Yes, I can hear the sigh as you scroll past this headline. “Another piece on The Last Jedi, seriously?!” Given the extreme responses to the film, who wants to dredge this up? But we’re several years past the release of Rise of Skywalker and the disappointing (to put it mildly) finale to the Skywalker saga, so it’s worth looking back at the penultimate sequel. No longer viewed through the didactic lens of a masterpiece or total failure, we can assess Rian Johnson’s film in a measured tone. With five years of hindsight, The Last Jedi was the best and last chance to make a great Star Wars film. While the film isn’t perfect, it attempted to do something different.
The film began with several choices Johnson made, some of which divided audiences almost immediately. Take when he seemingly killed off Carrie Fisher (who sadly passed away a year before the film debuted), only to bring her back seconds later. Real-life baggage bled through to the screen in a way that incited rage, confusion, and pain. The biggest issue featured Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) introduction a scene later. Luke Skywalker, the hero of so many childhoods, looked on with tears as a desperate Rey (Daisy Ridley) offered him a lightsaber at the end of The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi continued right from that moment and swerved with the Jedi flinging the lightsaber over a cliff, sneering while he did it. Beyond the jarring incongruity, how one reacted to that gesture defined the rest of the film.
Yet that doesn’t mean all of Rian Johnson’s risks go unappreciated. Take the fascinating dynamic between Luke and Rey. Once the film dispenses with paralleling the broad slapstick of Yoda’s mentorship of Luke to Luke and Rey, the film picks up. The seven previous films conveyed the duality of the Force, where the Sith are evil, and the Jedi are unquestionably virtuous. A haunted Luke struggling through the fear of training again after his nephew’s turn to the dark side offered a morally grey version of the Jedi-Sith continuum. Rey learns through her training that Jedi aren’t capable of isolating children from loved ones and producing mentally healthy Force users.
Truthfully, the Jedi create their adversaries. Forcing padawans to abandon emotional attachment to others leads to anguish, placing them directly on the path to the Dark Side of the Force. The Jedi act like any expression of emotion except stoicism is evil. But fear, anger, and love aren’t dangerous in themselves. Those feelings occur not out of selfishness but by existence. Dismissing all emotions as a precursor to evil is absolutism. “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”
The mental connection that bonds Rey and Kylo Ren teased leads who don’t stand on disparate sides of the good-evil continuum. There are morally-grey force users. Those scenes culminated in one of the best scenes of the sequel trilogy, the throne room revelation. Rey struggles to appeal to Kylo’s humanity, for them both to stop Snoke and restore peace to the galaxy. Meanwhile, Kylo plots to take Rey on as an apprentice and run the First Order himself. Kylo fulfills half of Rey’s hopes by killing Snoke, yet the fire in his belly still rages. He wants to fulfill the prophecy his grandfather Anakin failed to; he wants to rule with Rey at his side. Rey refuses and escapes, which sets up the climactic duel on Crait.
Crait offers another Johnson storytelling swerve. Luke doesn’t show up to cut down hordes of enemies. He uses his wisdom to force Kylo into an unwinnable situation and distracts the First Order long enough to save the day. Kylo futilely launches everything at Luke, only to see the Jedi brush off his shoulder dismissively, egging his nephew into a duel on the salt flats. Kylo lunges wildly, hoping to kill one more relative, though his saber finds only a projection of his uncle. Luke departs a legend, but not before disparaging Kylo (“See you around, kid”). Luke doesn’t start the film as the Jedi of old, but he plays the hero eventually. He redeemed himself, and, more importantly, fostered hope for the Resistance everywhere. Jedi texts and inflexible dogma don’t make for a hero, but saving the day does. That is the Luke Rey handed her lightsaber to.
The shared scenes between Rey, Kylo, and Luke are unquestionably the strongest that Johnson’s film has to offer. It was also trimmed down the most due to time constraints. Of the many deleted scenes from The Last Jedi, one stands out the most. A scene where Rey refuses to abide by Luke’s lesson on how to be a Jedi. Luke stages what appears to be an attack on the Caretakers of Ahch-To, telling Rey not to interfere because it would undo the balance of the force. Something, Luke scolds, a true Jedi would never do. Rey believes that they need help and races to save them anyway, only to find out that they’re having a celebration. She realizes Luke’s antipathy was him testing her all along.
Further enriching the Rey-Luke relationship would have made for a better film. Yet, too often, the film reverts to Canto Bight, where DJ (Benicio Del Toro) questions just how different the Resistance is from the First Order in a dialogue that fails to add depth to the moral ambiguity of war. Moral ambiguity in a blockbuster franchise like Star Wars is welcome, but, at the time, it all felt too similar to Trump’s both sides speech in Charlottesville, Virginia.
We don’t know how much of The Last Jedi was injected from Disney executives—except for porgs. That was definitely them; they merchandized those things to death. But we know that Rise of Skywalker was the result of executive pushback. It resulted in a film so thoroughly uninventive and joyless that I counted the minutes to the end of the film. Emperor Palpatine returned to the series, and the only attempt to explain it was in the prologue’s text crawl! Without any cohesion in the sequel trilogy to tap into, J.J. Abrams reverted to his bad habit of pilfering any reference to the original trilogy. That formula worked for The Force Awakens, but not Rise of Skywalker. Not only did audiences not welcome the callbacks, they lashed out at the film for chasing empty nostalgia.
To make Star Wars exciting again, Disney has to deliver something original. Something bold. They cannot rehash a conversational aside like the Kessel Run into another two-hour film. Create new characters and do something different with them. Many recent Star Wars stories tell how characters got from point A to point B in between films while making no effort to provide compelling drama. The initial freshness of The Mandalorian gave way to an uninspired Boba Fett spinoff. Then, when people stopped caring about seeing Boba Fett, they added a soulless de-aged, robotic-voiced Luke Skywalker, Grogu, and the Mandalorian for a mid-season sugar high.
Even Andor, the critical darling of recent Star Wars output, looked the part of Disney scraping the IP barrel for more cash. While the show participates in the same timeline cramming as Obi-wan Kenobi, it is deliberate in making something new. Yet with all that goodwill, Tony Gilroy’s Disney+ series is still trying to attract viewers. “I think I was surprised,” the Andor showrunner told Variety. “I thought the show would have this gigantic, instantaneous audience that would be everywhere, but that it would take forever for non-Star Wars people or critics or my cohort of friends to get involved in the show. The opposite happened. We ended up with all this critical praise, all this deep appreciation and understanding from a really surprising number of sources, and we’re chasing the audience.” Likely, the audience hasn’t shown up because they are weary of disappointment after years of franchise flame-outs.
A glut of potential new film projects from Rian Johnson, and David Benioff & D.B. Weiss all disappeared without a trace. Damon Lindelof’s project recently hired a director, but like the Taiki Waititi film we haven’t heard about since, I will believe it when I see it. The Rise of Skywalker created major uncertainty about when another Star Wars film would hit cinemas (the earliest date would be December 2025). Considering how many films Marvel puts out yearly, that’s quite the gap between releases. The rehashed quality of the latest Star Wars efforts seems to have made the property a permanent home on television, a far cry from 2017, when pre-ticket sales of Episode VIII had box-office pundits looking for the next #1 film of all time.
But Disney isn’t interested in bringing new insights or new characters you can grow to care about. For them, it’s simply about making more Star Wars products that simulate what worked in the original trilogy. When Force Awakens came out, George Lucas called Bob Iger to tell him that he just made A New Hope again. Iger not only didn’t care, but he also criticized Lucas for not understanding that was their intention. What that’s meant for viewers is a stream of films that recreate or mirror events from previous films. Nothing offered drastically alters what we know about this universe. These stories only serve to grow the Disney+ brand.
After purchasing LucasFilms and Marvel Studios, it made sense for Disney to take what worked in the MCU and apply it to Star Wars, but they have taken it too far. Everything ties into one aspect of the original trilogy in every new Star Wars show/movie. Continuously returning to the fan service well is a great tactic to appease the toxic sect of Star Wars fandom, but it’s a bitter disappointment to the rest of us. A passing resemblance to a memory of the original trilogy is now more valuable than the story told. While it may remind viewers of how they felt the first time they saw Star Wars, it will never give them the same feeling of wonder because of how self-referential it is.
With The Last Jedi, Disney sacrificed the opportunity to grow its flagship beyond what George Lucas created. We’ll never know what loomed after that little boy used force powers to grab a broom, but we know that Disney has no interest in anything more than making a greatest hits album.