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Should the Last Jedi have gone over to Star Wars' dark side?

Should the Last Jedi have gone over to Star Wars’ dark side?

It is a battle that has been raging for more than four decades. No, not Team Luke vs Team Vader but the ongoing war for the soul of Star Wars. It is fought between those who believe these movies are just space fantasies for the under 12s, and those certain there is something more sombre and sophisticated beneath the surface – or at least that there ought to be.

To the casual observer, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back might appear to be a relatively similar movie to its sequel, 1983’s Return of the Jedi. After all, both films feature duels between laser sword-wielding space priests and a blitzkrieg of cosmic dogfights. But to hardcore fans these movies couldn’t be more different. From its icy-hearted opening on Hoth, through the mid-movie lull as Luke Skywalker is trained by Yoda, and on to its downbeat and desperate finale, Empire is a brooding exercise in reminding audiences that the destruction of the first Death Star in 1977’s Star Wars was little more than a minor setback for the rampaging Empire. It replaces the joyous, starry-eyed sense of hope that permeates both Episodes IV and VI with a delicious air of grim foreboding. It is also almost entirely lacking in the colourful critters that populate ROTJ, from Endor’s ewoks to the motley gangsters of Jabba’s palace on Tatooine.

All of which brings us to The Last Jedi, which despite an ardent thumbs up from critics currently seems to be dividing audiences – Rotten Tomatoes suggests only 55% of cinemagoers enjoyed Rian Johnson’s film. Few additions to the saga have been more divisive than the porgs, the cute creatures – part-hamster, part-puffin – who populate Luke Skywalker’s rocky and remote hideaway on the planet of Ahch-To, and who are being seen in some corners as an unwelcome kid-friendly, merchandise-ready extension of Star Wars lore. There is a sense that the alien birds typify The Last Jedi’s determination to keep this latest episode as light and fluffy as possible, and that Johnson would have been better off making a movie that dropped all pretence of accessibility and went over fully to the dark side. It does not help, of course, that Star Wars’ owner these days is Disney, a studio that has often been accused of dumbing down product in the past.

One suspects the backlash – if it can be so termed when this is a movie that’s currently crushing all before it at the global box office – has probably been compounded due to the release only last year of the darkest, most grown-up Star Wars movie thus far, Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One. That episode seemed to go out of its way to reimagine the long-running saga through a real-world prism, largely excising fantasy elements such as lightsabers and the Force in favour of a pared down sci-fi approach. Many fans imagined The Last Jedi would be more of the same, a moodier, more thoughtful and atmospheric sequel setting up a triumphant third instalment, just as Empire was the best part of four decades ago.

Those who have seen Johnson’s film will be well aware that such expectations have proven ill-founded. But for the record, the porgs didn’t irritate me as much as they appear to have others. Johnson’s film is perhaps the cheeriest Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi, and Ahch-To’s indigenous species seemed to suit the tone.

Jar Jar Binks was so excruciating to the majority of Star Wars fans because he seemed to have been dreamt up by somebody who really didn’t understand what made Star Wars great, at all. By contrast, the porgs, which are based on the puffins that kept creeping into shot during Johnson’s shoot on the Irish island of Skellig Michael, felt like an organic addition to the saga’s ever-growing menagerie of critters.

Many forget that the ewoks appeared in a Star Wars movie that features many of the saga’s most memorable moments, from Luke’s Jedi mind tricks and defeat of the Rancor to the remarkable space battle that finally brings down the Empire. Likewise the porgs, and the lightness of touch that they bring with them, are surely examples of pushing the envelope, rather than jumping the shark into another galaxy entirely.

There is both a light and dark side to this venerable old series, and as Supreme Emperor Snoke kept trying to tell us before he was rudely sliced in half, Star Wars needs both of them.