What would happen if they made a Star Wars film that was more character driven than focusing on battles and lightsabers?
Rian Johnson answers this question in Star Wars: The Last Jedi; the most thoughtful installment in the whole series. It’s easy to entertain an audience with explosions and pretty locations. It’s much harder to satisfy by simply explaining who their characters are, what makes them tick and what their flaws are. This film is incredibly satisfying in that regard. Even Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) get to have much more layers added to their characters. Hamill does his best acting in this film; broken, disillusioned and much changed from the farmboy the audience first met in Star Wars: A New Hope. His humor now greatly resembles his sister’s former caustic brand.
The women have always been lacking in Star Wars. Leia propelled action forward but was often reduced to a sarcastic one-liner. While Luke expressed his feelings on various deaths and revelations, the audience was often left to guess at Leia’s feelings. Her processing of Darth Vader being her biological father was left off-screen for Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. The scenes fleshing out Padme’s (Natalie Portman) character in the prequels; her family and role in founding the Rebellion, were left on the cutting room floor. The most screen-time that the female Jedi had in the first six films were reduced to single a librarian or their death scenes. Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story improved on this but still lacked having multiple meaningful storylines for their female characters. Star Wars: The Last Jedi fixes this.
Women in Star Wars: The Last Jedi are allowed to acknowledge once another and have multiple scenes with each other. It’s made clear that Leia and Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) have history with each other and inside jokes. They can communicate with just a look, seen previously with male characters like Luke and Han Solo (Harrison Ford). Leia is allowed to physically show her Jedi prowess. Her previous Jedi powers of communicating with Luke telepathically, withstanding Imperial mind probes, flying the Millennium Falcon and the strength to put up with all of Jabba’s bullshit until the right time were subtler. It was too subtle if the fan arguments are any indication. Leia using the Force to save herself, no different than Luke under Cloud City or ObiWan fighting against Darth Maul, shouldn’t have caused so much disagreement. It’s a crime against Leia that anyone would consider her not to be a Jedi or to be inferior when the prequels established how powerful Anakin was and Yoda stressed that Leia was equal to Luke in the possibility of stopping Darth Vader. Various Star Wars books have claimed that she was too busy with politics and mothering to study the Force more but most of the audience wouldn’t have read those. It’s a shame that Fisher’s best performance as Leia was her last. Leia gets to be so multifaceted. There’s the badass General who still knows her way around a gun even if it’s set to stun this time. She’s also a powerful Jedi even under the worst conditions. Last but not least, she has a soft side that mourns her husband and family in her ornate hair, smiles over her brother’s return and tenderly motions her favorite pilot to sit beside her like a mother would with a sleepy toddler.
Amilyn is a wonderful addition and shows how females have remained important despite the war room in Star Wars: The Force Awakens skewing male. Her brief scenes always demand the audience’s attention. Females are truly at every level of the Resistance. It’s unknown the canon reason behind Jessika Pava’s (Jessica Henwick) absence. However, there is Paige (Veronica Ngo) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). Paige’s early sacrifice is felt throughout the film by Rose. It’s a different kind of loss compared to most in the Star Wars series. Most deaths impacting the main characters are either mentors/loved ones that die late in the film or they basically just met. It’s easier on the script since characters don’t spent a lot of time having to deal with their grief. Rose changes this. Her grief, over her sister and her planet, drives her. She doesn’t want to lose what little she has left especially those she loves. Tran proves that she’s more than just a comedy actress and it’ll be interesting to see how her career goes from here. Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) is little more than a cameo but makes the most of a Holonet message.
Then, there’s Rey (Daisy Ridley). Rey was the first main female character with a lightsaber outside the animated series on Cartoon Network and Disney XD. She bought down a Knight of Ren (Adam Driver) almost all by herself. A second appearance had a lot of expectations after that. For most of the film, she’s badass in a more familiar way. She spends her time pleading with a disgruntled older man to give her a chance and show her what he knows. This is an experience almost every woman knows even if the man didn’t blow up a Death Star. Then, she realizes that she never needed him, that guys can let you down and that’s okay because friends will always be there for you, like Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Rose.
People make mistakes. They aren’t perfect even if they’re galactic heroes. Most of the mistakes made in Star Wars: The Last Jedi are by males not listening to those who have learned by experience especially females. The victories aren’t big or made by blowing things up. Instead, the victories are more personal. Some victories are as small as realizing that your surrogate son has learned how to be a proper leader or a death under their own terms.
Some Star Wars traditions are there. John Williams did a wonderful score as always. Some traditions aren’t there. No one said, “I have a bad feeling about this.” Even in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, K-2SO said, “I have a bad feeling about this.” Luke Skywalker became a sassmaster. Snoke isn’t all powerful. Maybe the war isn’t as black and white with the Resistance fighting the First Order. It is possible not to have sound for ten seconds. Johnson broke many of the rules and expectations the audience has hoarded about Star Wars films. He did so with humor and characters that became much more understandable. The social and political commentary doesn’t feel forced and is a natural extension of the story. Hopefully, the one billion gross will rule over the hurt feelings of fans expecting something very different. Future Star Wars films can be anything and it’s an exciting time to be a fan witnessing that.