SPOILERS. You’ve been warned.It’s not about destroying what you hate, a character says late into The Last Jedi, it’s about saving what you love. In dealing in the simplistic, good vs. evil morality fables that series such as Star Wars trade in, you essentially have those two tracks to choose from. All the adventure, danger and excitement required by the genre means there’s always an external threat that must be overcome, and our heroes generally have two options: destroy their enemies, or save the things they hold dear. Deal with the evil in their worlds either in physical or psychological terms… or perhaps, even spiritual. With that in mind, it’s to the Star Wars series’ credit that--from Empire Strikes Back--it generally features its heroes saving the day by overcoming their inner demons just as much as by blowing something up. And with The Last Jedi, the series reaches its most spiritual conflict yet, to the point where one of the main characters forgoes physical conflict altogether in the climactic battle scene by literally transmitting his spirit across the galaxy to allow his comrades the chance to escape. The choices the characters make are integral to this latest installment in the Star Wars saga, whether they’re choices made in the past that tear lives apart or ones made in the present that heal old wounds. The central conceit of The Last Jedi is that there is no “chosen one” appointed by destiny, but rather that the heroes and villains must choose for themselves what direction the course of their lives must take next.
If The Force Awakens was a giant question mark, then The Last Jedi is the giant answer… although not in the way most audiences will expect, or even want, as recent fan reactions will attest. Writer/director Rian Johnson subverts expectations at every turn, throwing out the Reddit speculation-ready mysteries of the first film in favor of well-oiled story and character mechanics. It is the ultimate expression of function over form: just to name one example, it doesn’t matter who Rey’s parents are, it matters who Rey is as a character and why we should give a damn about her without having to make her the daughter of Luke or Obi-Wan or Jar-Jar Binks. Johnson fills his movie with such touches, building off the excellent new characters introduced in the previous film but disregarding the empty, mystery box shenanigans. This has already caused quite the uproar, but here’s the thing: Star Wars has always been about subverting expectations, whether it was framing a grand adventure through the viewpoint of the lowest social caste, having the damsel in distress be more capable than the heroes sent to rescue her or, you know, revealing that the father of our main hero was the big bad himself. The Last Jedi leans harder into the subversions that any film before it, but the precedent has always been there.
Aside from all the clever twists, The Last Jedi is still an astonishing piece of film craft in and of itself. Since he burst onto the scene with 2006’s Brick, Johnson has been one of our most inventive visualists--not in a heavily-stylized, Zack Snyder type of way, mind you, but rather in the boldness of his compositions and edits. Star Wars has always had its own visual language, but while Johnson keeps true to that very specific, Republic Serial-by-way-of-Kurosawa feel, he also finds ways to expand the language in exciting and bold new directions. A chief example is the death of Resistance bomber Paige Tico in the opening starship battle, perhaps the most thrilling sequence in a Star Wars movie since the trench run from the ’77 original. It’s a scene that is up there with the best of Spielberg in how it builds tension through an escalating series of actions. Such virtuoso scenes are peppered throughout the film, each one existing not as a showy, look-what-we-can-do set-piece, but rather an integral part of the larger whole.
Even more importantly, Johnson takes the opportunity presented by the middle part of a larger trilogy and makes some pretty bold choices about the galaxy far, far away. If Force Awakens posed the question, “Who is Luke Skywalker?” then The Last Jedi provides a definitive answer… one that many fans are already pulling their hair out over. The Chosen One of the previous trilogy has now chosen exile, keeping to himself at a Jedi shrine while the galaxy (and more specifically, his own family) is in turmoil. We finally learn what happened all those years ago that turned Ben Solo to Kylo Ren, as Luke foresaw the darkness building in his nephew and found himself at a very literal interpretation of the age-old question, “If you had the opportunity to kill Adolf Hitler when he was a child, would you do it?” Luke is tempted, and although he ultimately relents at the last moment, it still leaves a mark on young Ben Solo, which ironically pushes him towards the dark side. It’s a perfectly-realized situation that provides an understandable motivation for both Luke and Kylo, with each side of the story revealed via conflicting flashbacks not unlike the unforgettable treatise on memory in Rashomon.
Mark Hamill turns in what might be the performance of his career here as the elder Luke, a hero who is left embittered by failing to live up to the impossible standard that’s been placed upon him as the titular “Last Jedi.” It may be maddening to some, but this is truly the most interesting direction the character could have taken, and only speaks further to the central theme that heroism isn’t something naturally bestowed by bloodline or special powers alone, but rather comes from the choices that are made on a day-to-day basis. It also allows Rey the chance to step up to the plate and shine as the beating heart and soul of this new trilogy, as the Force-adept orphan must convince Luke to rejoin the fight and help her hone her newfound abilities. Daisy Ridley was quite the find in TFA, and she continues to astonish in the shades she finds within Rey, whose character is deepened significantly in this new film. Rey establishes a mysterious connection with Kylo Ren as she begins her tutelage under Luke, a relationship that starts with seething hatred at Kylo’s callous murder of Han Solo before she finds empathy for him after learning his tragic backstory. She eventually sees the wounded, conflicted Ben Solo beneath the monstrous mask of Kylo Ren, and believes that he can still be turned from the dark side like uncle turned his grandfather. The relationship that develops between the two provides the film with its most thrillingly-subversive moments, and I can’t wait to see how it will continue to play out in the next episode.
The second of The Las Jedi’s three story-lines involves the last returning member of the Holy Trinity of the original series in Carrie Fisher, portraying the princess-turned-general Leia Organa for the last time. It stings a bit to see her on-screen, if only because she’s so good throughout. Much like Hamill, this is some real, career-best stuff on display, with Fisher throwing out the awkwardness that was sometimes present in the last film (mostly due to the script) and returning Leia to a hard-nosed, sassy-yet-elegant rebel leader. This Leia has seen and lived through it all, and now is shouldered with even more responsibility following the annihilation of the New Republic by the First Order. Leia is removed from the bulk of the story following an early attack (which results in a great reveal that is already dividing fans on how seriously they can take their magical space fantasy), one that places the First Order and the remnants of the Resistance in something of a stale-mate. With Leia out of commission, the leadership of the Resistance falls on newcomer Holdo, played by the incomparable Laura Dern (who, between Big Little Lies, Twin Peaks and this, is having a helluva year). Holdo immediately clashes with Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, and finally this character gets an arc gives Oscar Isaac something to dig his teeth into. He got by last time through the sheer strength of Isaac’s charisma, but here we get to see him learn the error of his hotshot pilot ways when he comes into conflict with both Leia and Holdo over how to handle the Resistance’s current, precarious situation. To reference the line that opens this review, Poe gets too caught up in destroying the enemy as opposed to preserving what remains of the Republic.
Which brings us to the third storyline making up the rest of the film, that involves Poe sending ex-stormtrooper Finn with newcomer Rose to the casino city of Canto Bight to find a “master codebreaker” that will help the Resistance escape from the First Order. This story thread has proven to be most divisive amongst viewers, mainly for the bait-and-switch it ultimately pulls. Finn and Rose’s trip to Canto Bight goes horribly wrong from the start, and the two have to pass over the master codebreaker they were sent to retrieve in favor of Benicio Del Toro’s stuttering rogue, DJ. The three then rush back and infiltrate the First Order, keeping to Star Wars tradition by disguising themselves on-board the enemy mothership… and immediately get captured, preventing them from enacting the plan they spent the last forty-odd minutes trying to carry out. I myself am of two minds about it. On the one hand, it really doesn’t advance the plot in any kind of significant story way. But on the other hand, that’s kind of the point: failure is another central theme to The Last Jedi, and the ultimate failure of Finn and Poe’s plan serves the movie not in terms of plot, but rather character. Through his journey to Canto Bight and beyond, Finn decides just what kind of hero he’s going to be. Confronted by the aristocracy that profits from the constant star-warring across the galaxy, and meeting up with the opportunistic DJ, Finn sees how things could go very wrong for him if he doesn’t decide who he’s going to be and what he wants to stand for in the larger universe he occupies… all of it capably portrayed by John Boyega, who continues to be a capital “M” Movie Star, igniting the screen any time he’s on it. Special mention must also be made of Kellie Marie Tran’s Rose, a character we’ve never really seen given a major role in the series. Tran is yet another remarkable find, and shares a wonderful chemistry with Boyega.
On the whole, The Last Jedi is a movie designed to provoke a reaction in its audience, at once a loving embrace of what came before but also a bold push forward into new territory, reconfiguring the classical mythologizing of the old series into something unafraid to point out their inherent flaws and build something better and more inclusive for current and future generations.