I loved Star Wars: The Last Jedi. When the movie was over, my wife and I decided to stay at the theater and immediately watch it a second time, this time in 3D. Below is my spoiler free overview of the merits of the film and this link for those who have already seen the movie will send you to my explanation of why I thought the movie made a bunch of key choices correctly.
This was the first Star Wars movie to excite me since Revenge of the Sith. Unlike The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi pulls off the impressive feat of doing justice to both younger characters, predominantly Rey and Kylo Ren, and older characters like Luke and Leia.
Luke and Leia are no longer basically the marketing props just designed to get older fans to the theater with their kids so the kids could attach to the new generation of Star Wars heroes.
In particular, this was an exquisite Luke Skywalker movie. Mark Hamill gives the performance of his career. He was magnetic, funny, and emotionally convincing. I soaked up every commanding, charismatic minute he was on the screen. And he has a real story, with a real character arc, real problems and real growth. He’s not been reduced to being just Rey’s Yoda, as I worried he might be going in. Rather, the filmmakers have lovingly thought about what it means to be a Yoda—the challenges of being a Yoda and what it means to grow as a Yoda.
They’ve even showed careful attention in thinking about the actual Yoda’s own mistakes in both the prequels and the original trilogy. The most satisfying thing about the movie was that writer/director Rian Johnson really understands what the story of the Jedi was about in the previous six movies in the saga and explores the meaning of it all and how the next dialectical stage should go, and perfectly embodies that in Luke’s journey in this movie.
The trope in this genre is that the older characters are there really to just teach the younger generation and then get out of the way by dying off so that the younger generation is forced to solve its own problems. This film manages to empower and center the next generation without making the mentors into mere supporting characters. What they were going through mattered. What they had to contribute mattered in the present.
One of the most grating things about The Force Awakens was its ham-handed attempt to do crowd pleasing nostalgia even in nonsensical ways that didn’t respect the story. In a culture saturated with Star Wars memes and fan fiction, the last thing an actual Star Wars movie should be is just more fan fiction. We don’t need in-universe worship of Star Wars itself. We were mercifully spared that for the most part this time out. The story was the focus. The use of iconic imagery and ideas from the original trilogy was organic most of the time and in one of the final scenes deeply moving and poignant. I keep getting emotional about one beautiful image in particular just writing this.
After The Force Awakens, I was upset that they had just leapt past the story of how everything fell apart again after Return of the Jedi. This was a continuation of a series, it only made sense to continue telling the story and not make what had happened in the middle a confusing and frustrating mystery. I wasn’t happy to just accept that our heroes from the original trilogy who we had seen grow so much were just screw ups and cowards after all with little explanation as to why that was so. It felt artificial and disrespectful to the characters. It felt like Disney’s thinking was that a new generation of heroes had to be marketed to the next generation, so the old characters had to be made secondary right away. So, voila! We’re just told, “Everything is terrible again and we’re not even going to bother showing you how your old heroes fell or why one of the bravest, strongest, and wisest of them all is now off hiding from all the action like a coward. We’re just going to skip all that old people stuff and give you hot young new action heroes to fall in love with.”
The Last Jedi can’t completely reverse some of the bad decisions of The Force Awakens but it went a long way towards making sense of what happened to Luke. I still don’t like picturing him as a coward. But at least it’s a full story now and one that makes narrative and thematic sense and some emotional sense too. Rian Johnson managed to reconnect Luke’s story to the larger Jedi story that has carried through from the beginning and dialectically advance them both. I have always loved and appreciated how in the prequels the simplistic surface dualism of the original trilogy was undermined. The Jedi were not all uncomplicatedly good. They bore some responsibility for the fall of Anakin Skywalker. They had practices that were flawed and needed reform. Luke figured out part of what they didn’t understand. The conflict between Luke and Yoda in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi was not just due to Luke being immature and Yoda being wiser and more perfect than Luke could understand. It was in part that Luke was the wiser one and that Yoda was still stuck in the old ways that had caused so much trouble in the past.
We were all used to the idea of Yoda being in hiding because he was initially presented to us that way. He fit so perfectly in that swamp. It really looks like his home, where he must always be. It’s a harder emotional challenge to deal with why our hero Luke ran away. The Last Jedi manages to do both Luke and those of us who grew up with him as a heroic icon a great service by complicating his heroic story and making sense of why he is where he is. I found it all thematically and emotionally resonant and think my frustrations with his story are now of the good kind.
Beyond Luke Skywalker, Rey and Kylo Ren have terrific arcs, with a couple of very satisfying and sensible surprises. In this movie I found Kylo Ren no longer tedious. In The Force Awakens Kylo Ren was set up as sort of a Dark Side inversion to the Luke Skywalker of A New Hope. Whereas Luke was a young man earnestly longing to live up to his father Anakin Skywalker’s Jedi legacy, Kylo Ren was a young man earnestly longing to live up to his grandfather Darth Vader’s Sith legacy. This was the first time we really got to see a character committed to the Dark Side emotionally and philosophically and struggling against the light the way our heroes usually struggle against the dark. In the prequels we got to see Anakin’s conversion to the Dark Side and in the original trilogy briefly at the end we got to see his sudden deconversion from it. But otherwise the inner lives of actual Dark Side characters had remained in both trilogies mostly obscured from view. In The Force Awakens and now in The Last Jedi Kylo Ren picks up where Anakin left off when he converted and explores the emotional ins and outs of living on the Dark Side.
In terms of world building, The Last Jedi was not quite as ambitious as the prequels but nonetheless was stuffed with enough treats that it felt like an imagination expanding experience worthy of the original trilogy. There was a sense of imagination rather than retread for the first time in a Star Wars movie since Revenge of the Sith. There were a number of fun new background aliens and there was a glorious new entry into the canon of great and original lightsaber fights. I would just like to see them work up the guts to start having new alien characters that can credibly play major roles the way Chewbacca, Yoda, Jabba the Hut, Admiral Ackbar, Sebulba, General Grievous, and more characters in Lucas’s films did. It’s an ambitious thing to attempt, one easy to fail at, but it’s a trademark creative strength of the series. Fear of another Jar Jar shouldn’t leave us with only peripheral aliens from here on out.
I loved that the heroes spent the most time actually out in outer space since Empire Strikes Back. I usually don’t care too much or pay too much attention to all the logistical ins and outs of starship battles, so won’t say too much about how smart or nonsensical they are, but I found the character journeys and the narrative going on in space compelling and clever enough. I think Oscar Isaac and Laura Dern both oozed chemistry. Unfortunately I thought Captain Phasma remained a dud and a waste of Gwendoline Christie. Finn and his new companion in adventures Rose had a storyline that was half imaginative fun and half convoluted slog.
I’ve read complaints that the movie is overstuffed. It is indeed long but I don’t care. Almost every scene is well done and interesting. We don’t get a new Star Wars every day. If people can regularly binge watch 13 hour seasons on TV shows then we can have an ambitiously packed Star Wars movies to chew on for the year. This is a serial story. Lots should happen in it. In the future you can watch it at home and break it up into episodes for yourself. A Star Wars movie should be made to be watched a hundred times. Lots of high quality sequences are appropriate.
The film dips its toe into politics a few times. Although the Star Wars films have always had anti-imperialism as an abstract theme, this film is the first to briefly but notably try to take a stand in favor of distinctly left wing anti-imperialism. And I’m sure many an embattled enemy of Donald Trump who feels him or herself to be part of #TheResistance will resonate with moments where we linger on the good guys identifying themselves proudly as rebels and resistors. There is also a bit of deliberately gendered conflict that feminists will probably like and anti-feminists will probably be a bit oversensitive about. The film ultimately is gentle and on the side of reconciliation of the sexes instead of battle between them.
In a few places the film takes stances that were very consonant with my humanism and I appreciated them a great deal.
The film also picks up The Force Awakens theme about how the characters from the original trilogy are legends and explores it in interesting ways. I was ambivalent about this theme in The Force Awakens since it bordered too much on the meta, too much on bringing into the Star Wars universe itself commentary about what Star Wars is in our real world’s cultural imagination. The Last Jedi did an improbably deft job of exploring these ideas in a thematically and emotionally resonant way that felt organically in-universe rather than turning it into some postmodern intrusion of our world into the Star Wars universe. I found this theme turned out to be immensely satisfying and thought provoking where I had been leery of its usage in Episode VII.
What I expect to be the two most controversial challenges to suspension of disbelief in the film worked for me on a poetic level. In probably the crowning achievement, the film intertwines one bold, controversial, ingenious twist with a huge symbolic import. I was seriously impressed and relieved and excited. That moment summed up the most general strength of The Last Jedi that rekindled my previously lifelong enthusiasm for the franchise: it was a Star Wars film that takes genuine risks again and is driven by ideas rather than formulas for the first time since Lucas gave up the reins. I love Star Wars for its lofty ambitions. It is not an accident that the Star Wars series is as memorable for its failures as its successes. The only failures that ever turned me against Star Wars were the failures of courage and imagination that I saw in The Force Awakens. With Rian Johnson becoming a central creative force in the Star Wars universe, there is a new hope for the franchise.
Join my Facebook Star Wars forum! Read the articles below for more of my thoughts on Star Wars:
My Nietzschean Take on the Last Jedi’s Philosophical and Religious Themes
Why Anakin’s Conversion To The Dark Side Made Sense
How The Force Awakens Disappointed Me (Spoilers Galore)
The Force Awakens Is A Lazy Cop Out (Spoiler-Free Review)
Star Wars: The Feminism Awakens? (Episode I)
Don’t Diminish Princess Leia To Praise Rey
On The Uses And Abuses of Han Solo in The Force Awakens (Spoilers)
Top 20 Plot Copy/Pastes In The Force Awakens (Spoilers)