Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017): Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Kelly Marie Tran, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Laura Dern, Benicia Del Toro, Mark Hamill and our Forever Queen, Carrie Fisher. Running Time: 152 minutes. Based on characters created by George Lucas.
**this review contains spoilers for The Last Jedi**
The more I mull over The Last Jedi in my mind the more I dig it. It was not what I expected. It didn’t have any of the fates for its older characters that I’d envisioned since first entering the old EU. I felt a bit uncomfortable at first over how much the film had challenged my assumptions about its world. And the more that became clear to me, the more I realized that’s exactly what this franchise and we as fans needed. Star Wars doesn’t need complacency. Star Wars was never meant to have easy outs. Star Wars can’t afford to jog in place, and ultimately won’t, no matter how much many of the fanboys might want it to.
And yes, I say this even though The Last Jedi, like its predecessor The Force Awakens, is very much a film built around the cyclical nature of this universe and its fundamental light-vs-dark conflict. Both films in this new trilogy have been filled to the brim with allusions, both on-the-nose and subtle, to the overarching narrative of the original trilogy, but putting just enough spin on them that we are now in a place far different from where we were at the end of Return of the Jedi all those years ago. The result is a cinematic world that is the freest and most open for something new it’s been since that glorious opening music first rang out back in 1977.
This time around the parallels are a mash-up of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Finn, Po, Leia, a new character named Rose, and the rest of the Resistance spend most of the movie fleeing from the First Order in an extended chase sequence (sound familiar?), ending in a ground battle reminiscent of the fighting on Hoth. Rey has located the reclusive Luke Skywalker on his hideaway planet (sound familiar?), seeking training and guidance in the ways of the force, but has to overcome his reluctance to train another Jedi after his earlier failure to rebuild the Jedi ended with the rise of Kylo Ren. And ultimately, she will break away early to seek out a confrontation with Ren and his Sith mentor in a dim throne room, attempting to turn him back to the good and bring him to betray and destroy the Dark Side master driving the First Order in time to save the rest of the Resistance from what seems like sure annihilation (sound familiar?).
That a movie with so many clear parallels to what came before can feel so fresh and new is a testament to the talent and creative energy of the people making this movie, from director Rian Johnson, to the camerapeople and editors and production designers, to the remarkable cast that never fails to make their characters far more than what they would be in lesser hands. There are moments where their respective arcs feel a bit broad and easy to read, but the film commits to having each of its main characters (and even some of the side ones) have certain lessons they need to learn by the end if they are to help keep the light alive in the face of the dark that would snuff it out. Rey needs to accept that she doesn’t need some special lineage to play a meaningful role in what’s to come. Finn has to find a reason to fight the First Order beyond his own desire for self-preservation. Po needs to realize there’s more to being a real hero than simply jumping into an X-Wing and blowing shit up.
Even Luke has a lesson to learn in all of this. He does rightly take Rey (and himself) to task for holding on too dearly to the past in lieu of focusing on the present. It is, indeed, a meta-narrative running throughout the entire film that both the in-world characters and we the outside fans have spent too long trying to perfectly preserve what came before, rather than trying to build something genuinely new. And yet, as Luke realizes in two key scenes towards the end of the film, even old symbols and legends have a power of their own to endure and inspire the next generation. We can’t be bound by the past, but neither should we seek to break off from it entirely.
It is a shock to see such a jaded, cynical Luke appear before us after so eagerly anticipating his return to the role that defined his career. But here again, it makes more and more sense within this new world the more I think about it, where there is a stronger emphasis on accepting and even embracing the failures and shortcomings of the figures of our childhood. Mark Hamill gives his all in what is one of the best performances of his career. He and Daisy Ridley dominate the movie all on their own, and are the primary reason this movie will ultimately endure no matter how much irate fanboys might wish to sink it. After Luke’s final, triumphant return to salvage the Resistance, he gazes on a dual sunset before fading into the Force. It is a direct and deeply affecting callback to the very beginning of his journey back on Tatooine, a moment signifying that, perhaps, he may even have been meant to fall as far as he did before being able to rise up again, ultimately completing his mission in life in a way he never thought possible.
While it is a near-certainty that we will get at least one scene with Force-Ghost Luke in the next movie, it is unfortunate that we can’t say the same for Carrie Fisher. Lucasfilm, to its credit, has already announced that there will be no effort to CGI Leia into the final movie, which means that this is Fisher’s final testament to us as an actor, and so many of her scenes (particularly her “farewell” with Luke during the final battle) carry an extra emotional heft to them because of this. She is remarkable, of course, poised and confident and powerful in her bearing. While it is sad she is gone, I am grateful she was able to shine one last time for us.
As much as this is a well-acted movie, it is also a technically stunning and visually beautiful one as well. Red is a particularly powerful motif, filling the throne room of Snokes and coating the mineral-salt field of the final battle. By the time Luke steps out to face Kylo Ren, it looks like the Rebel base is bleeding from an open wound. In another moment of self-sacrifice by a minor character, the color and sound drops out completely as we see an entire fleet break apart and shatter, in what may be the most spectacular visual in any Star Wars movie ever.
Given that The Last Jedi is obsessed with breaking chains and casting forth for something new, it makes sense that it took us two movies to work through so much of the series’ meta-baggage being dragged into this new trilogy- there is a LOT of weight and expectations riding on these films, still one of the last truly global cultural phenomenon. So far, to my immense joy, the people behind them have managed to meet the challenge so far, returning us to that galaxy of magic and wonder that generations of us have fallen in love with. The Force is with this franchise once more, and I sincerely hope it stays that way.