–––ALL SPOILERS BELOW FOR THE LAST JEDI–––
I wrote last week about how Star Wars is pop-culture. It is the distilled essence of the American ethos; an operatic mélange of Campbellian archetypes and Anglicanized Eastern philosophy; an allegorical and colonialist approach to timeless storytelling that could have only been done with the hopeful arrogance of mid-century creatives. It has lasted this long because of how well it draws on ancient traditions of light against darkness and the ascended Hero. This is the quintessence of Star Wars. Yet now, for the first time, Star Wars has addressed the faults and failures of its own master narrative. It has delved into the murky complexities of modern heroism, of classism and cabalism in opera, of failure, of the bane of sacrifice and the power of survival. Star Wars has taken many forms for many people, but in The Last Jedi, it is finally challenging.
I’ll be keeping the Siskel & Ebert portion of this review brief, because even though this is Star Wars, The Last Jedi is still ultimately a movie and deserves to be critiqued as such:
The film is beautifully photographed, with Rian Johnson’s longtime cinematographer Steve Yedlin (Looper, Brick) delivering (literally) breathless extreme close-ups and stunning, sweeping space tableaux at turns. The score is so obviously flawless I shouldn’t even have to mention it and John Williams is the greatest American composer of all time, this is literally inarguable. The editing, however, is wildly inconsistent, and some of Johnson’s shot choices are questionable at best. In particular, the scene in which Luke (Mark Hamill) teaches Rey (Daisy Ridley) about the nature of the Force feels lifted straight from another film, even if the grass-gag is so distinctly evocative of Toshiro Mifune that it’s impossible not to laugh. On the flip side, when Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) form a connection through the Force, the fantastic editing choices and meticulous eyeline-matching make their conversation across light-years feel cohesive and clear… but the decision to have both characters spew undisguised and unnecessary exposition about their situation a la “Why is the Force connecting us?” just makes no sense.
The detour to Canto Bight is visually arresting but feels disconnected from the thematic weight of the film. An exploration of classism in Star Wars – with Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and the nameless slave children standing in for the blue-collar masses and the wealthy elite in the casino for the gluttonous war profiteers – is done with great tact, yet I wish it had happened in The Force Awakens. Canto Bight is just one example of Rian Johnson’s commitment to telling his own Star Wars story at the expense of J.J. Abrams’s foundation. This is essentially a standalone film. Many plot points in The Force Awakens are deservingly dispatched in The Last Jedi, but the casino feels like an element that actually should have been established at the outset of this new trilogy rather than shoehorned in halfway through. Except for DJ’s (Del Toro) spiel about “the machine” (more on this later), this exploration of classism and exploitation feels woefully out of place in a film otherwise about heady notions of failure, mastery, and hope. The Canto Bight sequence is also far too focused on lore and world-building to have any place in this character-driven installment, plus Finn and Rose freeing the giant chimeric horse-goats feels too Disney for my tastes and the gratuitous Groucho Marx comedy in the casino detracts from the pathos of their quest.
The performances are without a doubt the best in any Star Wars film ever, with Ridley and John Boyega coming into their own as the steadfast freedom fighter and the loyal cynic, respectively. Both protagonists convey their fatal flaws with nuance and poise; Rey with her unshakeable obsession with finding family, Finn with his conflict over whether to fight for his friends or to fight for his adopted cause. Tran as Rose is a phenomenal new participant in the saga, and although she is given some of the worst dialogue in the film – “I want to punch a hole right through this big beautiful town” – her starstruck wonder and ingenious planning make her a charismatic motivator. Benicio Del Toro delivers about as good of a turn as you’d expect from an Oscar winner, and his uncertain loyalties and self-centered ambition qualify him as a notable foil – and temptation – for Finn.
Comparisons between Driver’s Kylo Ren and Heath Ledger’s Joker are doubtless film-bro hyperbole – their characters are nothing alike – but there is some truth to the notion of Kylo Ren being the same caliber of villain as the Joker, and certainly a far better blockbuster villain than anything Marvel or DC have put out. He is conflicted, unpredictable, volatile, powerful, and for the first time since he was introduced in The Force Awakens, he feels like a legitimate threat. Ren fulfills the destiny Vader never could by killing his master, thereby subverting the expectations of the film without feeling gimmicky. The blessed, refreshing choice to unceremoniously do away with yet another big-CGI bad (even one played beautifully by Andy Serkis) establishes tension and drama about the upcoming final battle in Episode IX. Even in the unimpeachable Empire Strikes Back, the showdown between Luke and Vader only encourages sympathy toward one party involved – Luke – because Darth Vader remains an unknowable and inaccessible quantity until the end of the film. By the time Rey and Ren almost come to blows in The Last Jedi, their dynamic has been defined and explored before the audience’s very eyes through their mysterious Force connection.
Carrie Fisher is tragically underused as Leia, spending half of the film in a coma, but her expressiveness and her confident leadership spark a longing for the hypothetical Episode IX that would have surely focused on her, just as VII does on Han and VIII does on Luke. It’s a sad cruel twist of the universe that the woman who defines Star Wars will not receive the send-off she deserves. At least, based on Fisher’s infamously dour sense of humor, she probably would have gotten a kick out of the irony.
I could spend pages and pages on Hamill’s performance in this film; how it was informed by a thirty-year-long career outside of the spotlight, how it was grounded by a deep empathy for the story and how it was buoyed by an unfailing love for the character. Mark Hamill has no need for flashy method acting. He is Luke Skywalker not because he actively tries to be, but because he effortlessly just is. The reason is the result. In forty years and four movies Luke has gone from petulant amateur to grizzly master. He is the soul of this film just as he has been the soul of the saga, and his physical death will do nothing to diminish his role as framer and founder of the Star Wars myth. We first reunite with Luke as a man who has lost his faith. When it is restored he is changed for the better, and Hamill delivers this magnum opus with grace and ease. As he stares off into the twin suns that defined his youth, “looking at the horizon,” we see Luke as he always is and always must be – mired in tragedy, but still a star-flung farm boy with a heart for hope.
Every major trailer for The Last Jedi has teased, if not in so many words, the concept of Gray Jedi, or Bendu. Indeed, Luke Skywalker has seemingly embraced certain beliefs of Gray Jedi in The Last Jedi, even if neither that term nor Bendu is ever uttered aloud. There have been hints at the fallibility of the light side, particularly in Obi-Wan’s “from a certain point of view” excuse in The Empire Strikes Back and Yoda’s ruminations on the Jedi’s failure at the end of Revenge of the Sith, but never anything so significant as some of Luke’s pointed criticisms of the Jedi Order. He makes it clear to Rey – standing in as surrogate for the light side-conditioned audience – that the Jedi are not without failure, not without hypocrisy, not without the same arrogance and hubris that ultimately destroyed the Sith. Even though Luke warns Rey away from the darkness, he holds that it must exist in order for the Force to maintain the balance. The Last Jedi takes a bold thematic leap for Star Wars by asserting the importance of maintaining equilibrium between the light and the dark, and exploring the failures of each.
DJ (Del Toro) serves to deliver this same lesson in equivalency to Finn. His wisdom about “the machine,” i.e. the wheel of greed powered by the economy of war, opens a morass of moral ambiguity for Finn that will likely influence his character in the next film. It also reveals to the audience a key consequence of these esoteric battles between good and evil: few profit, most get hurt. In many ways, DJ reflects Luke’s despondency taken to the nihilistic extreme.
The Last Jedi embraces failure and loss more completely than any other film in the franchise. Luke fails Ben Solo (Driver), despite Rey claiming otherwise. He retreats inward for shame of his arrogance, knowing he believed himself to be the ‘legend’ of Luke Skywalker because the truth of Luke Skywalker was too frightening to face. In his self-imposed exile, Luke dismisses the integrity of the Jedi Order – for good reason – when he recognizes their limitations. He laments the cycle of ceaseless wars between good and evil, embodied by the Jedi and Sith, and removes himself from the battle rather than continuing to fight without guarantee of victory.
This is the point I’m driving at with The Last Jedi. Legends can be exaggerated. Heroes can lie. Hope can fade. After this film, Star Wars is no longer as escapist as it once was.
Beyond this, however, Episode VIII makes an even more powerful thematic change to the fundamental nature of the Star Wars mythos. The film demonstrates the capacity of Star Wars to evolve beyond the limitations of its origins and into something poignant, relevant, and deeply informative of the zeitgeist. In The Last Jedi, the age of grand heroes comes to an end.
From its opening moments, The Last Jedi makes it clear that there are no real victories in rash heroics. Poe’s rash assault against the “fleet-killer” Dreadnought ends with high casualties for the Resistance, and Leia gives him a stern reminder: when the battle is for survival, one ship is not worth the dozens of lives spent to destroy it. Later when Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) devises a clever plan to save the remainder of the Resistance, she, as Leia beautifully puts it, is “more interested in preserving the light than being a hero.” This is perhaps the closest thing to a raison d’etre in The Last Jedi.
Most important to this new ideology is Rian Johnson’s decision regarding Rey’s parents. Since The Force Awakens first premiered I’ve been hoping for Rey’s parents to be ‘nobodies’ – for the character to have no soap-operatic ties to the Skywalkers or Solos or Kenobis or Palpatines. Much to my surprise, Johnson delivers. Establishing Rey as separate from the grand Shakespearean themes of bloodline and legacy puts a distinctive 21st century spin on a Star Wars hero. It asserts that champions of the Force need not be gifted with the promise of destiny, and that balance will arise from the unlikeliest of places, and perseverance and faith will make heroes out of paupers. It gives Rey a bootstrap sense of heroism utterly removed from Star Wars after Empire establishes Luke as the heir to a dark throne. The Last Jedi trades soap-opera for nuance.
In the film, self-sacrifice is portrayed as desperate and unnecessary: Poe’s squadron dies because of his flyboy instincts for glory; Admiral Holdo is forced to sacrifice herself in a shining Akira-ish display when Poe and Finn and Rose muck up her plan; Rose stops Finn from pulling a kamikaze to destroy the battering-ram canon because she knows every life lost leaves less hope for the rest; and of course Luke chooses not to bring his physical form to Crait, knowing an empty death at the hands of The First Order would mean nothing. The Last Jedi levels deep criticism at the operatic heroes of the Star Wars saga. The legendary myths that govern Star Wars are thrown into disarray by a new philosophy that preaches the wisdom of failure, the stupidity of victory at whatever-cost, and the value of keeping hope alive for the next generation.
The true heroes in The Last Jedi are the masters, like came(o)Yoda and Luke, who realize their true burden is that new heroes “grow beyond us.” The true heroes are the freedom fighters who know it is better to survive and fight another day than to die for a momentary glimpse of glory. They are the leaders, like Leia, who know it is more important to pass along their wisdom and experience to another generation than to die meaninglessly for one last chance at immortality. They are Rey, who embraces both the light and the darkness to fight back against the destructive extremes of both, who seeks to turn Kylo back to the Jedi way, to the balance, rather than destroy him. They are Luke, who recognizes his failures but also realizes the most important lesson of all is failure, and how it can help the next generation face the challenges to come.
In his final moments, Luke demonstrates the truth of his power – the truth he brushed aside when he fled to Ach-to, the truth he denied when he became wary of his anger and his fear of young Ben Solo, the truth he finally reclaims in his last act of inspiration for the rebellion he loves. Luke’s astral projection is the most incredible feat we’ve ever seen a Jedi accomplish on-screen. It proves his power as a Jedi Master, his wisdom as a teacher, and mostly his compassion as a savior; he spares Kylo Ren the trauma of cutting him down in anger, ensuring that the young man will never have to live with the guilt of killing both his father and his master. It is this compassion that cements Luke as a true Master of the Force, of the Balance, and of the new Star Wars mythos. He dies a mythmaker. He dies Luke Skywalker.
The Last Jedi is about keeping hope alive for the future, not about celebrating heroism in the present. This stands in direct contrast to the in-the-moment ethos of the original Star Wars trilogy, in which “A New Hope” saves the galaxy for the here and now, seemingly forever more, but in which no one bothers to consider what comes next. The Last Jedi introduces a new mythology to the Star Wars galaxy, one that reflects our 21st century attitudes of hope and perseverance in the face of inescapable conflict. In the end, Luke Skywalker is wiser than ever when he looks off into the horizon for the last time – he understands hope lives not for the wonder and the awe of the moment. Hope lives for tomorrow.