Spoiler Review: The Last Jedi. A Surprise, to be Sure, but a Welcome One
This review contains extensive discussion of spoilers for The Last Jedi. Turn back now if you don’t want to know the details of the film.
Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.
Kylo Ren’s words serve as the primary basis of conflict in The Last Jedi. Kylo Ren feels betrayed by his elders. His parents, his mentors have all failed him and should therefore be purged so the next generation can start anew.
As a counterpoint we are given the wisdom of Master Yoda. The greatest teacher, failure is. And in the dichotomy of these two viewpoints, we are given the mission statement to what might be the most mature of all the Star Wars films to date.
And by mature, I’m not saying that past movies have been immature. But, this film sets out to take a deep examination of characters growing up. Even the older ones. Even the masters.
The primary theme of The Last Jedi is watching what characters do when they are exposed to the realities of life. What happens when you realize your parents, mentors, or masters are flawed? What do you do when you realize you shouldn’t worship your heroes or that heroic acts are not always in and of themselves the right path?
The Last Jedi dares to take a look down the path at what happens when heroes fail. And I love this film for it.
At every turn, the heroes in The Last Jedi fail. Poe fails to be a true resistance leader. Finn and Rose fail in their mission to disable the tracking device that is putting their comrades in peril. They fail so badly, it actually ends up costing lives. Rey fails to get Luke to come with her to face the First Order. Luke even calls us, the audience, out in the process. He lets us know that what our expectations for him as the hero of this story are, will not match reality, when he scoffs at Rey’s plea that the Resistance needs him.
Because in the end, although this movie teaches us that our heroes are fallible, they are also (as Yoda points out) wise because of that very fallibility. Luke knows that what the resistance needs isn’t a bad ass Jedi bringing down Star Destroyers with his mind. What the Resistance needs is a new hope. Leia knows that brave acts of heroism aren’t enough to bring down the first order. Going out in a blaze of glory will make you a legend, but it won’t necessarily win the war.
And that is what our new generation of heroes learns in The Last Jedi. It is what Kylo Ren can’t learn and instead rages against. Failures don’t make one weak, they are what you grow from. Turning away in anger and seeking a perfection only made available by the naiveté of youth is the path to the dark side. Ben Solo made that choice. Rey chooses wisdom over anger. And we are left with one of the most unique story constructions in the history of Star Wars as we watch it all play out.
What Rian Johnson did with The Last Jedi is nothing short of remarkable in my opinion. Upon first viewing, I had mixed emotions about the movie. I respected it, but I had major reservations due to how different everything felt. I had to (I’m sure everyone has heard this a million times this week) unlearn what I had learned. My second viewing was an experience of pure joy. Once I let go of what I expected, I came to see a movie of such high ambition and unifying theme, that it had confused me on my first watch.
Everything in this movie threads from the central theme in a way we don’t often see in blockbusters. Everything from Finn’s disillusionment at the war profiteers in Canto Bight, to the unexpected early dispatch of Snoke, and all the way to the last shot of that kid with the resistance ring who will soon learn he can sweep up the stables much easier if he uses the Force. Every aspect of this film pulls us right back to that central story of Luke, Ben, and Rey.
Luke’s part in this film has of course been divisive within fandom. We build up a superhero in our head and are horrified when we find he is just a man. The audience in the same boat as Kylo and Rey, learning Luke isn’t the infallible god we thought he was. The temptation of the dark side wasn’t defeated forever in the Emperor’s throne room. It is a daily struggle against which, even a Jedi has moments of weakness. And that moment certainly was a doozy. But that is what the frailty of humans will bring. A momentary lapse leads to an endless spiral of repercussions that continue down the line from generation to generation. Each subsequent one, learning from that mistake in new ways.
But in the end, Luke may not find complete redemption for his failings. But he does find renewed purpose. There have long been debates about how Luke should act in his inevitable return. Should he be the legendary warrior-wizard, bringing the empire to its knees with his extensive power? Or should he be more like Yoda in Empire, passive and wise. Rian’s answer gives us a best of both worlds alternative.
Luke’s showing on Crait is likely the most bad-ass way of using defensive, non-violent Jedi powers you’ll likely ever see. He is the warrior and he is the monk. He achieves victory over the First order without ever drawing blood. A great feat. And in the end, as with his own mentor Obi-Wan, he becomes one with the force so he can guide Rey from beyond the constraints of his flawed physical body. Luke’s death, is handled in a way more beautiful than I could have possibly predicted. We knew his death was coming in this trilogy at some point. But it was poignant and emotional while remaining hopeful in a way Han’s was and inevitably Leia’s will be. Luke’s death was not without purpose. It was a victory for the light.
It’s a beautiful and hopeful story, but a bleak one. I imagine many, when dreaming we’d someday get a grey Jedi, didn’t quite picture this. And I see how it will anger many. For me, it is heart wrenching and exciting in all the ways I want a Star Wars movie to be.
Some notes on the positives:
- Rian Johnson is the first director to bring his own visual style to Star Wars since Empire and it is a thing of beauty. The silent shot of the Supremacy being torn apart is probably going to become one of my favorite Star Wars shots of all time. Just reliving it in my head gives me chills.
- Everything about both the Rey/Ren/Snoke scene, and Luke’s final showdown with Kylo are just note perfect. I can’t say anything bad about them. They will go down as two of my favorite scenes in Star Wars history I’m sure.
- The technical skill shown by Johnson in his expertly crafted setup for Luke’s surprise at the end of the film was amazingly handled. We see throughout the film, people using the power of this force projection in many ways. Snoke’s ability to throw Hux around when light years away. Kylo and Rey’s connection and Ren’s explanation that using this power on her own would kill Rey. And, then finally Luke’s sacrifice on Crait. All the information we need is there, yet it still surprises us without feeling like a cheat. I kicked myself after first viewing for not noticing that Luke’s blue light saber was destroyed minutes earlier yet he was somehow holding it on the battlefield, or that his hair was different and reflected a younger, less damaged version of himself.
- I’m perfectly fine with Rey being a nobody. She is the “everyman” as her experience in the cave shows. Tearing down your heroes from the pedestal also means recognizing that power through lineage has no meaning. Rey represents this concept as a no one who is just as important as a someone.
- The performances in this movie are all top notch. But special Kudos to the trio at the center of the film. Adam Driver continues to create one of the most interesting and dynamic villains in recent memory. Daisy Ridley has quickly grown into the part of Rey and does some great, serious work here. And Mark Hamill is a huge delight, giving what is easily his best performance in this film.
- Canto Bight reminds me of the prequels in all of the best ways possible. It was bright, and clean, but still felt dynamic and real. The plotline there may not have been the strongest part of the movie, but the design was fantastic.
- I hope John Williams lives to be 150 and never stops scoring these movies. I love Michael Giacchino and he did an admirable job with little time on Rogue One, but even if this is second tier Williams, it was refreshing just to have his textures back in the background. The movie was light on new themes, but the frequent callbacks to OT themes was very welcome.
- Ewoks and Gungans could learn a thing or two from the Porgs. That, to me, was just the right amount of cuteness and comic relief without getting obnoxious or cringe inducing.
Negatives and nitpicks:
This movie is not without flaws. I love the film, but it is in no way perfect.
- I think the biggest misstep was the conflicting feel of the three story lines. Ahch-To and Canto Bight were fine on their own, but felt way to leisurely in comparison to the Resistance fleeing the First Order Plot. They all worked separately, but in conjunction felt tonally misaligned.
- Most of the new characters took great steps in development in their second film. But of the big 4, Finn clearly suffered the most here. A lot of his comic energy was removed, and although they gave him a strong arc, it always felt secondary to what was happening with the others.
- Some of the logistics of how everyone ends up on Crait at the same time at the end were seriously glossed over. The movie is already two and a half hour long. Just give me 30 seconds of Rey leaving the Supremacy.
- Phasma and DJ are two characters, who I think may be hurt by being portrayed by celebrity actors. These are small parts, with little to them, that are given too much importance by the audience because of who they are. If these parts were played by no-names, they would probably fade to the background with any number of nameless military commanders or alien creatures with limited screen time. As is, their lack of impact makes them stand out.
- I know it fits the symbolism that Leia is pushing with her whole “hope is most important when you can’t see it“ thing. But Leia flying through the vacuum of space takes me out of the film every time. I can rationalize it. Maybe she makes an instinctual force bubble around her that keeps her alive or something, but still that was the one ambitious reach Johnson made that didn’t quite land for me.
- Although this is definitely the funniest Star Wars movie, some of the jokes fell a bit flat. Particularly that shirtless Kylo Ren scene. That didn’t get even a chuckle at either of my screenings. The rest may depend on your mood or who you are watching with. The two audiences I watched with varied greatly on which parts they thought were hilarious and which didn’t get much of a reaction at all.
All in all I loved The Last Jedi. It’s bold, it’s fun, and it’s ambitious. It brings a new dynamic to the Star Wars universe that at the same time feels like it has always belonged there. It mixes some of the best dynamics of the prequels and original trilogy while adding quite a bit new to the equation as well. There are a few easily overlooked missteps, but they are insignificant in the long run. The film feels fresh. I haven’t been this excited to go back and see a Star Wars movie again for a third time in decades. I imagine this one will be in regular rotation for years to come as I unpack all of those details and subtexts I missed.
I understand how this movie will not be for all fans. It will probably be listed among the worst for some. But in the end, that is a good thing to me. A safe movie is good for all, but just good… never great. A movie that takes risks as The Last Jedi does may not land for everyone, but will be among the favorites for those to which it hits all the right notes. The Last Jedi was that movie for me. For those who hated it, maybe the next one will hit those notes for you.