Star Wars: The Last Jedi

In my piece on John Williams’ score for The Last Jedi, I noted that the new Star Wars films do not extend from the six George Lucas films that precede them as much as they offer responses to them. In this new phase, Star Wars series has been consumed by solipsism. Star Wars is now first and foremost about itself, deviating from established patterns only to reinforce them in the end. Nowhere is that clearer than in the final image of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, an affirmation of Star Wars‘ position as a fixture of childhood inspiration.

This new trilogy explicitly presents itself as a bridge between Lucas’ films and a new, Lucas-less Star Wars, resolving the narratives of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo while simultaneously establishing a new set of heroes. The tug-of-war between these competing responsibilities results in structural oddities and dramatic compromises in both of 2015’s The Force Awakens and now The Last Jedi.

In presenting the old heroes as damaged by familial and political cataclysm, this new Star Wars trilogy adopts something of an Old Testament approach to mythic narrative, in which history unfolds as a complex cycle of collapse and renewal. This conceit, while fundamentally sound, has largely been used to reinstate the narrative patterns and dynamics of the original Star Wars trilogy. So, unfortunately, we once again are presented with the Galactic Empire, now reborn as the First Order, facing off against a new Rebellion, here called the Resistance.

If the broad strokes of this new Star Wars universe remain woefully unimaginative, at least these films offer glimmers of the grand melodrama that made the original films a phenomenon. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher, all returning to their iconic roles, bestow on these films a level of weight they do not otherwise earn: they carry the weight of years in their faces, in their voices, in their gestures.

Hamill’s Luke dominates The Last Jedi to the point of nearly overshadowing everything else in the film (Luke’s sibling, Leia, has plenty of screentime but is somewhat less central to its narrative; Fisher’s Leia was to be the focal point of 2019’s Episode IX, but Fisher’s untimely passing makes this her last film appearance). When Luke first appears here, he’s haggard, weary, and bitter. He has isolated himself in a hidden corner of the galaxy, waiting for death. Skywalker maps his personal failures onto the entire Jedi religion, having come to the conclusion that the universe might be better off without the meddling of Jedi. This arc sets the stage for this trilogy’s boldest, but underdeveloped, suggestion: the notion that the Jedi order needs to emerge in a new form in order to survive. Alas, The Last Jedi concludes with the suggestion that that new form will closely resemble the old form (though we will have to wait for 2019’s Episode IX to find out for sure).

Thankfully, there is a pleasing level of invention present in The Last Jedi‘s variation on familiar Star Wars themes. This overstuffed, untidy epic has been born from filmmaker Rian Johnson’s passion for cinema. Johnson extends the film genre collage that Lucas built into the Star Wars universe, which has always mingled sword-and-sorcery tales with war pictures, samurai movies, and Westerns. The dynamic opening segues from Spaceballs-style comedy antics to a tense space battle that mingles futuristic tech with the aesthetics and function of vintage aircraft. An excursion to a casino planet allows Johnson to inject a dose of 1930s/1940s Hollywood glamor into the Star Wars universe. The film’s climactic confrontation is staged as a sword battle between samurai warriors, unfolding on a vast plain where every footstep exposes the blood-red soil beneath snow-white salt.

With the characters of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren and Daisey Ridley’s Rey, our icons of good and evil, Johnson adds new textures to Star Wars drama. Tied together by the fabric of the Force itself, they learn that they are different halves of a cosmic equation, both attracted to and repelled by the other. Their individual isolation from the world around them coupled with the intimate psychic connection that they share awakens youthful desire, complicating their shared trajectory.

Their relationship paves an intriguing path for the future, but their arc here also oddly climaxes in the film’s midsection, at which point their relationship takes the back seat as other members of the ensemble rise to prominence. This speaks to the broader shapelessness of the picture: there are so many characters and so much narrative incident that rarely combine in productive ways. To be fair to Johnson, The Force Awakens never truly established its new characters as a group with a clear dynamic and a shared destiny. Many of the new characters were merely sketches that Johnson needed to define while constructing a narrative trajectory. Aside from the material given to Rey and Ren, much of that work feels schematic. Johnson attempts to unite the film’s disparate stories through theme, but they never become united in dramatic momentum. John Boyega’s Finn, Oscar Isaac’s Poe, and Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose may be appealing presences, but their arcs lurch awkwardly from plot point to plot point. 

Ultimately, The Last Jedi serves better as a goodbye to beloved old characters than as a stepping stone to new adventures. Its most moving moment allows Hamill and Fisher an on-screen reunion that is also a farewell. Such magic cannot be manufactured, it can only be channeled. The magic lies in these icons themselves, in the eyes of two people who are more than people. They are vessels of cultural memory.

The Music of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I am not particularly invested in the future of Disney’s Star Wars franchise beyond witnessing John Williams complete his work on this new trilogy. For me, Star Wars will always remain George Lucas’ mad vision, a collection of impulses that were, for both better and worse, unique and personal. These new Star Wars films are less extensions of that same vision than they are responses to it, and, as such, they have different footing.

The clearest throughline for Star Wars in all of its phases is the work of the venerable John Williams, whose contributions to the aesthetic landscape of the series remain so significant that he can justifiably be recognized as a kind of co-creator with Lucas. Williams’ work on the series may be his magnum opus; certainly, his work on Star Wars–three separate trilogies that span the length of Williams’ extensive career, each distinct in character, but nevertheless tied together through thematic overlap–has no real equivalent in the world of film music. Few ongoing series have developed such longstanding relationships with composers, and even fewer have had such clear structures in which composers are free to develop their work. It would be so disheartening for this impressive project to be completed by a Williams imitator, rather than the great artist himself.

Williams’ musical landscapes for these trilogies mirror each trilogy’s emotional and aesthetic shifts. The original trilogy was a swashbuckling fairy tale loaded with rollicking adventure that occasionally gestured toward myth and magic. Williams took up the legacy of Korngold (the series’ most significant musical touchstone, and a reference point for Lucas when discussing the outline of the score with Williams) and wove three films of robust, romantic themes and bold marches. Williams, and the films themselves, never went full-on mythic until the conclusion of Revenge of the Jedi, as a chorus of male vocals backs the battle between father and son. In this moment, we see glimmers of the musical vocabulary that Williams would pursue in the prequel trilogy.

The prequel trilogy was a chronicle of a civilization’s political and religious fall, which Williams infused with all of the musical grandeur befitting an epic. The themes tend to be more stately than that of the original trilogy, even as they share essential DNA. Compare the prequel trilogy’s love theme, “Across the Stars,” which paints doomed romance with a courtly air, to the original  trilogy’s sweeping love theme, “Han and the Princess,” which, in its full statement, fully gives itself over to breathless passion. Williams’ themes for the major duels of the prequel films, “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes,” take the operatic essence of Return of the Jedi‘s climactic battle to new heights, weaving that impulse into the prequels’ musical statements of lament (“Qui-Gon’s Funeral” and “The Immolation Scene”).

Disney’s new trilogy has framed itself explicitly as a saga of transition, in which new, inexperienced characters tentatively navigating the complicated legacies of battle-scarred heroes. Williams plays into the mixture of youthful innocence and mature grief. The mythic impulse appears in flickers, not full statements: amidst a more amorphous present, we are given glimpses of the heroic past and gestures toward a hopeful future.

Williams’ score for The Force Awakens belonged first and foremost to the character of Rey. Her theme became the score’s backbone, recurring throughout the score in different statements until the grand musical climax of the “Jedi Steps” and its segue into a full, declarative presentation during the end credits suite. “Rey’s Theme” intermingles with the “Force Theme,” which, given its strong identification with Luke Skywalker, signals their intertwined destinies. In the final minute of his score, Williams signaled what the film itself so often strained to gesture toward: the new possibilities that can be found in the synthesis between past and future.

The other themes established in The Force Awakens were more hesitant and muted, reflecting fledgling characters and movements that had not yet come into their own. The most intriguing of those supporting themes belongs to Kylo Ren, who is, in some ways, this trilogy’s secondary protagonist. Ren’s theme is not really a proper theme at all, but collection of distinct motifs that signal his inner emotional turmoil and shifting sense of identity.

The Last Jedi seamlessly continues the journey of Awakens‘ score, this time more directly highlighting the collision between Star Wars generations. Indeed, there are so many distinct themes at play in The Last Jedi score that it borders on becoming overcrowded, but Williams maintains clarity throughout. The end credits suite for The Last Jedi follows a new template for the series, eschewing Williams’ typical tendency to present “concert suite” arrangements of the film’s themes for an intricate and dense collage of fragmented motifs. Themes emerge, disappear, and then re-emerge.

One brief restatement registers with more clarity than the others. In a loving tribute to the late Carrie Fisher, Williams presents “Leia’s Theme” with new orchestrations. The familiar notes ring out in a sublimely tender piano arrangement, lightly backed by strings. A flute joins the piano, and then the theme fades away, gone too soon.

“Rey’s Theme” once again serves as the throughline, bringing the suite to a close in a way that recalls the tender resolution of the score for The Force Awakens. Here, the final phrases are tentative, presented not as conclusion, but as a pause before the final act.