It’s so difficult to measure our feelings about a new Star Wars movie. Words like “good”, “best”, and even “satisfying” can’t do justice to the history and weight of each release. Disney is facing greater hurdles than just producing a high-quality film. The franchise connects to our childhoods, and that brings a personal need for Star Wars to obtain a status we want in our hearts. The Force Awakens faced scrutiny but earned a pass because of the long gap away from these characters. Expectations were much higher for Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and meeting them would be nearly impossible.
I missed the original Star Wars in the theaters (I was a baby) and became obsessed through the wonders of VHS. My friends and I wore out our copy and knew every line. Statements like “the guns, they’ve stopped” and “cover me, Porkins” are permanently etched in my brain. The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are right there too, to a slightly lesser extent. It was easy as a kid to imagine yourself flying an X-wing through the Death Star and defeating the Empire. No experience today can ever match the connection that film made with me as an eight-year-old.
It’s that same emotional bond that makes the franchise resonate so powerfully with adults today. Our kids may love the films as much, but they’ve grown up in the movie world created by Star Wars’ success. This blockbuster culture may still lead to influential successes (Harry Potter is a great example), but it all falls under the shadow of George Lucas’ original creation. It’s remarkable that new Star Wars films are even happening, and we should celebrate that fact. The trick is remembering that even a superb movie may not live up to our massive expectations.
I caught up with The Last Jedi on December 22nd and managed to avoid spoilers from social media and reviews. What I couldn’t escape was the general perception of the movie among fans. I heard plenty of raves at first, but an undercurrent of disappointment was hard to miss. This sent my mind racing about what could happen to anger fans so much. Was Luke in league with Snoke? Would Rey turn to the Dark Side? None of this speculation affected my enjoyment, but it did build concerns before I even saw the movie. This is the bad side of the Internet.
It’s important to remember that we can’t expect Director Rian Johnson to create the Star Wars movie we all want. If he’s taking chances and delivering something interesting, it’s going to frustrate some viewers. This doesn’t let the movie off the hook either, however. Johnson’s choices will have a huge impact on the franchise over the long term. If we don’t like the direction he takes, it might diminish our interest going forward. The key is not making broad generalizations about the film’s quality because it differed from our expectations.
One of my favorite parts of the movie-going experience is the mystery of seeing a daring film. I don’t want any story to just check the boxes from my mental checklist. Boring art is predictable. Watching an exciting, surprising film in a packed movie theater is thrilling. We’re experiencing the highs and lows alongside the characters right to the end. If we’re too detached from the happenings on screen, then it’s easy to grow cynical and nitpick the small details. I’m willing to forgive a lot of strange plot moves if I’m on board with the characters. For the most part, The Last Jedi surprises without completely subverting the tenets of the Star Wars universe.
No Easy Steps
Let’s dive into the actual movie. We begin with a familiar scenario for anyone that’s seen Empire. The Resistance is on the run from the First Order, led by the overly arrogant General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). These are desperate times, indeed. A handful of ships remain against a powerful enemy that won’t stop until they’re all dead. Meanwhile, our hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries to convince a cynical Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) that he should return to the fight. The connective tissue is lack of hope that anything they do will make a difference.
In a more upbeat film, a guy like Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron would be a heroic idealist leading a successful rebellion. In Johnson’s world, this Poe is a reckless wild card that wreaks destruction on The Resistance with each new choice. He’s brave and willing to die for what he believes in, but it will mean little if there’s no one left to defeat the enemy. Despite some brilliant shots and an effective sequence in a bomber, this opening feels a bit disjointed.
There are two reasons it doesn’t entirely click like it should. First of all, we really want to learn what Rey and Luke are doing on Ahch-To after their meeting at the end of the previous movie. Second, it’s tricky to join a story that’s moved forward a lot since the last film. We’re just getting our bearings and aren’t entirely ready to watch such an important battle.
While the Resistance story line doesn’t entirely click, I have no doubts about the Ahch-To scenes with Rey and Luke. Mark Hamill is fascinating as the broken older self of the idealistic kid we knew. We can see glimmers of that guy when he lets his guard down, but it’s extremely brief. I love the way that Luke can’t see his place in this struggle. He blames himself for failing to train Ben Solo (aka Kylo Ren) and hasn’t come to terms with his own darkness. Fear and regret are driving Luke’s inability to connect with Rey. Her tremendous power makes it even more difficult. She represents another chance for Luke to screw up and damage the galaxy.
An Uneasy Alliance
One of the most intriguing relationships in The Last Jedi is between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). You could easily see a romance blooming given their unique powers. The visions they share are surprising because neither is trying to manipulate the other. Both expect the other to change and join their individual fight. Ridley and Driver give even better performances in this film and have real chemistry. You can easily see why Kylo Ren would dismiss his overbearing master Snoke (Andy Serkis) and prefer to lead The First Order with Rey. His choice to save her and kill Snoke isn’t out of goodness, however. His power would only grow with Rey by his side.
The conflict between Snoke, Rey, and Kylo Ren comes surprisingly early for such a key scene. It’s the center point rather than the final fight to set the stage for future movies. The stunning fight with the Elite Praetorian Guard is also the only lengthy light saber battle. Watching Rey and Kylo Ren work together (if only for the moment) shows how formidable they’d be as a pair. The striking red background is the perfect setting for what’s arguably the most effective action scene in the entire film. Rey largely shifts to the background after this moment, sadly.
I suspect that Rey was the victim of necessary cuts to bring down the overall running time. A throwaway line indicates she found a shuttle, and later we see her in the Millennium Falcon. That ship’s appearance is a rousing surprise and delivers a kinetic space battle, but it does inspire a few questions. It also shows the challenges for Johnson to spotlight so many stars even within a 152-minute film. New characters like Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) make a real impact, so that leaves even less time for Chewbacca, C3PO and others. This isn’t a criticism of this film; it’s more of a comment on the state of the franchise.
A Strange Detour
I love Kelly Marie Tran as Rose! Her enthusiasm brings a jolt to the middle act and keeps it from becoming too dreary. She also works well with John Boyega’s Finn, who seems ready to bolt given the huge odds against them. The actors’ charisma helps to overcome some head-scratching creative choices during the story’s middle act. It’s fine that their mission to the Canto Bight casino doesn’t help to save the Resistance. One major theme of this story is the idea that you have to fail a lot of times before you can succeed. Yoda makes that argument to Luke to help rouse him out of his stasis. Responding to mistakes helps to make us better people.
The casino is also a haven of impressive creature effects and in-jokes. It’s basically the Mos Aisley Cantina scene in a different setting. I liked the Justin Theroux cameo because he went so far over the top as the buffoonish codebreaker. His approach matched the ebullient nature of this entire sequence. Benicio Del Toro also has a fun glint in his eye as the mercenary DJ. He was definitely the right choice to play a guy with murky loyalties. Del Toro’s appearance nearly makes these scenes worth the time we spend at Canto Bight.
The main reason I’m struggling with these scenes isn’t their actual content for the most part. What’s challenging is seeing them in place of more time with Luke and Rey. I recognize that we need multiple storylines to match this epic blend of storytelling. However, the casino seems to occupy too much space within the film. This isn’t a huge issue but does make the story feel less consistent. I did like the way Rose’s interactions with the kids connected to the movie’s final scene. Johnson makes the case that future generations will keep The Resistance moving forward. You could easily apply this message to the entire franchise, which isn’t just for adults like me.
Taking a Stand
What sticks with me from The Last Jedi is the image of Luke strolling onto the battlefield to save the day. He can’t take down The First Order with his “laser sword”, but Luke can ensure that the Resistance lives to fight another day. The reveal that he’s actually a projection makes sense and holds up to scrutiny. If we accept the fact that what Luke does is possible, the rest falls into place well. It’s a brilliant way for the franchise’s hero to stand up to evil and keep hope alive. The way that he dismantles Kylo Ren and gets under his skin also reinforces Ben Solo’s weaknesses. He has great power but can’t annihilate the past despite his best efforts.
Carrie Fisher’s last appearance as Princess Leia also includes powers we didn’t realize were there. Seeing the late actress fight back against death is heart-warming in our grim times. I would have enjoyed a lot more of Leia in this film, but this is really Luke’s story. Fisher’s passing keeps us from watching Leia become the centerpiece of Episode IX. I’ll be curious to see how they handle Leia’s omission from the next installment. It’s a relief that we won’t see another digitally created character in the vein of the creepy Tarkin from Rogue One. I’d rather enjoy Leia in her full glory that we see in this movie.
Despite silly headlines calling it a flop, The Last Jedi is a box-office and creative hit. The fact that some fans don’t like it makes Johnson’s work more interesting. We can engage about the merits of each choice and aren’t just raving in boring fashion. Let’s appreciate the fact that we have a film that’s worthy of passionate arguments. This isn’t Attack of the Clones. I feel like my first viewing of The Last Jedi barely scratched the surface and can’t wait to see it again. My need to give it a closer look says a lot about its success. This isn’t a down-the-middle crowd pleaser like The Force Awakens, and that’s okay. I can’t wait to see what’s next for these characters.
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