Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the Need to Confront Change

Copyright © 2017 by Lucasfilm

“This is not going to go the way you think!”

Never before has a line of dialogue so perfectly captured the spirit of a movie. And it came from the mouth of Luke Skywalker no less. A worn-down, bitter, cynical Luke Skywalker. Not the fresh-faced hero from yet another desert planet, but not exactly the edgy antihero of so much post-Nineties TV and cinema. This is a broken man tired of living up to his own legend.

This, then, is the new face of Star Wars. It’s what happens when we ask which legends are worth saving and which are worth losing.

In Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, we find both our hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) and the whole of the Resistance in a state of freefall. Rey has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), but he’s neither the hero nor the mentor she wanted. He’s made too many mistakes with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and he won’t be responsible for her downfall, too. Meanwhile, the Resistance reaches its breaking point in a series of counterattacks by the First Order fleet, jumping from one system to another as new leaders like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) take command, leading to clashes with ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and subversive acts by Resistance loyalists like Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). All this, of course, only serves to empower the First Order’s leader, Snoke (played by Andy Serkis), as he and his apprentice Kylo Ren work to corner and eliminate the last Jedi Knight and the fire of resistance once and for all.

When it comes to the storytelling behind this new installment of Star Wars, I give a lot of credit to Rian Johnson’s writing and breathtaking use of colors in his cinematography, the script doctoring by the late Carrie Fisher, and to the performances of Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver. This movie has plenty of callbacks and echoes of the original three movies, but it’s also its own creature, complete with Kurosawa-style splashes of red, homages to Monte Carlo casinos and Rashomon, and plenty of comedic moments that keep the film alive.

Everyone who came to the movie brought something unique, and I think that it’s connected to the film’s overall theme: that no one can change things by themselves, but by working in concert with others, however small their actions might be. Poe Dameron can’t fly in an X-wing and blow things up to save the day. Rey can’t find the reclusive Jedi Master and learn everything like in the old days. Finn and his new friend Rose can’t break the First Order’s weapons from within, or throw their lives away to stop the war machine’s relentless advance.

This movie, for the most part, is an action-driven and emotional ride that makes it the longest-running Star Wars film to date. I think it delivers the same dramatic punches as The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, with maybe one or two missteps. Some of the second act runs a bit overlong, especially with so much time given to the CGI love-fest that is Canto Bight, and some of the sequences on board Snoke’s flagship are one or two minutes drawn out for my liking. But apart from that, I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Jedi and I’m left breathless and excited for the next and final installment of this sequel trilogy.

I’m aware that there are plenty of criticisms about the movie, and that a number of fans have taken exception to the changes made by Rian Johnson and others in this new film. But as a longtime Star Wars fan myself, well-versed in the old Expanded Universe of decades past, I couldn’t help but love this. This movie is funny, exciting, dramatic, heartwrenching, affectionate, and downtrodden in so many ways. Yes, it’s flawed. Yes, it’s surprising. Yes, it’s tearing down the status quo.

But that’s exactly what Luke is trying to tell Rey, and it’s a lesson he needs to learn himself. Don’t make people into legends. Make your own journey instead.

At the time of this writing, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is currently in theaters everywhere.

Bibliography: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. Directed by Rian Johnson. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman. Written by Rian Johnson. Based on characters created by George Lucas. Perf. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kelly Marie Tran, Gwendoline Christie, Laura Dern, and Benicio del Toro. Lucasfilm Ltd. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Original release date: December 15, 2017.

Unlikely Heroes: Comparing The Hidden Fortress with Star Wars

Recently, I had the good fortune of finding The Hidden Fortress, one of the many films directed by the great Akira Kurosawa, available through Hulu Plus. I decided to watch it, not only for the chance to sit through a Kurosawa film, but also because I’ve heard it mentioned so often as a major influence on George Lucas when he was developing the concept for Star Wars.

Overall, the film’s quite good, but how does it compare to the movie that introduced us to a galaxy far, far away?

Copyright © 1958 by Toho Company Ltd.
Copyright © 1958 by Toho Company Ltd.

The Hidden Fortress is about two peasants trying to avoid being held prisoner by the fearsome Yamana clan. They enter into the service of a cunning general and the fugitive princess of the Akizuki clan, who must slip through enemy territory with their clan’s remaining gold before they’re caught and executed.

Copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd.
Copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is about two droids who wind up in the possession of a young moisture farmer. They help the farmboy find an old Jedi Knight and a pair of smugglers, enlisting their cause to rescue a princess from a space station and deliver the Death Star plans to the Rebellion before the Empire destroys any more planets.

Now, looking at the film itself, there are plenty of edits and shots that Lucas borrowed or crafted as an homage to Kurosawa’s epic film. Consider this list of common elements and themes.

Both films feature:

  • A Rebellious Princess Fleeing the Enemy: Princess Yuki in The Hidden Fortress, Princess Leia in Star Wars
  • A Pair of Low-Level Characters as Protagonists: Tahei and Matashichi in The Hidden Fortress, C-3PO and R2-D2 in Star Wars
  • An Older and Cunning Warrior Leading the Heroes: Makabe Rokurota in The Hidden Fortress, Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars
  • A Duel Between Old Rivals With Enemy Troops Observing: Makabe and Hyoe Tadokoro in The Hidden Fortress, Obi-Wan and Darth Vader in Star Wars
  • A Surprise Victory Made Possible By A Rogue’s Change of Heart: Hyoe Tadokoro in The Hidden Fortress, Han Solo in Star Wars

Not to mention, we can see the similarity in the bickering of the two peasants and the hostile friendship between two droids, both of whom wander the wastelands in search of a new master. We can recognize the inspiration for Obi-Wan’s famous Jedi mind trick with the stormtroopers in Makabe’s trick on the Yamana guards at the border checkpoint. Even the burning of the titular fortress is a clear payoff for the ruined moisture farm and the loss of Luke’s Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

Of course, anyone can see where the stories diverge, from their eras to their environments to their main hero (i.e., a seasoned samurai as opposed to a young farmboy-turned-pilot). The two films feel different not only because of their setting, but because of their own cultures. Kurosawa uses motifs and styles that tap into the Japanese audience’s sense of history and folktales, whereas Lucas is drawing on the Flash Gordon serials and Western genre films that Americans would find more familiar. Kurosawa gives his audience classic samurai duels; Lucas takes WWII dogfights and puts them in outer space.

It’s been said that Lucas’s original drafts of Star Wars screenplay were much closer to the story in The Hidden Fortress. While he certainly had Kurosawa’s blessing to adapt so much from his work, it’s been good for both Lucas and his audience that Star Wars became its own concept and a cultural touchstone for the rest of the world. Even so, I doubt we’ll ever truly forget Kurosawa’s legacy. Divorced from its legacy with George Lucas and his colleagues, as its own film, The Hidden Fortress remains a thrilling tale of adventure, intrigue, and changing fortunes, as well as an excellent samurai tale and a great showcase for the late and great actor Toshiro Mifune.

For those interested, The Hidden Fortress is available through the Criterion Collection.