The Last Jedi is a Messy Masterpiece
When watching The Last Jedi, one gets the impression that they are watching something that genuinely wasn’t a given. That might be an odd sentiment in this day and age; where every franchise, no matter how old, from the monster successes like Rocky, to the cult-classic, box office bombs like Blade Runner, seems to get an update, and where none are as big of a cash-cow as Star Wars. But for someone who grew up in the age of the prequels, when Star Wars, regardless of success, was locked in the grip of a creator with a priceless (in more than one sense) vision, the concept of an Episode VII seemed like a fantasy. Oh sure, that’s what people said before Episode I, and sure, it’s not like the prequels weren’t the most commercialized film commodity at the time. But a pre-recession, pre-Madoff George Lucas seemed pretty earnest: he didn’t need the money, and there was no more story left to tell. So it was with both excited intrigue, and tired trepidation, that I went into the new spat of movies, both of which (a sequel and a spinoff) I’ve liked but have had some issues with.
Anyway, that was two years ago. Now Episode VIII is out, and it’s a doozy. It’s bold, new, and challenging. It’s derivative, evocative and long. You’ve no doubt heard it all already; the new Star Wars movie is somehow everything the fans have ever wanted, and also the opposite of what they expected. Some think its the greatest of the series, some think its a crime. Let’s find out which is more fair.
The Last Jedi picks up with The First Order, the descendant of the Empire that’s somehow more powerful, tracking down the base of the Resistance, the descendant of the Rebellion that’s somehow smaller, and attacking it, forcing the main characters, including hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), reformed stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and General Leia Organa (you know damn well who) to flee elsewhere. Unfortunately, General Hux, played with smolderingly silly anger by Domnhall Gleeson, has managed to trap our heroes in a stalemate. In order to break free, Finn and a new hero named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) have to abandon ship and search the galaxy for help, while collaborating with Poe back on the ship. Will they be successful, or will their efforts only land the resistance in more trouble?
However, you’re doubtlessly more concerned about the movie’s most prominent subplot, of course. The one where Rey (Daisy Ridley), in her efforts to study the Force, and her place in its balance, travels to a far off planet to learn from an ancient, embittered Jedi. That Jedi is Luke Skywalker, and he is played by Mark Hamill. Rey wants him to come rejoin the fight against intergalactic evil, so that together, they can stand a chance against Luke’s old student; Kylo Ren, a frustrated dark Jedi (sorry, a “Knight of Ren” whatever that is), as conflicted about his role in the dark side as his grandfather (a fallen Jedi who made use of a breathing apparatus, his name escapes me) was about his role in the light. Rey, Luke, and the potential Return of the Jedi might be the only hope Rey’s friends have at fighting the first order, but Luke feels otherwise, and it might be up to Rey to change his mind.
The director this time around is Rian Johnson, who you may remember directing Looper and that one episode of Breaking Bad that’s your favorite. This is clearly the best directed Star Wars movie in forty years, potentially ever. Johnson has an eye for visual flare that few have, and the work he does, bringing new life to figures we’re used to seeing, reminds us why we like this sequel trilogy; seeing Star Wars with modern film techniques is about more than using CGI characters instead of muppets; it’s about showcasing our favorite galaxy far far away through the eyes of visionary directors who otherwise wouldn’t get a chance. Fittingly, Last Jedi is at its best when Johnson lets it be something different than what we’ve seen. A variety of visual flourishes early on, from Luke tossing aside the lightsaber that was so central to the last film’s plot, to Kylo smashing up his helmet after Snoke (Andy Serkis) tells him what literally everybody thinks about it, make it clear that Johnson is not content playing in Abrams’ (much less Lucas’) sandbox. He is interested in furthering the characters and concepts that made Star Wars magical, not so much in wallowing in nostalgia (well, to an extent). What he adds to Luke Skywalker’s journey, and to the legacy of the Force, can feel like a new gospel at times; exciting and borderline heretical all at once.
The brightest spots occur between Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo; both learning different sides of the same Force. We’re given the sense that Johnson wants to tell a story that grows beyond reductive notions of light and dark (Luke Skywalker mastered the light side in his trilogy, Anakin mastered the dark in his, is this new trilogy going to be about something else entirely?), and along the way, we get some intense thrills and some shocking twists.
But alas, this is still a Star Wars movie, and you can only break the mold so much, and that’s sort of the problem. While the movie does it’s best to emulate the best parts of Empire Strikes Back (sci-fi cinema’s Casablanca); it’s suspense, its humor, it’s ability to remind you that even escapist fantasy can be uncompromising, it also emulates its premise and plot direction, and while there are definitely some surprises, there’s not a whole lot that feels genuinely new. By the time we see the plucky rebels hunker down in trenches to face off against some AT-AT walkers, I almost rolled my eyes. For a movie that seems intent on “killing the past”, as a character puts it, it’s not incredibly willing to commit. But there’s more; a subplot involving Finn, Rose, and their droid BB-8 traveling to the gambling planet Canto Bight, while bright and fun, feels superfluous and distracting, and a lot of the characters don’t seem to have much to do. There’s also a bevy of plot holes, mostly relating to why the First Order is so strong, and the Resistance so weak. It’s also too long; with what feels like the most natural ending only leading to another action scene.
Still, most of what transpires on screen is the sort of engaging, thrilling, fantastical material that brought this franchise to life in the first place. New faces like Ridley, Tran, and Driver in particular continue to enthrall. The Last Jedi may be the eighth (tenth if you count spinoffs) in the series, but it still finds ways to surprise, and its a reminder of why this series means so much to so many, which, I think, will be an important thing to remember in the coming years, where a respite from Star Wars is starting to seem less than guaranteed. In spite of that, and in spite of its numerous flaws, Number 8 feels like something inspired and special. It’s important, in this age of sequels, to remember what is guaranteed and what is not. Seeing AT-AT’s march across rough terrain is hardly anything unique at this point (hell, they showed up in Rogue One), even if they do look like they’re walking on their knuckles this time. But the reappearance of Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher truly feels like what it is; something that almost didn’t happen, and possibly won’t again.