SPOILER ALERT: This article reveals several key plot points from the movie Star Wars: The Last Jedi. If you haven't seen the movie, please beware.
In 1977, George Lucas revolutionized not only film but the entire entertainment industry with Star Wars.
But, 40 years later, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) isn't a revolution. A revolution is when the oppressed overthrow the oppressor, the old are replaced by the new, giving rise to new countries and concepts. The Last Jedi doesn't change the boundaries established by Star Wars in its story, expression (technique and design) nor how its business operates.
However, rather than this being something negative about the film, it is proof that The Last Jedi is indeed the right kind of Star Wars for the 21st century.
Lucas' original Star Wars is a story of revolution, where the rebellion led by Princess Leia along with Han Solo and Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker stand against the Galactic Empire. The Last Jedi depicts the battles between the heavily armed First Order and the Resistance fighters. This structure is inherited from The Force Awakens, an "Empire versus Rebellion" theme that is persistent throughout the Star Wars series.
Near the end of The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren kills Snoke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order. This is a coup d'état by Kylo, and should be considered an internal structural revolution. However, while Kylo invites Rey to create a new order along with him, he never actually attempts to do so. Instead of destroying the First Order, he merely occupies the now vacant position of Supreme Leader. It seems that only the leadership in the organization changes, while its objective and power structure are left intact. What happens next might be portrayed in future episodes, but at this point, the First Order has only undergone a succession in administration, rather than an actual revolution.
The motif of succession is present throughout the film: Vice Admiral Holdo takes command when Leia is incapacitated, and Poe Dameron is demoted for disobeying General Leia's orders. And most importantly, there is the succession from Luke to Rey.
This is not a revolution. And just as the story isn't about revolution, its themes and portrayals aren't revolutionary either. This is only natural, though, as the film is but one piece of the continuous, eternal kingdom of Star Wars.
Star Wars and New American Cinema
Let's first look back at the revolution that George Lucas started in 1977.
My first encounter with Star Wars was through a metallic sticker included in a movie magazine. It featured Luke Skywalker using binoculars while standing next to C-3PO, and that alone was enough to transmit how groundbreaking Star Wars was. However, it would take more than a year after its release in the US for the movie to be released in Japan. Actually, Star Wars ended up being released in Japan after Close Encounters of the Third Kind. At the time, there was no internet, and the speed at which information from overseas came to Japan can't begin to compare to the flow of information we have today. Even then, though, there was a daily influx of Star Wars news and reviews: a blockbuster science fiction epic that sparked a global SF frenzy. Fueled by the SF craze, Japanese Star Wars-like movies such as The War In Space and Message from Space were rushed into production so that they could be released before Star Wars in Japan.
I was one of those kids excited about watching Star Wars, but even I felt something odd about this movie being categorized as science fiction. Back then, to me, science fiction was not restricted to just movies or novels, but any expression that portrayed problems and contradictions in today's society and brought them under examination by presenting them from a different angle. 2001: A Space Odyssey, Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, Z.P.G., Godzilla; their social commentary and philosophical perspective made them SF. At the time Star Wars was criticized in some corners for having no philosophy, and for being preposterous and childish.
Star Wars wasn't science fiction per se; it was more of a fairy tale set in space. However, it wasn't a superficial, childish soap opera either. It was a revolutionary film, set to change films altogether: a work that created a genre and a culture of its own.
It may not directly tackle themes that afflict modern society, and some might brush it off as a shallow popcorn flick, but that's not the case. It is well known that Lucas used mythologist Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces as a base, and through Star Wars Lucas expanded on timeless themes such as father and son relationship and the journey into adulthood.
On top of that, by introducing ideas based on Eastern mysticism such as the Force and Jedis, he brought non-western religious and philosophical elements into the realm of science fiction (or better put: to space opera). One of those elements is how the Force extends beyond good and evil, diving into the idea of the duality persistent across all things (perhaps some of this thinking was influenced by Lucas' affection in his youth towards Akira Kurosawa's work).
There are those who claim that the success of Star Wars ended the New American Cinema, but that's not the case. George Lucas, who stood up to make films in the 1960s, had an aversion to Hollywood's system and created his own indie development company along with Francis Ford Coppola (Lucas’ debut film with the studio being THX1138). Lucas didn't end New American Cinema: he created a new way of making films.
Tech, Merch and Process
Star Wars also revolutionized the technology and business of movies. The trilogy, consisting of episodes four to six, utilized analog special effects (SFX) such as filming miniature sets with motion control cameras, while episodes one to three created aliens, droids and environmental art mostly through digital effects (VFX), always creating its worlds with state of the art technology.
Companies such as ILM, THX and Skywalker Sound were created to pursue further research and development of these technologies, and the knowledge they accumulated would go on to significantly transform the film industry on a global scale (you may remember that Pixar was also born from the CG division of Lucas Films).
Star Wars and George Lucas blazed a new path for VFX, CG, sound systems and other film technologies, and took their development to new heights. James Cameron, a few generations younger than George Lucas, would make similar contributions down the line.
Lucas continues to use the latest technologies to edit the films on each subsequent release, whether it’s the 1997 Trilogy Special Edition or other releases on DVD and Blu-ray. This was a foreshadowing of the transformation from movies as finished theatrical products to continuously morphing entities, much like social games and TV series.
On the business side, by acquiring the merchandising rights, Lucas was ahead of his time in acknowledging the potential movies had as a royalty driven business. All the merchandise born from the movies - toys, figures, games, comics, animations, etc. - helped form the Star Wars universe. And each of those provides a form of entertainment different from a movie. I can't even begin to count how many Lego sets and figures I've bought over the years!
Lucas' Star Wars movie revolution gave rise to a creative process mimicked by all films since, and established the current movie business model. Of course, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are no exceptions. Even though The Last Jedi utilizes the latest VFX to deliver ever more astounding visuals, it's just an extension of the revolution of some 40 years past. A case in point: A lot of attention has been brought to the fact that a life-size mock-up of the Millennium Falcon was created to lend an authentic atmosphere, but the very same thing, albeit only the right half, was created way back in Episode IV. We are, in fact, not in the midst of a real technical revolution.
For each new Star Wars movie, the world setting, characters, mechanical creations and other designs must fit within the Star Wars framework, which of course makes it difficult to deliver an experience as all together new and fresh as the original. In addition, with mainline and spin-off films coming out every other year, it's impossible for a single creator to control all aspects of production. Instead, multiple directors must create films that keep fans continuously engaged, while staying within the confines of the Star Wars universe.
The Last Jedi is a movie that gallantly confronts this challenge. In fact, it is on this point that writer and director Rian Johnson really shines. Faced with the questions of how to build upon the back of an already successful revolution, and just what is the right course of action to take, Johnson chose to portray a modern, 21st century Star Wars story of succession and replacement.
The Last Jedi
Despite coming in at a new Star Wars record running time of roughly 152 min., the story of The Last Jedi is actually quite simple. Over the course of the film the resistance is constantly on the run from the dogged pursuit of the First Order. During that time Luke and Rey's succession, Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke's showdown, Rey and Kylo's Force-enabled communication, not to mention Finn and Rose's infiltration mission all play out.
As far as the story is concerned, little waves are made and there are no space-shattering conflicts. Although, to be fair this may be an inescapable result of being the second act of three parts.
In any case, the story immediately reminded me of Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk. Both are only one part of a larger story, and focus almost exclusively on the theme of escape. Like Dunkirk, The Last Jedi largely sets aside any questions about the causes of conflict and what effects the outcome may yield. Rather than tell a story, it's more concerned with effectively presenting characters and situations.
This method, akin to the portrayal of TV series characters, eschews plot progression in favor of deeper character development. Significant effort is applied to diving into and increasing the allure of characters from the previous episode: Rey, Finn, Poe, Kylo, as well as a host of new characters. However, failure to follow through with these character developments yields regrettable results. Poe gets kicked to the side early on and never finds a place to shine, and Rey and Luke's interactions fail to reach a satisfying conclusion.
The Last Jedi does boast a series of striking scenes, from Kylo and Rey's intense battle with the Elite Praetorian Guard (featuring backhanded lightsaber action!), to the final showdown on the blood-like red plumes of the white salt flats.
Conversely, unlike previous episodes, there is no mention of the trade federation that initially sparked the war for the Republic or other deeper political machinations. Instead, a great deal of care is paid to the positioning of characters. This is evident in Leia's role as a female general, the heroine Rey, and Finn's Asian female compatriot Rose. The film is conscious of gender and minorities in a way that could surely not have been seen in the era of Lucas' Star Wars.
The film doesn't waste its breath on bold revolutionary or political declarations, but instead sets its gaze upon social problems the audience experiences on a daily basis. Women are not princesses waiting to be rescued, but warriors who take up arms in their own fight. This fits the trend of Disney movies as well, where the once common theme of a princess waiting for her prince has all but become the ancient past.
The revelation behind the mystery of Rey's birth also brings another of the trilogy's central social themes to light.
Rey is one of the, if not the most powerful conduits of the Force, but her parents were not Jedi - just commoners (note: this truth may very well change in the next episode). This is directly opposed to Kylo Ren, who is the son of Leia and Han Solo, and Luke Skywalker, whose father is Darth Vader. Anakin's birth is also veiled in mystery. It's said he is without father, and an abnormally large quantity of midi-chlorians in his body grant him remarkable Force powers. So, just like the others, his birth has a mysterious mythological and privileged air about it.
Until now, the Force has always been something that only the chosen can come to possess, but this assumption is turned on its head. As we learn from Luke's lesson, the Force is, in fact, omnipresent, there for everyone.
The Democratization of the Hero
Episodes one through six center around the Force and the story of Luke Skywalker and his father Darth Vader. The heroes in these episodes are all special carriers of the Force. Indeed, episodes one to three are almost exclusively focused on the birth of Darth Vader.
(As a bit of an aside, it is sometimes hypothesized that perhaps due to Metal Gear Solid 3's position as a prequel and its focus on the birth of Big Boss, it was influenced by Star Wars. Darth Vader = Big Boss, or something like that. This is wrong. I was actually referencing the structure of Planet of the Apes and Stephen Hunter's Swagger Saga.)
Just as the power of kings is passed to their lineage, so too the Force is passed to the chosen few. At least that's how we've viewed Star Wars until now. The Last Jedi throws this concept out the window. Anyone can awaken to the Force. Anyone can be the hero. The spotlight isn't reserved for those special few, it can shine on anyone. Princess Leia is no longer a princess, but a general, a position that can be replaced by another.
The same movement has happened within the world of games. Previously the hero was an elite, a chosen figure coming from a unique background or possessing special powers, but from the time of Grand Theft Auto and the like, minorities and oppressed members of society have become the heroes. In this day and age, the leading role isn't reserved just for the chosen, but anyone can become the hero = the player.
The Last Jedi may be the first attempt to free Star Wars from its era of mythology, and propel it into the present. The closing scene of the young boy hopefully gazing up at the stars is as fitting an indication of this intent as any.
In Star Wars, anyone can be the hero. That's what The Last Jedi tells us. It's a new era, starting in a kingdom without a king.
The revolutionary age of toppling kings is past. Star "Wars" has entered a new era of festivity, welcome to one and all. The "all flash and no blood" red plumes on the salt planet signify this change of stance. To ensure the stability and prosperity of the kingdom, a festival is held each year as part of a never-ending celebration. This is what it means for Disney, not George Lucas, to helm the Star Wars franchise. In the magic kingdom anyone can become prince or princess, no blood is spilled and there are no revolutions.
The Last Jedi is just the prologue.
Hideo Kojima, best known as the game creator of the Metal Gear series, became an independent game developer at the end of 2015 after releasing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. He established his own studio, Kojima Productions, and is now making PS4 game DEATH STRANDING, starring Norman Reedus and Mads Mikkelsen,