Star Wars: The Last Jedi came out last December after a two-year wait, from the explosive return to the series that was The Force Awakens. After watching it and having a while to digest my thoughts, do I believe this sequel was worth the wait? Yes, in fact, I would go so far as to put The Last Jedi in my top three Star Wars films – just below Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Sith. While the fanbase has become surprisingly divided over this film, I remain on the side of positivity when it comes to looking at it with an analytical eye. Sure, there are problems with it; there are problems with every Star Wars movie; but overall The Last Jedi is, in my opinion, the best film we’ve gotten in this series since…well, Revenge of the Sith. But that’s not what this review is about, instead, I want to go over what exactly makes Episode VIII one of the best, and why it is worthy to be in my top three Star Wars films of all time.
This is not going to be a ‘review’ in the traditional sense, so you won’t be getting a final score or a recommendation to see it (though if you haven’t seen it by now, what is wrong with you), and will highlight the main themes present throughout The Last Jedi that make it not only narratively poignant on its own, but also how these themes connect the film to the larger fabric of Star Wars storytelling. These are themes that have been present throughout the series in one form or another and serve to create an inspiring analogue to the trilogies that came before it. Now, I present to you my ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi Thematic Narrative Review’. Enjoy.
One of the most important parts of a Star Wars film’s identity comes from the foundation it was inspired by, none more prevalent in the series than the influence of Akira Kurosawa and Samurai films in general. While parallels can be found to these older movies throughout The Last Jedi, the most noticeable use of Kurosawa-inspired elements is seen in two pivotal scenes: when Rey and Kylo Ren fight the Praetorian guards and in Luke and Kylo’s ‘duel’ on Crait. Both scenes are intentionally framed, shot and choreographed in the style of a samurai movie. The Praetorian guards all use melee weapons against the two lightsaber-wielders in defence of their fallen leader, while the final showdown between the Master and the Apprentice is portrayed in a more thematic and inspired way than other duels of a similar nature in the Star Wars series – having a basis in these classic Japanese samurai films. This leads me to believe that it was the intention of filmmaker Rian Johnson to have this story return to its foundations and tell these older stories in a new and unexpected way. So, it makes perfect sense for the title of Episode VIII to be The Last Jedi – or The Last Samurai.
For the Jedi, attachments were forbidden, but where is the humanity in a story without love? It became the downfall of Anakin Skywalker and was central to his redemption by his son, Luke, decades later. Love is one of the core themes of the entire saga, and The Last Jedi continues that trend. The old master’s love for his sister, Leia, is the driving force that motivates him to train Rey to become a Jedi, when R2-D2 shows the original hologram message to Luke, of Leia’s plea to Ben Kenobi for help in A New Hope. When the wizened Skywalker sees the recording this time, he is not only remembering a time when he admired Princess Leia Organa with a different kind of love, but also how that relationship has grown over the years, and how she still needs him even now. In perfect rhythm, the message becomes Luke’s call to adventure once again, showing a deeper narrative connection to, and understanding of, the legacy of Star Wars that George Lucas left behind.
During the Battle of Crait, Finn decides to sacrifice himself to destroy the First Order superlaser carving its way through the wall of the Resistance base, but is saved by Rose before he can do so – just when the former stormtrooper stopped running and finally found something to fight for (the Resistance). Rose tells Finn that how he was choosing to fight was not right and that he should be fighting to save those he loves. This is a message present throughout the Star Wars Rebels animated series, where one of the most important lessons for the characters to learn is that it is not whether they fight that counts, but how they choose to fight. It is here that these themes interweave with the stories that set the groundwork for The Last Jedi, creating a solidarity in the messages that Star Wars tries to convey. Before Finn can be put in a position to learn this from Rose, his ideals as to which side of the galactic conflict is right are challenged by a character called DJ – or ‘Don’t Join.’ He shows Finn a greyer perspective on war, as there are people profiting from supplying weapons to both sides of the conflict, and that perhaps it is best not to choose a side; but ultimately, Finn chooses the Resistance, and eventually, Rose.
Failure is a key factor in learning and growth, as we are educated on mistakes made and strive to improve ourselves so that we are ready to face the future. Many characters in Star Wars have suffered failure, though, in this film, every character experiences some degree of failure, and this is often shown through subverting expectations. The second act of a trilogy is when the heroes are at their lowest point and things are the darkest they will ever be. The immense failure seen throughout The Last Jedi can only be a setup for an even greater acceptance and rise from a crippling defeat for the protagonists. So many elements set up in The Force Awakens are either dropped or obliterated in this film, which throws everything out the window in what to expect from the final act in this “sequel trilogy,” and leaves Episode IX with a blank slate. The storytelling possibilities are endless as a result of the bold decisions made in this middle chapter of the story, as well as the commitment to make the list of characters suffering from failure in The Last Jedi quite comprehensive.
- Luke failed Kylo when he had a moment of doubt and ignited his lightsaber above him.
- Kylo failed Luke when he destroyed the Jedi temple and fell under the influence of Snoke.
- Finn and Rose failed in their mission to find and bring the Codebreaker to the Supremacy.
- Rey failed to find answers to who she was and failed Luke by leaving the island untrained.
- Snoke failed in destroying the New Jedi Order and was cut down by his apprentice – Kylo.
- Leia failed the Resistance and was not there to help them flee from the First Order to Crait.
- Poe failed Leia and Holdo by inciting a mutiny and not respecting the chain of command.
- Yoda failed the Jedi and let the Order become corrupt, arrogant, and ultimately destroyed.
However, even through all these failures, Yoda himself manifests from the Netherworld of the Force to teach Luke one final lesson – that he should have passed on his own mistakes during his training, as failure is the greatest teacher of them all. This only reinforces the idea that the protagonists are on a path to become stronger and more capable than they were, because of how far they fell and how hard they pushed themselves back up to continue fighting.
Good versus evil, light versus dark, hero versus villain. While this traditional theme has been greyed by the events of The Last Jedi, the struggle between light and dark is highlighted clearer than ever, not just through the characters and events, but touching every aspect of the film in unique and symbolic ways. Rey and Kylo Ren are at the heart of this struggle and so become ambassadors for the Light Side and Dark Side, respectively, within Episode VIII – regularly clashing and communicating with each other through the Force, as the galaxy around them is thrown out of balance. The greatest example of this is when Vice Admiral Holdo used the evacuated Raddus to cut through the Supremacy and the First Order fleet – beautifully presented as a brilliant light cutting through the dark, accentuated with complete silence in order to make the visuals the focus of the scene, and ensure that the impact of Holdo’s sacrifice is delivered meaningfully. With this, the conflict between light and dark touches the very cinematography of the film, adding another layer of depth to this most enduring of themes.
A more subtle representation of the intermingling of light and dark can be seen in the medallions owned by Paige and Rose Tico, which appear as the two halves of the Yin Yang symbol. These medallions are made of pure Haysian smelt, which is a transition metal that is said to have “incredibly efficient conductive properties,” as we see when DJ assists Finn and Rose into accessing areas of the Supremacy. This could allude to a great spark of progress when the light and dark come together to create a new path for the galaxy, which could, in turn, create balance. However, as shown in the crucial moments after Supreme Leader Snoke’s death, the Light (in the form of Rey) refuses to join the Dark (in the form of Kylo), in a scene that parallels Anakin’s attempt to persuade Padme to join him on the dark path and rule the galaxy in Revenge of the Sith. This refusal by Rey leaves the two sides of the Force separated, and so the medallion pieces, and the sisters who wore them, never come together to forge a unity that stretches beyond Jedi and Sith into something new.
In recent Star Wars media, there has been more of a focus on the Force – represented through the wildlife and nature of a planet, which is also true of The Last Jedi. The Fathiers (space-horses) of Canto Bight, Vulptex of Crait and, to a lesser extent, the Porgs of Ahch-To, all show how the conflict between light and dark affects the Force itself. These creatures come to the aid of characters allied with the light, or prefer to be around beings more intuned with the nature of their worlds. The Fathiers were abused and trapped to be used for entertainment until Rose; who knew exactly what was going on, as she had seen similar things on her homeworld; freed the creatures. The Vulptex, Vulptexes, Vulptices…whatever. The Crystal Foxes ran from the darkness of the First Order to aid the Resistance in eventually escaping the planet. As for the Porgs, they seem to be comfortable with Luke and Rey on the island, as the Jedi have a deep respect for nature, with the Porgs knowing that their home is not being threatened by the dark. Within these new forms of life and the events they become part of, there are narrative hints of Dave Filoni’s storytelling, as he has provided the inspiration in exploring the role of creatures and their connection to the Force in projects such as The Clone Wars and Rebels animated series’. This is an important part of the connective tissue that bridges the films with the canonical expanded media – using and accommodating the new ideas presented in both to create a more holistic view of the Force and the Star Wars mythos.
The theme of family has always been at the very core of Star Wars, particularly in the original trilogy – with Luke learning of his father’s fall to the Dark Side, and guiding him back to the light. In this film, Kylo cannot bring himself to kill the remains of his past – Luke and Leia – because they are all that is left of his family, after he killed his father, Han Solo, on Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens – an act which tore his very soul apart and left him weak. Although near the end of the film, he wants nothing more than to strike his old mentor down himself, he finds that he cannot even touch Luke, as the Jedi Master is projecting himself from across the galaxy. Through his inaction to kill Leia and inability to kill Luke, Kylo loses himself even more to the darkness, becoming unhinged in his hatred.
Rey learns that her family were of no importance in the galactic scale of things, which doesn’t help her to understand why she has such a strong connection to the Force, but also teaches her that she must find her own family and define her legacy. In the end, she is one of the most important people in bringing the New Rebellion together as a family, from the ashes of the Resistance. It is clear to see that her actions have even had an impact on Poe Dameron, who didn’t need to meet Rey to know who she was, indicating that she has already started to make a name for herself in the galaxy. It took her the whole of The Last Jedi for her to realise that no one is going to help her to know her place and that it is something that she needed to decide on her own – giving her refusal in joining Kylo aboard the Supremacy more weight, as she had already begun to fulfill her destiny.
Paige and Rose Tico were sisters who were both with the Resistance. Through Paige’s death in the battle above D’Qar, Rose learnt that the Resistance had to fight so that no one else would lose a loved one like she had. Through finding her courage in Finn, she is able to teach him about how they should be fighting, informing Finn on the kind of person he needed to be. This started a relationship that brought Rose into a new family. These characters represent both related and adopted families, with Rose moving on from her sister to become a sister for the New Rebellion. Family comes in all shapes and sizes, and an important lesson shown by these characters is that you are not defined by who you come from, but what you do. This film reminds us that what someone considers to be their family is different for everybody, which reinforces the inclusiveness of Star Wars.
Although it was said that The Force Awakens would be the film to hand off the Star Wars series to the next generation, The Last Jedi truly emphasises this ‘passing of the torch’ by having the main trio of protagonists of this new trilogy undergo trials that test their character and make them come out the other side as stronger and wiser individuals, at times when the old trio from the original trilogy aren’t there to help them. Rey had to go on a journey of self-discovery and acceptance in bearing a new legacy for both herself and the Jedi as a whole – Luke only started her on this path. Finn journeyed to the far reaches of the galaxy to learn horrible truths about what was really happening outside of the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order, becoming more informed about who he would fight for and how he would choose to fight – Han was a role model to him that got him where he needed to be before his journey could begin. Poe struggles with his reckless “flyboy” attitude and it takes him putting lives at risk and not trusting in others to understand his failings and mature as a leader – Leia is central to this growth of character, but remains unconscious through his personal journey. Overall, this shows that Rey, Finn, and Poe are ready to continue their journeys without the guidance of Luke, Han, and Leia, respectively. In the words of Master Yoda: “We are what they grow beyond.”
‘The Legend of Luke Skywalker’ was revitalised as the Jedi Master finally accepted his status as a legend, and was able to inspire countless others by facing the might of Kylo Ren and the First Order alone. Through his actions on Crait, Luke becomes a symbol of hope for the new generation who wish to rise up and fight back against their oppressors – something to remind people that the First Order can be defeated. In the movie, Luke is taught by Yoda that Rey is the one who must carry on the Jedi, without the old ways of the Order that fell apart during the time of the Republic, and at last Luke accepts that his purpose to preserve and prolong the Jedi religion has been fulfilled. Both of the elder Jedi trust that Rey will be the spark that will light the fire to bring about a New Jedi Order. With this knowledge, Luke is able to move on and become one with the Force. While The Last Jedi tells us not to put too much faith in legends, it also says that if we believe in the heroes, we can aspire to become as great as them by following in their footsteps…Luke Skywalker left a pretty big footstep.
As for the dynamic in how the main characters view their legacy, Kylo Ren believes that “letting the past die” is the only way for both him and Rey to become what they were meant to be, while Rey struggles in looking to her past for assistance in how to move ahead, after she was told by Maz Kanata in the previous film that “the belonging [Rey] seeks is not behind her.” For most of the movie, Rey was seeking where she belonged from those who might help, until she started looking at herself. Both these characters are pushing forward on their own journeys in ways they find most helpful. Kylo still has a chance for redemption; perhaps being brought back to the light by Rey; but will, for now, lead the new empire of the First Order, with the old dying out from both sides of the conflict, and the young enduring to begin a new war between the light and the dark. Just as Luke knew, the Force alternates between cycles of violence and peace, as one cycle (the past) ends and another (the future) begins. The impact of Kylo and Rey’s legacies will begin to truly affect the galaxy with their next actions, with them both possibly becoming legends in their own right for years to come.
To conclude this review, all the themes I have explored have been presented in this film in such a way that it seamlessly connects to the Star Wars universe and mythos, while offering bold new approaches to narrative storytelling when it comes to creating a film in this series. As I hope I have meticulously explained in this in-depth analysis, the foundations and inspiration, themes of love, failure, light and dark, the force and its relation to nature, family, and legacy all come together to make The Last Jedi an excellent narrative experience. While it takes a large stride from what the first movie in the trilogy aimed to be, Episode VIII sticks close to the narrative roots that make the Star Wars franchise so recognisable and accessible, while at the same time providing a great story that leaves more questions than answers. There really is anywhere to go from here in terms of what the final act will bring, and only time will tell how this trilogy is wrapped up, but for now it is safe for me to say that Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a true return to form, to the galaxy far, far away….