THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!
****SOME SPOILERS ENSUE****
Hindsight is always 20/20. There was a time where it felt like the Original Trilogy was considered the most hallowed and perfect three film franchise ever conceived. Children of the 1970s and 80s grew up with a trio of movies that told a beginning, middle, and end. For almost twenty years, those fans had no cinematic follow-ups to George Lucas‘ creation and had to rely on a multitude of novels, comics, toys and video games to satiate their desire for more adventures in a galaxy far, far away. To that note, there are so many works in that library of materials that are not just bad but are downright terrible. Still, some STAR WARS is better than no STAR WARS and fans rejoiced when the Prequels were announced. And yet, when THE PHANTOM MENACE hit screens in 1999, there was a vocal segment of STAR WARS fans who decried that the franchise they loved was not exactly the same as the Original Trilogy. Despite the record-breaking box office for the new films, these fans forced George Lucas into reconsidering any further films after he concluded the new trilogy with REVENGE OF THE SITH. With Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm and the release of new STAR WARS movies aimed to recapture the magic of the Original Trilogy, you would think that traditionalists would have been silenced.
Barely six months after the release of STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, we are in a world where the vitriol of a vocal minority of STAR WARS “fans” are ripping apart Rian Johnson‘s sequel for going against the narrative direction they anticipated. These same individuals, hiding behind their keyboards and the shroud of anonymity, are disgustingly attacking actress Kelly Marie Tran because they disliked her character. Much like how fans trashed Ahmed Best for playing Jar-Jar Binks, these trolls cannot seem to distinguish reality from fiction. There is no way that a movie can have such a scarring impact on the psyche of an individual unless that person is so weak of constitution that a piece of entertainment can ruin their life. I will admit to holding STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI in lower regard the first time I watched it. I was not angry at the decisions that Rian Johnson made but I felt challenged by them. Some, like the entire Canto Bight sequence, rubbed me the wrong way. I decided then that the movie was a disappointment. It did invite scrutiny and debate, so I watched it again. And then I watched it again. I have now seen it so many times and replayed the more controversial aspects of the movie that I am comfortable in making this statement: STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is the best film in the entire STAR WARS saga.
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is a brilliant juxtaposition of the formula we have come to love about George Lucas‘ saga combined with expectation-defying narrative decisons. Basing the film in an overall structure that mimics THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (the main characters are split, the villains get the upper hand, the main character goes off on their own to train with a mysterious Jedi master, the leader of the villainous organization is revealed after being a hologram in the first episode, the rogue pilot begins to learn how to be a leader, a debonair criminal betrays the heroes, etc), Rian Johnson takes elements we expected to turn out one way and throws them for a loop. Kylo Ren turns on Snoke but then turns back to the Dark Side. Luke Skywalker shows up to save the day but ends up dying. DJ (Benicio Del Toro) betrays the heroes and we wait for him to double back, but he never does. Rey’s parents end up being inconsequential. All of these decisions riled up fans in such a way and yet they are absolutely brilliant choices by Johnson. I will not address the racial or gender based complaints about the series because, well, they are fucking stupid. If anyone has a problem with minorities cast in a tale about a diverse universe of alien beings, they are beyong convincing about anything. What i will discuss are some key choices in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI that are more profound than they may appear at first glance.
When I first watched STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI, I found the entire Canto Bight sequence to be pointless. It felt like it existed simply to give Rose and Finn something to do while all of the other characters were locked in major arcs. Even the design of the casino and characters seemed like something out of the Prequels rather than the more reverent style of THE FORCE AWAKENS. But, after examining the sequence, it has become one of my favorites in the entire film. In fact, the entire subplot involving Canto Bight is vital to Rian Johnson‘s story. Going back to George Lucas‘ 1977 original, STAR WARS has long been about how the sprawling war between the Empire and the Rebellion and how it impacts the universe indirectly. Both Anakin and Luke Skywalker start their stories outside of the war and we see how their lives are changed by the fight between Light and Dark, good and evil. In THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, Cloud City is representative out how a society can operate outside of the grasp of either the Empire or the Rebellion before Lando Calrissian is forced to choose a side and double back on the decision. Here, Canto Bight flips that conceit by showing us the disparate conditions of the rich and poor at Canto Bight. The rich, profiting off of selling weapons to both sides (according to DJ), and the poor, subjugated by the wide economic gap between them and their masters, shows that while the stakes being waged between the First Order and the Resistance are great, they often fall on deaf ears as the universe chugs along despite their conflict. It is a dark and ominous thought but one that Johnson punctuates with the closing scen showing one of the slave children emulating Luke Skywalker and looking towards the sky, aiming for a future that seems more tangible than it did before.
There is also the case of DJ, whom I originally found to be a pointless character. After taking the place of the Master Codebreaker (Justin Theroux), DJ joins Finn and Rose to help them stop the First Order. On their journey back to the Resistance caravan, DJ explains to Finn about the aforementioned duplicity of the war and who profits off of whom. He also goes from a scoundrel who takes Rose’s precious necklace to a decent man when he returns it after using it to gain access on the First Order ship. Then, he quickly flips back when he turns on his compatriots in exchange for money and free passage from the ship. The first time I watched the movie, I kept expecting DJ to, like Lando before him, turn into a hero once again and save the day. Instead, he remains aligned to his belief that it was just business. For a while, I was holding onto seeing Benicio Del Toro return for EPISODE IX, but now I realize that he served his purpose two-fold. On one hand, DJ represents the same message that Rian Johnson was conveying about Canto Bight that the nature of the war is more than two sided. If Johnson had decided to have DJ be inside the walker instead of BB-8 (something I was willing to wager on the first time I watched the film), it would have felt hollow and too on the nose. By having DJ serve his purpose and leave the narrative, much like the Master Codebreaker himself, Rian Johnson has upended expectations beautifully.
Lastly, there is is the decision to reveal that Rey’s parents were nobodies. I was disappointed when I first saw STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI but only because of how much investment I had made discussing and arguing about who her parents would be. Very much like how I used to theorize and discuss THE MATRIX sequels or television series like Lost, The X-Files and Fringe, some of my theories panned out while others were wholly unexpected. There was no way Rian Johnson could have satisfied all fans with the decision he made. Many of you (and me for a time) have thought that J.J. Abrams will reverse Johnson’s choice on Rey’s lineage. If anything, I applaud Rian Johnson for forcing J.J. Abrams and the creative team on EPISODE IX to find a solution that makes sense to either change what was revealed in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI or double down and make it all the more interesting. This also flies in the face of the long tradition of heroes coming from meager roots only to discover their royal or magical lineage. But this isn’t Harry Potter, this is STAR WARS. This pairs perfectly with the ongoing theme of uprising throughout THE LAST JEDI and gives even more weight ot that closing shot of the slave boy looking to the heavens.
Rian Johnson had the hardest job in this new trilogy. J.J. Abrams paid homage, heavily, to what came before to wipe the Prequels out of the memories of hesitant fans. THE FORCE AWAKENS was a summary of what came before whereas THE LAST JEDI is a bridge to what comes next. Abrams set the table but Johnson has served the meal. Now, EPISODE IX has clean it all up. STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is no mere entry in a franchise but rather a cinematic exploration of heavy themes that few filmmakers could have accomplished under the restrictions of Lucasfilm or Disney. Both ROGUE ONE and SOLO were helmed by talented directors but were guided by executives and studio-friendly filmmakers behind the scenes. While THE FORCE AWAKENS bares J.J. Abrams‘ trademarks, it never feels unlike a STAR WARS movie. That is the greatest success of Rian Johnson‘s STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI: it feels at once perfectly at home within the canon started by George Lucas while also working completely as an independent work of art. For that alone, I consider this the best STAR WARS film of the ten that have been released thus far. Warts and all, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI manages to play by the rules while also breaking virtually every single one.
Oh, and if you have any suggestions for The UnPopular Opinion I’m always happy to hear them. You can send along an email to [email protected], spell it out below, slap it up on my wall in Movie Fan Central, or send me a private message via Movie Fan Central. Provide me with as many movie suggestions as you like, with any reasoning you’d care to share, and if I agree then you may one day see it featured in this very column!