Women take up main roles in The Last Jedi

VIDEO: REUTERS
Star Wars: The Last Jedi's director Rian Johnson with fans during the film's red-carpet event in Tokyo, Japan, earlier this month. Actress Carrie Fisher, who died in December last year, stars as General Leia in The Last Jedi.
Actress Carrie Fisher, who died in December last year, stars as General Leia in The Last Jedi.PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EPA-EFE, REUTERS, THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY
Star Wars: The Last Jedi's director Rian Johnson with fans during the film's red-carpet event in Tokyo, Japan, earlier this month. Actress Carrie Fisher, who died in December last year, stars as General Leia in The Last Jedi.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi's director Rian Johnson with fans during the film's red-carpet event in Tokyo, Japan, earlier this month. PHOTOS: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, EPA-EFE, REUTERS, THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY
Star Wars: The Last Jedi's director Rian Johnson with fans during the film's red-carpet event in Tokyo, Japan, earlier this month. Actress Carrie Fisher, who died in December last year, stars as General Leia in The Last Jedi.
Actress Daisy Ridley, who plays the rebel Rey.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi's director Rian Johnson with fans during the film's red-carpet event in Tokyo, Japan, earlier this month. Actress Carrie Fisher, who died in December last year, stars as General Leia in The Last Jedi.
Actress Gwendoline Christie, who plays Captain Phasma
Star Wars: The Last Jedi's director Rian Johnson with fans during the film's red-carpet event in Tokyo, Japan, earlier this month. Actress Carrie Fisher, who died in December last year, stars as General Leia in The Last Jedi.
Actress Laura Dern, who plays resistance leader Admiral Holdo
Star Wars: The Last Jedi's director Rian Johnson with fans during the film's red-carpet event in Tokyo, Japan, earlier this month. Actress Carrie Fisher, who died in December last year, stars as General Leia in The Last Jedi.
Actress Kelly Marie Tran, who plays resistance member Rose Tico.
From left: Star Wars actresses Gwendoline Christie, Daisy Ridley and Laura Dern.
From left: Star Wars actresses Gwendoline Christie, Daisy Ridley and Laura Dern. PHOTOS: AFP, REUTERS

Like the other newer movies in the Star Wars franchise, The Last Jedi looks set to continue the trend of giving women and non-white characters more prominent speaking roles.

This has been deeply gratifying for its stars as well as fans.

When actress Daisy Ridley first saw the overwhelmingly positive reaction to her character, Rey - the protagonist first introduced in 2015's The Force Awakens - she realised how significant it was to have a woman in that role.

The 25-year-old had known there was a gender gap in films, but "it was so monumental, how people felt about (Rey)".

"And what's great is that everyone is just a great character. Happily, we're falling into broader categories (than just male and female) right now."

Playing a leader on the other side of the conflict is Gwendoline Christie, 39, who as Captain Phasma commands the First Order's stormtroopers.

She says: "I was utterly delighted to see there was a more representative selection of actors that were going to be in The Force Awakens and that has continued."

What's great is that everyone is just a great character. Happily, we're falling into broader categories (than just male and female) right now.

ACTRESS DAISY RIDLEY, who plays the rebel Rey 

Crucially, these films are not simply rehashing a cliched idea of what a strong woman should be.

Christie adds: "You get to see women that are not being strong just because they're acting like men - they're doing something else. And also, you're seeing a developed or developing character that's showing some complex traits.

"I'm delighted that something as legendary as Star Wars has decided to be modern and to reflect our society more as it is."

Echoing that is Laura Dern, 50, who plays resistance leader Admiral Holdo.

Describing director Rian Johnson's approach to these female characters as "brilliantly subversive", she says: "I was moved by the fact that he wanted Holdo's strength to first lead with a very deep femininity.

"And to see a powerful female character also be feminine is something that moves away from the stereotypical perception that strong female characters must be like the boys."

I'm delighted that something as legendary as Star Wars has decided to be modern and to reflect our society more as it is.

ACTRESS GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE, who plays Captain Phasma 

That said, "the girls in this movie kick some butt", adds Kelly Marie Tran, whose character, Rose Tico, fights for the resistance. "They are all so good."

The men on the film were happy about this too.

Oscar Isaac, the 38-year-old actor who plays pilot Poe Dameron, says: "The most formative people in my life have been women. That has shaped my destiny so much, so to see that reflected in the film is a beautiful thing. And it is more true to real life."

The only one who is not thrilled, it seems, is the First Order's Supreme Leader, Snoke, played by Andy Serkis, 53.

"Speaking as the leader of the First Order, I'd like to say that Snoke is very unimpressed by the fact that there is such a huge female force that seems to be growing in the universe," he says.

To see a powerful female character also be feminine is something that moves away from the stereotypical perception that strong female characters must be like the boys. 

ACTRESS LAURA DERN, who plays resistance leader Admiral Holdo 

"It's deeply threatening. It's deeply undermining. It must be stopped. It cannot go on. And this we see a little snatch of in the movie."

Of course, the actress who blazed the trail for women in these films was the beloved late Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in the original trilogy. She died last December at age 60.

The Last Jedi was her last movie and her absence is keenly felt by her former castmates as well as many reporters, who remember her livening up Star Wars press events with her mischievous wit.

Seeing Princess Leia on screen when she was a child was a turning point for Christie.

"When I saw (Star Wars: Episode IV) A New Hope in 1977, I remember thinking, 'Wow, that character's really different. She's really interesting, smart, funny and courageous and she doesn't care what people think and isn't prepared to be told what to do.

"And she doesn't look the same as the homogenised presentation of a woman that we had been used to seeing.

The girls in this movie kick some butt. They are all so good. 

ACTRESS KELLY MARIE TRAN, who plays resistance member Rose Tico

"That was instrumental to me as someone who didn't feel like she fit in that homogenised view. And it was inspiration that you could be successful without making some terrible huge compromise."

Dern notes that Fisher - an acclaimed screenwriter and Hollywood chronicler - was a feminist icon off-screen too. "We always had Carrie, not just Leia, and her wisdom."

She described the iconic actress - who spoke openly about her struggles with addiction and depression - as fearless, irreverent and "without shame".

"That's what moved me the most about the icon she gave us, but also what she gave us personally, which is to carry who she was so directly and to share her story - and expect nothing less than any of us."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 13, 2017, with the headline 'Women rule in The Last Jedi'. Print Edition | Subscribe