The following review contains light spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The final four paragraphs include some specific details about the ending.
When I sat down this week to watch Star Wars: The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. As a hardcore Star Wars fan, I spent an entire childhood obsessively watching the original trilogy on VHS while playing with a complete set of well-worn action figures, acting out an endless stream of imaginary scenarios where Leia, Luke, Han, and a spacefaring version of myself would save the galaxy together. That, combined with a lifetime of quietly consuming Star Wars lore, made me confident there was little Johnson could do that would surprise me.
And then I watched the movie, in which Johnson plays fast and loose with a franchise I had come to adore, often in ways that made me feel deeply uncomfortable. I left the theater in something of a silent stupor, simultaneously horrified and elated, unsure of how to process what I just saw.
And here’s the crazy thing: I think that was the point, and that’s what makes The Last Jedi so interesting.
For the unaware, the film finds our diverse band of heroes, who fight under the banner of the Resistance, roughly where we left them. Their story is wrapped around what can be best described as an elongated intergalactic chase sequence: Star Wars legend General Leia (Carrie Fisher) spars over strategy with swashbuckling space pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) as their rapidly diminishing forces — now short on resources and fuel — are relentlessly pursued by the menacing First Order. In an effort to avoid imminent destruction at the hands of Supreme Leader Snoke (a digital character admirably portrayed by Andy Serkis) and the monstrous-but-secretly-morally-conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), First Order deserter Finn (John Boyega) teams up with series newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to find a roundabout way to defeat their enemies and save the galaxy.
The Last Jedi has great action sequences, beautiful cinematography, and is arguably the funniest Star Wars film yet, devoting ample screen time to jokes and moments of wisecracking whimsy.
Meanwhile, light-years away on the remote planet of Ahch-To, new trilogy heroine and force-user-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley), continues to pursue the tutelage of titular hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), which began at the end of the previous film.
With that setting in place, let’s get some things out of the way real quick. The Last Jedi has great action sequences, beautiful cinematography, and is arguably the funniest Star Wars film yet, devoting ample screen time to jokes and moments of wisecracking whimsy. The humor typically succeeds by rooting grin-inducing one-liners in a deeply modern sense of self-awareness and self-deprecation. But it will not please everyone: Some jokes feel forced (no pun intended), and others are downright silly compared to more traditionally sardonic quips of films past (well, not counting Ewoks and pretty much everything about Jar-Jar Binks). I’m still trying to parse the wild physics of how the iconic droid BB-8, a fan favorite, expresses himself (herself? itself?) for comedic effect.
It’s also worth acknowledging that The Last Jedi is remarkably original compared to previous entries, which repeated many of the same story motifs — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Johnson, by contrast, has crafted a tale that is refreshingly new. He places Star Wars characters in genuinely novel situations that can literally crackle with excitement.
But it’s what Johnson does with that new-ness that is most interesting, and what fans of the old trilogy will likely be discussing — or, let’s be honest, debating — for years to come. In fact, the script, characters, and overall narrative of The Last Jedi are largely defined by the tension created when one tries to balance respect for the old and the relentless pursuit of the new.
Explaining this requires a bit of context. In my review of The Force Awakens, I noted the glaring lack of a dedicated spiritual mentor for Rey, something that was a constant in both the original trilogy and the prequels. For both Jedi and their evil counterparts, the Sith, mentorship has always been key: Obi-Wan studied under Qui-Gon Jinn, Anakin Skywalker had Obi-Wan (and later Emperor Palpatine when he became Darth Vader), and Luke Skywalker had Obi-Wan and Yoda.
Whereas George Lucas’ movies were firmly buttressed by concepts of “chosen ones” pulled directly from ancient myths, Johnson’s The Last Jedi is actively hostile to that paradigm.
But Rey spends the entirety of the first film searching for a mentor in Luke Skywalker, and only finds him in the closing seconds. But instead of finally granting Rey what she wants, The Last Jedi takes this hero-denial one step further. It quickly becomes apparent that a curmudgeonly Luke not only doesn’t want to train Rey, he doesn’t even believe in the Jedi, and thus doesn’t want to train anyone.
The ensuing action-packed argument between Luke, Rey, and, ultimately, Kylo Ren is stretched across the film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime, steadily making the case for destroying the classical myth narrative that framed the original trilogy. Things (and, yes, people) characters and fans alike have held dear are unceremoniously burned to the ground, sometimes literally. It’s a dramatic shift from the Star Wars of old: Whereas George Lucas’ movies were firmly buttressed by concepts of “chosen ones” pulled directly from ancient myths, Johnson’s The Last Jedi is actively hostile to that paradigm.
And in Johnson’s defense, his argument is a good one. The Jedi, Luke ruefully notes in a memorable debate with Rey, were deified unjustly. The galaxy fell into darkness when they were at the height of their power (during the prequels). They were systemic failures, and Luke insists that he replicated their failures in his own life.
The pain of failed mentors and authority figures quickly becomes a constant. Heroes exist, the film argues, but rarely as the idealized paragons of virtue we envision, and there is danger is giving them more power than they deserve. Star Wars has always hinged on dualistic conflicts between darkness and light, of incredible good and unspeakable evil. But The Last Jedi dwells with something else that, much like the Force itself, stretches between the two: the uncanny ability for our heroes on both sides to disappoint us.* The movie hits this point over and over again, driving it home for Luke, Rey, Kylo Ren, and even Finn. Just seconds after John Boyega’s character is called a hero, he disappoints his biggest fan.
In an era where a rash of powerful and sometimes beloved politicians, businessmen, personalities, and journalists have been brought low following allegations of scandal and abuse, there is obvious power in the suggestion that it may be time for new things.
This certainly isn’t the most uplifting of messages, but that doesn’t make it any less true or prescient, especially in 2017. In an era where a rash of powerful and sometimes beloved politicians, businessmen, personalities, and journalists have been brought low following allegations of scandal and abuse, there is obvious power in the suggestion that it may be time for new things.
To be clear, despite the innumerable rave reviews of The Last Jedi, it, too, is riddled with flaws. The first third of the film can feel unnecessarily brisk or rushed, and catapults characters into a (mis)adventure on a casino planet that frankly doesn’t seem needed at all. Johnson manages to justify the visit later in the film, but the fact remains that the new characters we encounter there are not inherently necessary. Were it not for the apparent need to build some backstory, the entire section could be easily cut.
The film also creates a number of plot holes in the Star Wars universe. How, for instance, did the First Order manage to overcome the entire Republic military with one attack, making the Resistance’s tiny fleet the only thing stopping them from ruling the galaxy?
Yet there is more than meets the eye in The Last Jedi. The things that make it uncomfortable for many viewers are also often precisely what make it impactful and surprisingly complex. The necessity of painful transition is the crux of the film, both for the audience and the characters themselves. One unexpected visitor explicitly tells Luke as much, explaining there is wisdom in the knowledge that passing the baton is never easy, and rarely seamless. Mentors are at their best when their students become better than them.
And more importantly, the visitor notes, brushing aside ideas or figures once thought to be sacred doesn’t mean the truth or wisdom they carried dies with them. It just means they will likely take a different form, like the film itself — and that’s okay.
The film also cheekily acknowledges that, in our rush to demolish old heroes, we usually also hurriedly construct new ones, insisting that this time it’ll be different. But The Last Jedi hints that “this time” might not be that different after all, at least not in the ways that matter. Its closing moments focus not on our heroes, but on a group of children huddled around a set of handmade, well-worn action figures. As one child excitedly recounts the myth of Luke Skywalker, another, clearly inspired (and subtly special), looks to the stars, imagining a better galaxy — perhaps with himself as the hero.
Just like I did, along with so many others.
Therein lies the subtle truth of Johnson’s Star Wars debut: The greatest legacy of a hero, warts and all, isn’t whether people remember them for their greatest achievements. It’s whether they inspire others to do likewise.
It’s still an open question as to whether Johnson’s heroes have the same effect. But if the broad grins on the faces of the kids leaving the theater this week were any indication, what’s old is definitely new again.
*The glaring exception to this rule appears to be Leia, who is dang near perfect in this and every film, and I think we’re all definitely fine with that.