Is Star Wars a science fiction franchise or a fantasy franchise? This question has been debated by many fans over the years. The latest entry written and directed by Rian Johnson clearly picks the latter, a move that while creating fans for the new trilogy such as I, has also alienated many longtime Star Wars fans.
Take for instance, two major criticism of the film: the character centered criticism of Luke attempting to kill his apprentice Ben Solo; and the plot based criticism of the rebel ship being unable to just turn off the power and glide because of inertia. The character of Luke Skywalker was created in the Space Race and Cold War and was in films from 1977-1983. This was obviously a very different time than today. With the innovation of new technology and science changing our worldviews, popular fiction, especially science fiction, rejected classical and modern tragic heroes who follow the idea of a fall in Western literature, and replaced it with heroes we were inspired to become. Humankind was rising, so it seemed. Luke was made a hopeful and optimistic hero to be inspired by. By the end of his trilogy, he defeats the forces and bad and gives hope and peace back to the galaxy. It’s a different time now. The Berlin Wall has fallen and the cold War is over. While we thought to have created a better future, in some ways the world has gotten worse. While the world once longed for the future, they are now in fear of it. Luke’s ideas have grown right alongside the people who watched his first trilogy. Luke is afraid of the evil corrupting the torch bearers of the future, and wants to prevent a possible evil form happening by doing an evil. He wants to keep his power and keep the status quo. Instead, he creates far more evil. These sentiments of the film reflect many people’s sentiments in today’s political landscapes with political movements longing for return to the past, and stronger harsher leadership with more unified and less balanced power. Luke Skywalker, who once fought for the future of the galaxy, now through his hubris, fear, and unchecked power has now damaged the future and created a longing for the past. The once great hero has fallen.
Turning Luke into the fallen hero, makes him far more relatable and relevant. Another recent blockbuster did this to another iconic American character to make allegorical political and social commentary, and this film was very controversial too. Rian Johnson’s portrayal of Luke as the fallen King/knight from dark and medieval European fantasy, shows we can fall, yet still redeem ourselves and fight for good. The same idea is prevalent in Kylo Ren. Luke’s actions are 10 years after we see him in Return of the Jedi, and we do not know enough to know all of what lead him to this terrible point. What is important is that Luke can come back from that point, and still fight for good. The power of Luke as a symbol for the fight for freedom, hope, and the future is only strengthened through his fall and redemption.
The second criticism of the science of the ship, again shows favoring fantasy in space for science fiction. Star Wars has blaring sounds and flashing lights in space, breaking scientific rules in favor of cosmic romanticism. It then logically follows that just as fuel has been established in past films, that the filmmakers can use work within these confines, breaking the laws of science, in order to tell a better story.
Star Wars the Last Jedi makes both Rey and Kylo Ren/ Ben Solo far more interesting characters. It does this both through giving them more conflicts while also creating a twisted storybook connection between the two. Kylo Ren wears, instead of the more sci fi inspired outfit in the Force Awakens, wears a black costume more reminiscent of a medieval knight, being literally a dark knight in shining armor. The colors black and white have often played a role in Star Wars relationships. For example, look at Han and Leia in Empire Strikes Back, and Anakin and Padme in Attack of the Clones. Fate is playing some hand in their connection, with both having dreams and nightmares of each other before they meet. Fates playing a guiding role, as well as the two completing each other and helping each other to solve their conflicts are both classic tropes of the fantasy romance. These dreams and force connections come to them, and they originally try to run away from it, and don’t want to connect. Throughout the film these connections help them learn more about each other and themselves helping them bond and grow on their journeys. While Kylo’s arc isn’t finished, the seeds of romance and redemption have been planted, with him reversing Anakin’s path: growing up with the dark side and power and being tempted into good and the light from their romantic connections. Rey has a massive effect on helping Kylo Ren, just as Ren does on Rey. Ren teaches her the truth about Luke and helps her grow her power.
Rey’s character is vastly improved here from The Force Awakens. The film completely misdirects the audiences who think her parents will be established characters, when they end up being some random people. This emphasizes the film’s main theme: It’s not the past the matters, it’s the future that does. Kylo Ren can still be redeemed, Luke can come back to his heroic ways, the animals on the casino planet can become free, etc. The parents reveal also shows someone who grow up with no parents and no help, juxtaposed to Kylo Ren growing up with bad parental figures. This emphasizes Rey’s self-determination and will being able to survive on her own for so long. This great dynamic leads to the phenomenal lightsaber fight with the two versus Snoke’s guards. Ignoring questions of how Snoke can know Kylo’s every thought yet didn’t know Kylo was about to kill Snoke, this is the phenomenal light saber fight afterwards is by far the best scene in the film.
Rian Johnson as both writer and director does a great job, going back to Star Wars’ roots of knights and samurai fantasies in space. Samurai cinema is particularly evoked during Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker’s fight both through the camera and the characters. Kylo Ren’s strong emotions get in the way of the battle, making him lose to the old master, a classic trope of samurai stories. The film is laced with a strong anti-authoritarian political message that is illustrated well, with a few hiccups in Poe’s arc. The final shots play particularly well in conveying this as the audience leaves the theater.
Overall, the film has problems the majority of which are caused by its predecessor Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The film, when viewed alone is great, one of this year’s best blockbusters, as well as film that will endure time and be viewed years later.