Star Wars – The Last Jedi: No Light without Darkness?

By Kai-Arne Zimny

Photo Credit: NEPA Scene

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

The bright blue letters appear on the big black screen. Reverent silence fills the movie theater. Maybe you’ll hear the sound of cheering somewhere in the back, but mostly you can feel the tense thrill of anticipation. After two years of waiting, STAR WARS – THE LAST JEDI, the eighth episode of the most beloved sci-fi fairy tale of all time and the second movie of the new trilogy, is only seconds away …

The neo-imperial First Order is hunting General Leia Organa’s (Carrie Fisher) remaining ships of the Resistance, the last remnants of hope and democracy in a galaxy heading towards darkness once again. The First Order’s dark prince Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) oscillates between light and dark. In the meantime Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman “from nowhere,” walks a rocky road towards becoming a Jedi Knight to help fight darkness and learn the ways of the force – the mystical power that connects everything. At the same time, the legendary, now aged Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), refuses to take part in anything anymore and questions everything.

Two-and-a-half-hours later, the lights go back on. People rise from their seats. Some stay to listen to John William’s forceful and familiar signature tunes while others storm out immediately. Some have tears in their eyes, and it’s already safe to say: Not all for the same reason.

Barely out of my seat, I feel directly drawn back into the Star Wars universe, into the skin of Kylo Ren. “I’m being torn apart,” he moaned in the previous film, The Force Awakens. And I, too, am being torn apart by this new Star Wars film …

“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to,” says Kylo Ren in this film, and that’s what writer-director Rian Johnson must have thought when creating it. He cuts off many storylines and ideas set up by writer-director J.J. Abrams in the previous film. The feeling of a connected trilogy is thus broken; malicious gossip has it that Johnson was lacking ideas to build upon the story line he was given. Johnson countered that reproach on Twitter, stating he wanted Star Wars to “grow, move forward and stay vital.” Either way, the film makes it obvious that Johnson loves to surprise the audience and, of course, Star Wars can benefit from a breath of fresh air. But it needs to be done properly, within a context that doesn’t deviate too far from what fans know and love about Star Wars. This movie breaks a few Star Wars traditions; unfortunately, it doesn’t work too well on most occasions. Fans and critics take offense to the film’s awkward comedic moments (the movie basically starts with a phone prank, for example) that are supposed to be there for comic relief but feel displaced for the most part. Well, for me personally, this is a minor issue, and I did chuckle here and there.

The real problem is the overall plot and pacing of the film. It feels too much like an arrangement of sub-plots that don’t go anywhere. Additionally, too many passages of the film are just badly written. Sometimes they’re bizarre fillers that obviously need to be there to get from A to B, but they don’t feel credible, natural, or focused. Also, they don’t contribute to the bigger picture. The fact that these serious flaws could have been avoided relatively easily (I don’t mean to brag, but I quickly came up with a few ideas) make this all the way more tragic, especially since beneath that dark mess there is a lot of light to be found.

Yet, this movie contains some of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen in a Star Wars film. And I don’t only mean visually, but also emotionally. Anyone invested in the original Star Wars films will be moved to tears (in a good way!) by intense scenes, some playing with nostalgia, some offering a deeper, richer insight into the spiritual in-universe concept of the force.

The actors’ performances range from solid to very good. Kylo Ren’s conflict and turmoil can be intensely felt in each scene he’s in, thanks to Adam Driver’s superbly subtle performance. His antagonistic interaction with Daisy Ridley’s character Rey is beautiful, both chemistry-wise on screen and also in-universe, promising a very interesting development between the two in the next and last movie of the recent trilogy.

“Best Star Wars ever!” is a comment that could be read en masse on social media platforms in the days following the premiere of Star Wars – The Last Jedi, right next to equally numerous statements of the opposite spectrum: “Star Wars is dead!” The film polarizes heavily, like so many things right now. For me, it is a special feeling to be on both sides at the same time. To be disappointed but to also enjoy the film. Surely, no viewing experience is “objective.” I do realize that I went into the theater with high and very specific expectations. And this is the time to mention that Star Wars, like any popular movie franchise, isn’t the same for everyone. We have the die-hard fans who work on elaborate Star Wars theories on their own. Countless YouTube channels attest to this. We have the occasional fan who’s informed enough about the overall story but doesn’t spend much time thinking about Star Wars. And we have those moviegoers who want to see an entertaining movie with spaceships and explosions without having to remember too much to enjoy the film.

To have to please all of those viewers is a dilemma for sure. Die-hard fans, like me, drive expectations sky-high. Additionally, a nostalgia-induced false memory syndrome has turned the original Star Wars films into untouchable, perfect masterpieces beyond all human criticism which, of course, they are not. However, as a result of that delusion, every new Star Wars film is measured against an imaginary and impossible level of perfection – and is thus destined to fail.

Nevertheless, the problems mentioned are grave enough to be considered. But maybe it’s all a stroke of genius. Maybe the feeling many people get while seeing the film was intended to draw them into the movie’s central theme, to feel both sides of something, to literally feel torn apart and question everything.

I guess that would mean … well done?

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