Since the movie has been out for over a week, I’m going to discuss it WITH SPOILERS.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was the cinematic equivalent of a warm blanket, an experience of being comforted by the familiar rendered anew. When it came out in 2015, it was exactly the Star Wars movie that I wanted.
But The Last Jedi is the Star Wars movie I needed.
The Force Awakens followed closely in the footsteps of the original Star Wars film. Too closely for some viewers. Rian Johnson’s take on the Star Wars universe feels anything but familiar. Even less than last year’s Rogue One, which felt like a true war film, and one from which many of the Star Wars trademarks, like the numbered title and the opening crawl, were absent. The Last Jedi, while sharing similarities in plot beats with both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, feels more like a remix of either of those films than a remake.
Johnson seeks to subvert expectations at every turn, from injecting a healthy dose of humour to dismantling the head canon of legions of Star Wars fans. The aging Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), implied at the end of The Force Awakens—and by this film’s title, if you’re taken in by expectation—to be the last great hope of the Resistance, is first seen here not reclaiming his lost lightsaber from Rey (Daisy Ridley), but instead tossing it casually off a cliff with utter dismissal. It’s a move that takes both Rey and the audience off guard, and helps set the tone for a different kind of Star Wars experience. Similarly, the film gets that General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), despite his position, is more bark than bite, and undercuts him at every turn.
If The Force Awakens was rooted in the myths that made us fall in love with Star Wars in the first place, then The Last Jedi wants us to dig down to those roots, to question those myths. We’re told repeatedly by multiple characters throughout the film of the need to “burn it down,” to kill the past. But even within that radical notion, Johnson doesn’t simply throw away what Star Wars is. Rather, he explodes it into something wider and more egalitarian.
One of the great things about the Star Wars prequels—of which I’m mostly a defender—is how they complicated the notion of the Jedi. The Order we heard about in the original trilogy was a heroic band of knights, protecting the galaxy from tyranny and disorder. What we see in the prequels is an Order so hemmed in by exclusivity and custom, that they’ve become blind to the realities of ordinary people. Whatever good intentions the Jedi began with, they became a mere tool of the government so blinded by their own importance that they chose students according to blood quantum and let a centuries-dead evil rise back to power under their watch. The Last Jedi understands this, and it’s the reason Luke Skywalker has turned his back on the Jedi, the Force, and all that it represents.
Luke’s own passionate bloodline is both the product of and the reason for the continued rise of the Dark Side throughout this entire saga, something he’s implicated in. But he’s not entirely right about that either. The greatest failure of the Jedi has been the misunderstanding of what the Balance of the Force means: dark rises, and light to meet it. Or vice versa. Anakin was driven to darkness because of his desire to protect the ones he loved, something that the Jedi forbid. But desire and emotion are fundamental to who we are.
Luke’s journey is in finally coming to learn, and to pass on to Rey, that both light and dark will always be there, will always coexist in battle with one another in everything, and that one will never fully stamp out the other. “The Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi,” he says. But that’s not just Luke talking to Rey, it’s Johnson talking to the audience, asking them to rethink what it means to be a Jedi, a hero, a teacher.
Luke threatens to burn down the sacred tree that houses the Jedi scriptures, but he seems unable to break with the past in so drastic a way. It is Yoda, ever the trickster, who calls down fire from the sky with a cackle to torch the tree in a shocking moment of sacrilege. “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters,” he tells Luke. It’s a beautiful moment, and a brilliant summation of how Star Wars needs to change in order to remain meaningful.
But even Johnson himself can’t break with the past completely. Luke will be back, he tells Kylo as much during the meeting that claims his life. The Jedi temple is ashes, but the keen eye will spot the sacred texts, seemingly saved by Rey offscreen before she leaves Luke to try to redeem Kylo Ren herself. The Jedi do matter. And that might be the most astute observation about myth in any of the Star Wars films. The Last Jedi closes with a beautiful coda in which the story of Luke’s heroic last stand is being retold throughout the galaxy. A Force-sensitive orphan boy looks wistfully out into space, raising a broom in the fashion of a lightsaber. Through this scene, in conjunction with the non-revelation of Rey’s parentage—”you have no place in this story,” Kylo tells her—the film both affirms the power of myths and legends as necessary for giving us hope, and undercuts the limiting archetypes that have driven the series so far. Instead, The Last Jedi imagines a world beyond a chosen one, a Resistance that needs cooperation more than it needs heroes.
I haven’t spoken much about the particular structure of the film, and that’s because I appreciate what this film is doing thematically more than I enjoy its construction. As the longest Star Wars film so far, it’s shaggy and its plot mechanics can feel clunky. That’s not to say there aren’t spectacular sequences; there are, and some of them will undoubtedly go down as those we remember most in the Star Wars lore. But its flaws might improve it, given that the entire movie is about failure. We’re given an entire movie of people who don’t trust each other, who make plans that fail, who disobey orders in an attempt to be heroes. That’s frustrating storytelling, because it’s not something we’re used to. But it’s also the lesson everyone in the film needs—”The best teacher, failure is.” It’s also a lesson that comes at terrible cost, as we end the film with the Resistance in tatters.
But it’s radical to present mere survival as a victory in itself. And in 2017 especially, it’s exactly the kind of story we need.
It has grown on me a lot since first feeling underwhelmed by it. Great review.
“Underwhelmed” is the descriptor I would use when I saw it the first time too. But then I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days. I think you gain a lot on the second viewing, when you’re not as thrown off by the choices being made.