'The Last Jedi' Divides 'Star Wars' Fans Over Major Spoiler Backlash
This post contains major spoilers and ending details for The Last Jedi and all previous Star Wars movies.
Star Wars is a franchise of the past. George Lucas's original 1977 blockbuster threw back to B-movie sci-fi pictures and Flash Gordon serials. The sequels realized that Luke Skywalker's answer to the Empire wasn't an immediate, violent action, but a passive defense bolstered by ancient Jedi mysticism and the universe-uniting energy known as The Force. Sixteen years after the original trilogy, Lucas returned to Star Wars with three prequels chronicling the life and times of pre-Darth-Vader Anakin Skywalker. Even when the series pushed into the future with Episode VII - The Force Awakens, the story tethered new characters to old favorites while echoing the familiar beats of the '77 movie, playing more like a soft reboot than a straight sequel. For 40 years, the joys of Star Wars have come from the comfort of hindsight, the familiarity of mythology, and the known unknowns.
The Last Jedi ditches the galaxy far, far away for uncharted territory: the future.
The departure is polarizing fans in ways that haven't been seen since the original reviews for The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. Rotten Tomatoes finds a stark divide between critics (93%) and general audiences (60%), with social media reactions ranging from the glowing to the harsh.
Will LucasFilm ever deliver this sect of Star Wars fandom another installment it'll actually enjoy? Not even a Force Vision could predict that. But with every super-spoilable turn,The Last Jedi anticipates backlash, and asks longtime devotees to look inward.
Episode VIII picks up shortly after The Force Awakens, though the tectonic plates of the universe have shifted. Despite victory in the attack on Starkiller Base, The Resistance is on the run from an incoming First Order fleet that has discovered their hideout; on Ahch-To, Rey hands off Anakin's blue lightsaber to Luke, who stubbornly tosses it over his shoulder and brushes off his inevitable pupil; sensing conflict in his heart, Supreme Leader Snoke reprimands Kylo Ren, who hopes to impress his decaying boss by killing his mother in aerial combat. The stakes are high, but unlike The Force Awakens, where our heroes found answers in the past -- and J.J. Abrams promised more to come through lingering mystery -- the legacies of the Dark and Light, the battles between the Empire and the Rebels, weigh down on the shoulders of the characters instead of providing clear answers. Good, bad, or somewhere in-between, the main players all seem to agree that the only way out of this mess is to abandon everything they knew and start anew.
Early on in the film, Kylo Ren sheds his Vader-esque mask after taking flack from Snoke. No longer is he a perturbed cosplayer who kneels at the altar of Star Wars collectibles (yes, he shelled out for Vader's actual burnt helmet, at some point). Scarred from battle and piercing from his misguided training under Luke, Kylo is more Ben Solo, his birth persona, than ever before. And he's pissed. Before John Williams' fanfare blasts over the end credits, our villain will reach out to Rey for understanding, murder Snoke in a swift act of "Et tu, Brute?" lightsaber-slinging, and beg his fellow Force-wielder to abandon the idea of the Resistance or The First Order.
"It's time to let old things die," he says. "Snoke, Skywalker, The Sith, Rebels - Let it all die, Rey. I want you to join me. We can rule together and bring a new order to the galaxy."
Rey declines, but the point sticks: the old world order is dissolving. She knows this to be true. After begging Luke Skywalker for his assistance in taking down the First Order, and wearing him down enough to earn traditional Jedi training, the heroine unravels the mystery behind Luke and Ben Ren's imploded relationship. Like in Rashomon, the whole truth plays out from multiple vantage points and reveals itself to be a messy affair. Luke contemplated murdering Ben, retracted his lightsaber blade just before slicing the Sith turncoat's neck, yet still managed to prove Ben's suspicions of the Jedi right by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, leading to the destructive outburst Rey first saw in The Force Awakens hallucinatory flashbacks. The real-life Jedi master she thought she knew from storybooks was in fact a knotted mess of failure and regret. Like so many fan-convention-goers, Rey learns that your heroes don't always turn out to be so heroic in real life.
That seems to a cause of the agita for Star Wars fans, who expected an aging Luke to be clear-minded and all-knowing. But in The Last Jedi, he still finds room to grow, forever a Jedi in training -- or transcending. In reverse of the Jedi trilogy, it's Luke's fate to dismantle the Jedi Order into a new state of faith-based thinking. As a "religion," the ways of the Force can radicalize the young, and in turn, cripple their teachers. But with Rey as a pupil, Luke redefines "balance" for himself. "That Force does not belong to the Jedi," he tells her. "To say that the Jedi die that the light dies is vanity." Luke Skywalker doesn't even believe in "Luke Skywalker" anymore, and Yoda appears before him to insist this complication is what makes him and all future Jedi valuable to the world. "The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the burden of all true masters."
Writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper) speaks to the fans with The Last Jedi. As religions and political landscapes have evolved in the forty years since George Lucas's Star Wars, so have the in-world exploits of the franchise and the series' meta-commentary. People who've dedicated their lives to Star Wars, enchanted by the moral goal posts and Campbellian gear-turning of the original trilogy, risk becoming the Snokes of their own microcosm. And while the Supreme Leader ends his journey in the same ambiguity as he entered -- a thrilling repudiation to Abrams' mystery box practices that have all but dominated Reddit for the past 10 years -- we do know he can't outwit Kylo Ren, who, even while on a violent streak, believes there's a better way to lord over the galaxy than with an Emperor 2.0. He envisions a different kind of Star Wars.
Poe Dameron's entire arc leans in to the read: the Han-Solo successor from Force Awakens finds himself out of place in the military strategy of The Last Jedi, where hotshot pilot behavior stands a better chance of getting everyone killed then saving the day in a last-second countdown. Finn and Rose's entire subplot is a bust (only plot-wise -- a glimpse of Canto Bright and Benicio del Toro's archetype-cracking smuggler more than make up for the duo's detour), but in the end, Poe learns to stop mansplaining his female superiors and trust a plan, however bleak. The subtext to the most damning Last Jedi tweets seems to be there's a right way to Star Wars and a wrong way to Star Wars. Like, Poe, the movie suggests, we could all stand to trust the judgment of those tasked to save the day (and deliver a damn fine blockbuster).
"The Rebellion is reborn today," Luke tells Kylo Ren in their astrally projected showdown. And with The Last Jedi, so is Star Wars. The movie isn't perfect, but a slog of a first hour makes way for striking compositions, the most exhilarating saber battles in the series' history, and for the first time, unknown unknowns. Luke, having exerted his life force and faded into the stars, hands the mantle of "the last Jedi" to Rey, who won't be the last. The final shots of the movie offers a glimpses of new hopes: an inclusive Rebellion, a fight in the hands of the next generation, and warriors yet to be found. If hardcore Star Wars fans open up their beloved franchise to same expansion, they too might find their "Broom Kid" (who deserves his own trilogy, frankly).
Luke's has a few more parting words for Kylo Ren before dissipating back to Ach-to: "Strike me down in anger and I'll always be with you." So you hate The Last Jedi because it isn't like the other Star Wars movies. That's fine. But the direction has changed, and while Rey is holding on to the Jedi scripture for the time being, the future looks irrevocably different. J.J. Abrams will wrap the sequel trilogy in 2019, working off the precedence set by The Last Jedi. And in the years to come, Johnson will break out with his own trilogy, detached from the Rey storyline and set in a new part of the galaxy. What "is" Star Wars? For the first time, we have no idea, and it's a thrill.