showing the true ugly side to war.

The scenes on Canto Bight also bring a bit of gray into Star Wars, as the code breaker DJ (Benicio Del Toro) shows Finn and Rose that these people aren’t simply selling weapons to the First Order but to the Resistance as well.

Something Truly Special

Snoke is still a cipher in The Last Jedi but unlike in The Force Awakens, where this was due to the fact that Abrams and Kasdan mostly wanted the next guy to decide what his deal was, it’s an important part of the story he’s telling. Snoke always felt like a rehash of the Emperor. A shadowy and powerful figure who represents a sort of living embodiment of the Dark Side, who we know very little about. But in today’s world, a more complex villain is needed.

So when Kylo Ren kills Snoke instead of Rey, it’s not only great because it’s a shocking surprise, but because it’s a final hammer blow to the binary view of good and evil in these films. We believed, just as Rey did, for a moment that he will turn to the Light, and start to work toward some kind of redemption. But Ren is still far too lost to fight for peace. He wants to tear down the flawed system of Jedi vs. Sith just as Rey does, but still wants to inflict his will on the galaxy. So now, Kylo Ren is the Supreme Leader, and a complex villain whose motivations we can relate to.

Page Turners

After Rey left Luke to try and turn Kylo Ren against the First Order, Luke goes to the the first Jedi temple out of anger to destroy it and the ancient Jedi texts. Which is when an old friend appears. Force Ghost Yoda’s return is a magical moment, due in no small part to the fact that he’s a practical puppet once again. He’s also just who Luke and the audience needed to see in this moment, but he unexpectedly does not convince Luke to stop what he’s doing. Instead, he does the job himself by causing lightning to strike the tree.

One of most powerful line in the film comes when Yoda reveals that he also feels that the time for the old Jedi order has indeed passed. He says “We are what they grow beyond” which is both an inspiring sentiment concerning life and future generations, and a comment about what these new films should strive to be. They should allow artists to take this grand canvass and tell bold stories that reflect our time while honoring what came before with being shackled to the past.

The Spark That Will Light the Fire

In the film’s climax at the Battle of Crait, Luke astrally projects himself to face Kylo Ren. He properly distracts him to allow these new heroes to escape and truly start the Resistance. Like Obi-Wan in A New Hope, Luke knows that his time has past and that he can better serve this mission of peace being one with the Force. His passing, as Rey says, is one of “peace and purpose”.

Johnson ends his film with one of the best shots in all of Star Wars. It shows a child we briefly met on Canto Bight, who was inspired by Finn and Rose’s actions and by the stories of Rey and Luke. He subtly uses the Force to pull a broom to his hand, then holds it like a lightsaber as he gazes into the stars. The power of that moment reflects the power of Johnson’s rebellious pop masterpieces as a whole. The future of Star Wars is as mysterious as it is bright, and it’s truly exciting.

3 thoughts on “What They Grow Beyond – A Closer Look at The Last Jedi

  1. Thanks for this! I didn’t watch Looper and I’m unfamiliar with Johnson’s methods as a director. I loved The Last Jedi already, but this breakdown helped me better understand the director’s motivation and intent. It was a great read!

    Liked by 1 person

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