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  • Wednesday, March 14, 2018
  • 8:00 PM–11:00 PM
  • CFAC
  • FREE

“Let the past die; kill it if you have to.” A seething Kylo Ren’s words have been used by countless reviewers attempting to articulate Rian Johnson’s mission in writing and directing The Last Jedi. In adopting Kylo’s phrase, there’s the underlying argument that Johnson throws out fundamental Star Wars elements and inserts his own. And although this argument is usually paired with critical praise about the movie, reviewers using it miss a critical detail: Kylo’s a bad guy. His thoughts are amiss, twisted and outright wrong; how could it be good to follow his lead? Johnson instead has Kylo’s ideals juxtapose the film’s themes. There’s goodness to be garnered from the past, but it’s crowded by misguided expectation and misplaced necessities. In The Last Jedi, greatness is found in shedding dogmatic, frivolous tradition and embracing the cruxes of the past.

Rian Johnson loves Star Wars. For proof, just watch the endearing clip on The Star Wars Show of him crying at the gift of an AT-AT he yearned for as a child. And his adoration saturates the film. Just like The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi is chock-full of the Star Wars staples that fans come to expect: the duality between good and evil, stunning special effects, thrilling music, and massive ship to ship battles (or ship through ship battles, amiright?). But whereas The Force Awakens felt built by committee, The Last Jedi is written and directed solely by Johnson. This personal flair instills the movie with an exciting sense of freshness as Johnson plays with audience expectations by looking beyond the surface-level events and focusing on the core ideas and characters that drive his love for Star Wars. He recognizes Star Wars for what it is: a fantastical space opera with space wizards and laser swords. Towards the characters, Rian has an understanding it wasn’t a looming, big bad guy that made for a good villain; it was the visceral and tragically fallen character of Anakin that made conflict engrossing. And Johnson never saw a blindly optimistic hero; he saw the Luke Skywalker that ditched his training on Dagobah and nearly fell to the Dark Side. Johnson writes a fully realized Luke of the original trilogy who’s as fallible and real as the rest of our heroes. And by discarding these worn predictions of audiences and appreciating the central themes and core character elements of the past trilogies, Rian Johnson breaths unexpected new life and exciting stakes into the Skywalker saga while retaining a distinct sense of familiarity.

Alongside the audience, the characters tackle similar lessons about the past. Rey struggles with her history when her parentage is revealed. But when Kylo attempts to use her past as manipulative leverage, Rey realizes that her seemingly uninspiring legacy emphasizes that she is powerful, independent of lineage. Juxtaposing Rey are Kylo’s attempts to violently destroy his past. By the end of the movie, he is a searing emotional wreck, unable to hold onto those around him, much less his own sanity. Most powerfully coming to terms with the past is our jaded idol, Luke, who’s begrudgingly again thrust into the hero’s journey. He is forced to learn from his barbaric mistake of almost killing his nephew. It’s through addressing—not destroying—this past that reveals his true heroism, facing down his nephew and saving the Resistance without resorting to the violence that defined his past transgression. 

One of the most impactful shots of the Star Wars saga is of Luke and Yoda watching the gnarled tree burn on Ahch-To. The powerful visuals reflect Luke’s dramatic realization. He recognizes that the past strength of the Jedi wasn’t found in its dogmatic tradition or expectations; those things doomed the order.  Rather, the fortitude and beauty of the order was founded in the crux of the Jedi religion’s pursuit for humility, balance and peace. Goodness is found in returning to these core ideals.  Rian Johnson runs this theme deep throughout The Last Jedi, using the narrative and production to actively urge the audience to reevaluate what makes a film franchise, hero, or even religion, truly great.  

—Derrick Kamp

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