by Jasper Wu

I am informed that this article will be scheduled for January. So, first of all, welcome back! Hope we all had an enjoyable and relaxing winter holiday. Speaking of holiday entertainments for December 2017, the film Star Wars: The Last Jedi – the second episode in the recent trilogy and the eighth episode in the Star Wars saga, has long been on my list. After two years, since the previous release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, many – fans and general Star Wars lovers (including me) – have been waiting for responses to many of the unanswered questions. Who would Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parents be? How did Ben Solo (Adam Driver) become Kylo Ren? What happened to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) before and during his self-imposed exile? Who might Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) be? Even more importantly, how would the director and script writer answer the puzzles and paradoxes about the Force developed in the original saga (Episodes I to VI), and hinted in The Force Awakens. The experience through The Last Jedi, however, turns out to be rather surprising. Along with its unexpected presentation of ‘Star Wars’ comes a bi-polar reception of the film, as noted by Ian Youngs[1].

On the one hand, professional reviews have been praising this new addition to the series as original and epic. As Mark Kermode[2] commented in his review:

In this eighth episode in the official Star Wars saga, writer-director Rian Johnson proves himself the master of the balancing act, keeping the warring forces of this intergalactic franchise in near-perfect harmony.

The film is packed with the standard Star Wars elements – stunning lightsaber fights, space chases, gunship battles, cute (and comparatively less attractive) aliens, eye catching landscapes on alien planets, talk about hope and resistance, brilliant sound and visual effects, you name it. Besides the skillful balance between the use of these established elements that gives an integrative galactic experience, this episode also puts upon itself an innovative but highly demanding task to reconceptualise the Force and, thus, reinterpret the notion of ‘the balance of the Force’ (which, of course, also affects the ‘symbolic meaning’ of the Jedi knight within the film’s context). Through the dialogues among Rey, Kylo, Luke, and one of the Jedi masters who reappears. in this episode, there is an implicit message to de(con)struct the established conceptions of the key terms in Star Wars – the Jedi, the Sith, the Force, and ‘the balance’. In this process of reframing these ‘core values’, the film, in a way, touches upon the mind-boggling entanglement around moral relativism. However, instead of presenting the moral struggles and their impacts upon a specific character (as for Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones and Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back), this episode invites viewers to fit the pieces of internal conflicts scattered among the characters to gain an affective experience of the moral struggle between good and evil. The viewers, in this sense, are with the characters in the trials they face. From this perspective, it is as James Mottram[3] commented – The Last Jedi is ‘an emotional ride all right’ and ‘an incident-packed epic’. The episode is here evaluated by the critics as a film of the ‘Star Wars genre’ in its own right, complemented with a new angle for looking at the established concepts and theories. In this sense, it stands out for being a Star Wars movie that foregrounds its not being an ‘orthodox’ Star Wars movie.

On the other hand, Johnson’s creative take on Star Wars is not received with much enthusiasm by fans according to online reviews. Besides the exchanges quoted by Youngs from Rotten Tomatoes[4], comments by viewers on IMDb[5] are also far less positive compared to those of critics. As one of the users on IMDb explained,

THE LAST JEDI is being rejected because it didn’t deal with any of the questions that THE FORCE AWAKENS spent so much time asking.

This might be true in one way, as many of the questions listed above were either addressed only on the surface or thrown away with a shrug. There seems to be a significant gap between what The Force Awakens left the fans expecting and what The Last Jedi foregrounds as the major events. More critically challenged is this episode’s characterisation of Luke Skywalker, which is conceived as “inconsistent with everything we know about him,” as developed over the past 40 years since the very first Star Wars movie. This is mainly because of the conflict (or, to some, inconsistency) between the established understanding of the Force and the new conception of it through Luke’s character and dialogues. At the same time, as huge expectations were triggered by Luke’s appearance in the last scenes of The Force Awakens, his relatively side-lined participation in this episode was criticised by some commenters as being disrespectful to the character. Disrespect or not, it is without doubt that Johnson’s innovation has caught many fans (at least those who expressed disappointment in this new episode) off guard, causing this ‘storm’ of disappointment online. Judged through the lens of the ‘Star Wars series’, this episode is experienced by fans as an alien sitting uncomfortably with its predecessors.

If we recall what happened with the ‘infamous’ prequels (personally, I really like them), fans were booing and complaining about the acting, effects, plots, and many other aspects that they saw unworthy to be put together with the original trilogy. The second episode of the prequels: Attack of the Clones cumulatively scores at a low of 6.6/10 on IMDb (compared to other Star Wars episodes; scoring only 0.1 higher than The Phantom Menace). Compared to The Last Jedi (scoring 7.6/10), the second episode of this new Disney trilogy, it seems to have a worse reputation. However, reading its top comment, uploaded in 2015 – 13 years after the first release of the episode, we can see Attack of the Clones being recognised to be ‘underrated’ and ‘full of intrigue, drama, and jaw-dropping fun.’. Thinking about the second episodes in trilogies – Attack of the Clones from the Star Wars prequels, The Empire Strikes Back from the original Star Wars trilogy, or other films besides Star Wars, such as The Two Towers from the Lord of the Rings and Disney’s own The Dead Man’s Chest from Pirates of the Caribbean, they are always the most dense and hard to follow episodes in their own narrative context. Bearing the task to pick up and elaborate upon the first episode, and to establish a convincing context for the grand ending in the third episode, the value of a second episode is perhaps much better seen in hindsight. This is not to say The Last Jedi is flawless, but to suggest it might be a bit too hasty to judge whether this episode is a success or a failure with the trilogy merely half-built.

If judging the episode as a product of the ‘Star Wars genre’ and as part of the ‘Star Wars series’ would lead to such different, or even conflicting evaluations, should The Last Jedi be considered an epic or a disaster? I guess Master Obi-wan Kenobi has a fitting response to that in Revenge of the Sith from the prequels– “only a Sith deals in absolutes.” What might this line imply probably depends on what ‘Sith’ indexes, which has been opened for a wider range of interpretations only by the recent addition of Star Wars Episode 8. While it might be a bit discouraging that the plot and character related questions developed in the previous episode are largely left out, the unexpected opening up of the classic dichotomy between Jedi and Sith certainly marks a turning point in the Star Wars series. It leaves us with and forces us to think about the question – could Star Wars survive without the dichotomy? Even if it could, how would this transform the worldview of the Star Wars universe? And perhaps it is also important to ask – what inspired Rian Johnson to have this new and contested interpretation of Star Wars? Might it be a reflection of our contemporary era of ‘post-’ and ‘trans-’ that once again compels us to question the established social values and frameworks (as one may have experienced through 2017)? Questions about ‘good and evil’, ‘truth and deception’, and ‘justice and corruption’ have been surrounding the debates around ‘Jedi and Sith’ – in the movies and in reality; the epistemological turn indicated in The Last Jedi marks the episode as a key shift that one should witness – as a dramatic reframing of the series, and as a potential mirror of our contemporary situation.

If you are going to see The Last Jedi, it might be useful to (re)visit The Phantom Menace (prequels; Episode I) and A New Hope (original trilogy; Episode IV), just to be reminded of the developed characters and established conception of the Force. Or, it might at least be helpful to recall this account by Ben Kenobi i.e. Obi-wan Kenobi in A New Hope,

The force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.

How might this understanding of the Force be compared to Johnson’s new interpretation would be a matter for the viewer to decide.

Wishing you a happy and prosperous 2018 and may the force be with you.

 Jasper Wu

Hong Kong                                                                                                            
December 2017

[1] See Youngs, Ian (20 December 2017). Star Wars: The Last Jedi – the most divisive film ever?. Available at Access date: 27 December 2017.

[2] See Kermode, Mark (17 December 2017). Star Wars: The Last Jedi review – may the eighth be with you. Available at Access date: 27 December 2017.

[3] See Mottram, James (13 December 2017). Film review – Star Wars: The Last Jedi a true epic that casts off shadow of The Empire Strikes Back to leave us with new hope. Available at Access date: 27 December 2017.


Published on: January 25, 2018 < Back >