This isn’t going to be my usual style of review. Normally, I’d watch a film and then comment on a few key areas of interest; plot and writing, direction, performances, visuals, and so on. I’ve now seen Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi twice, and I’m still no closer to being able to put together anything even close to a passable level of coherence – even by my own shoddy standards.
Through all my turmoil, the easiest thing to comment on in this latest entry in the Star Wars saga are the performances – which are potentially the best yet. That’s thanks in no small part to Mark Hamill who – while I may have some qualms with the direction of his character – is absolutely magnificent. So too is Carrie Fisher, who undoubtedly delivers her greatest ever performance as Leia – and potentially the greatest Star Wars performance, period. Beyond that though, I really don’t know where to start in dissecting this film.
One thing I am certain of now we’re two films into this trilogy, however, is that Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is far and away the best thing to come out of it all. Based on the already gripping Jacen Solo story from the Star Wars Legends continuity (formally the Star Wars expanded universe), his inner conflict and unpredictability continues the epic space opera legacy of the original films. He is quintessentially Star Wars, and for those who claim that Rian Johnson didn’t ‘get’ Star Wars with his Last Jedi script, then they need look no further than Kylo Ren.
The Last Jedi undeniably has some issues as a film. It has some incredibly cool set pieces that will secure its place in the hearts of fans, but the actual content has also left them fiercely divided (myself included). Despite all of that though, The Last Jedi made one incredibly important statement: Kylo Ren is the main character of this trilogy, not Rey.
The Anakin we wanted
I didn’t hate the prequels at all. Sure, the performances are a little (lol, very) hammy owing in part to the overreliance on green screen sets, which also contributed to the lack of (absence of) decent cinematography.
I also happen to think Hayden Christensen did a pretty good job in the role of Anakin. People are quick to condemn his performance, but I’d sooner point the blame at the direction and production (they shot the prequels more like TV soaps and less like Hollywood blockbusters). I mean, after all the scenery had been chewed up by (an otherwise wonderful) Ian McDiarmid, there wasn’t much left for anyone else.
The prequels were useful, however, for seeing the Jedi at the height of their prominence and how they saw their own role in the Republic (sort of like UN Peacekeepers). It was also enlightening – however poorly executed – to witness the bureaucracy and politics of the Republic which, through its shortcomings, allowed the Empire to rise.
Though the most interesting arc – and indeed the point of the prequel trilogy – was watching young Anakin Skywalker grow up into Darth Vader. The character was by no means one-dimensional by the end of the original trilogy, but however you feel about the prequels you cannot deny that they added a level of tragedy to Vader which actually makes the ending of Return of the Jedi all the more dramatic.
But the payoff doesn’t end there. Through the truly wonderful performance of Adam Driver, the plight of the Skywalker family lives on in Anakin’s grandson – and the question of Ben Solo’s redemption is now the most pivotal arc in this trilogy. Sure, Rey will play a large role in his destiny – and the actions of our beloved rebels will influence his actions – but this is now Kylo Ren’s story. And I’m totally on board with that.
The prodigal grandson
On the face of it, Anakin Skywalker and his grandson have a lot in common. Impressionable youths corrupted by an evil overlord, a penchant for masks, mad Force skills, and perfect hair.
For everything that defined Anakin’s tragic existence, Kylo Ren’s life mirrors with a twist. Where Anakin was corrupted through fear and (what he thought was) love, Ren is driven by a perceived lack of love – by betrayal and abandonment. Where Anakin surrendered himself to the Empire out of loss and pain, Ren has taken control of the First Order and uses it as a means to an end with no interest (and indeed distain) for its ideological hard-line.
Disney actually released an official high resolution shirtless Kylo Ren screengrab. pic.twitter.com/tg7DEcRT3x
— Alan Johnson (@TheAlanJohnson) January 9, 2018
Even the famous Ben Swolo scene follows this pattern. The only other male character to ever be depicted shirtless in a Star Wars movie is Anakin, and in both instances those scenes suggested a vulnerability or rawness – a literal de-armouring. Such is the strength of Ren though, that when an uncomfortable Rey asks “do you have something, a cowl or something you could put on,” he ignores her and lets the awkwardness linger, using Rey’s discomfort to once again control the room. Where Anakin storms off onto the balcony with all his angsty angst, Ren proves that he’s just as badass without “that ridiculous mask.”
The point is that in such a short space of time, Kylo Ren has gone so much further than his grandfather ever did. Anakin’s story ended when he killed his Sith master, Kylo’s is just starting.
Anakin was cool. Kylo Ren is awesome.
Does my theory still work?
Back in April, I published a theory. The “I only know one truth: It’s time for the Jedi to end” line from The Last Jedi’s trailer, lead me to believe that in his exile, Luke arrived at a game-changing revelation about the nature of the Jedi: they do not represent the balanced Force. The Jedi’s rejection of the dark side causes imbalance which leads to conflict. True balance, then, lies somewhere in between the Jedi and the Sith, and independent of either doctrine.
Based on some concept art released in the Force Awakens art book, I also suggested that the Force ghost of Anakin Skywalker would make an appearance in The Last Jedi. I thought that in the 30-odd years following his death, he too arrived at a similar conclusion to his son.
While Luke would pass on this crucial lesson to Rey, the Force ghost of Anakin would do the same to Kylo Ren.
The key difference is that Kylo Ren has already arrived at this position (sorta). He’s hellbent on eradicating the past, and the injustices he suffered there. He isn’t committed to First Order, and certainly not the Sith. He’s evolved beyond those constraints, meanwhile Rey is going down the same Jedi path that has been proven not to work.
Yet while my theory didn’t quite manifest itself in The Last Jedi, with some simple rewrites it could still work for Episode IX.
Were I to write it again now, I’d have Force ghost Anakin appear to Rey, and warn her of the Jedi’s failures and arrogance – which he knows only too well. She has rejected the dark side out of fear and Jedi ideology, but Vader knows the conflict that breeds.
On the other side, Force ghost Luke should appear to Kylo Ren – tormenting him to great comic effect, I’m sure. Ren is driven by a hatred of the past, and everyone from it – not a pursuit for balance or peace. He may have at some point legitimately thought he was working towards a better galaxy, but by the end of The Last Jedi it’s all about his vengeance. Luke should guide Ren on a path towards balance, and a less murderous way of achieving it.
In doing so, Luke and Anakin will bring Kylo Ren and Rey together at the centre, and create a new wave of truly balanced masters of the Force.
Yet all of his leads me to some pretty complicated feelings about Episode IX. While there’s a lot of good things to say about The Last Jedi, it ultimately felt like a filler film, and with so much story to get through in these three movies, we really can’t afford filler.
When you consider everything else that’s going on – Rey’s origins, Finn’s destiny, the fate of the Resistance, Luke’s legacy, Leia’s role following Carrie Fisher’s tragic passing, the state of the Republic, the next generation of Jedi, and a hundred other questions that were posed in Episode VII and not developed in Episode VIII – the amount of balls in the air is really quite worrying.
And while Episode IX has a huge (and likely impossible) task in delivering all of that satisfactorily, if the only thing that comes out of this trilogy is a great Kylo Ren story, I can live with that.