Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi – Spoiler Free Movie Review
“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.”
And with those words, The Last Jedi’s writer/director Rian Johnson’s intentions are laid bare. With a palpable sense of glee that never once veers into parody or mockery, Johnson delivers a bold, polarizing statement on what Star Wars was, is, and can be.
The Empire Strikes Back this is not.
The Last Jedi is a cinematic jailbreak, executed to near-perfection, liberating the Star Wars movie franchise from its Skywalker-centric shackles. Refusing to be bound by convention and tradition, Rian Johnson instead embraces the rebel heart George Lucas wore on his sleeve throughout the making of the original film. He defies all expectations and paints a startling and thought-provoking picture of a galaxy that yearns for the future as much as it reveres the past.
J. J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens is a risk-averse bite of cinematic comfort food, littered with “mystery boxes” and designed to reintroduce the Star Wars formula to the big screen. The Last Jedi is something completely different. Something new. Something exciting. It answers most—if not all—of the mysteries Abrams introduced in The Force Awakens. Whether the fans like the answers? Well, that’s another thing entirely.
Unfolding over the course of 30-or-so hours in the immediate aftermath of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi is equal parts space fantasy, character study and meta-narrative. As much as it is a Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi is really a movie about Star Wars. Johnson pulls no punches, using cutting bits of dialogue, humor, and subversive visuals to comment on the past of the franchise, while offering a strong opinion on where it could go next. The metanarrative is as fascinating as the plot, and after two viewings my head is still spinning. I can’t wait to see it again. This is a dense feature, one that doesn’t shy away from Big Ideas, and yet it still has all the wit and whimsy one expects from a Star Wars movie.
Humor plays a large role in the film, be it slapstick, sarcasm, or self-deprecation. It never feels tacked on or unnecessary. I’ve heard multiple complaints about two scenes in particular—one at the beginning and one near the very end—that some feel are gratuitous and out of place in a Star Wars movie. I couldn’t disagree more. The humor is true to the characters. It feels as natural and appropriate as Han Solo saying, “We’re all fine here . . . now . . . thank you. How’re you?”
The plot—when boiled down to its essence—is typical Star Wars fare. The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa, is facing annihilation at the hands of the First Order, and hope is rapidly dwindling. The Resistance fleet must survive long enough for help to arrive, be it in the form of allies throughout the galaxy, or in the form of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker. Rey must convince Luke to take up his lightsaber and come to his sister’s aid, defending the Resistance from the Dark Side, as embodied by an ever more powerful Kylo Ren and his enigmatic master, Supreme Leader Snoke. It has all the hallmarks of a classic Star Wars movie.
And then Johnson pulls the rug out from under us.
No one expects a Star Wars movie to take risks in 2017, and yet that’s exactly what The Last Jedi does. At every juncture, The Last Jedi subverts the audience’s expectations, choosing to focus on what could happen as opposed to the fans’ idea of what should happen. For a franchise that is gloriously formulaic, this represents a seismic shift in philosophy. It is a bold, unprecedented move that should be lauded. That Disney allowed this movie to be released in its final form is nothing short of amazing. Instead of “protecting the brand” Disney and Lucasfilm placed their confidence in Johnson and the material.
Even the best scripts can suffer in the hands of the wrong actors and this cast once again proves they are the right men and women for this particular job. The returning cast members build upon their performances in The Force Awakens, adding depth, color and heart to characters that still feel new. Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver all deserve special mention. Their characters have blossomed under Rian Johnson’s care, and the actors deliver nuanced and entertaining performances.
Domnhall Gleason’s General Hux takes on a larger role and chews scenery in every frame. Laura Dern, as the enigmatic Admiral Holdo, takes what could have been a bland and one-dimensional character and transforms her into an intriguing and essential supporting player. And Kellie Marie Tran as Rose Tico adds a boots-on-the-ground, real-world perspective to the entire affair. Her performance is filled with wonder, heartbreak, hope, and steel and I hope we see Rose for years to come.
The late Carrie Fisher once again proves that she truly is Princess Leia, effortlessly bringing the weight of Leia’s 30+ years post-Jedi to bear in her performance. The audience might not know what Leia was up to all those years, but Carrie Fisher undoubtedly did and that intimate knowledge of her most famous role informed every aspect of her performance. She will be sorely missed in Episode IX.
Mark Hamill delivered a performance that was jaw-dropping. In every line and every movement, there were flashes of the cocky idealistic farm boy from A New Hope, the impatient Jedi-in-training from The Empire Strikes Back, and the self-important but heroic Jedi from Return of the Jedi. And over it all lays a deep, abiding sadness. The Luke Skywalker of The Last Jedi is a once-great man slowly suffocating himself with a funerary shroud woven of shame, guilt, and self-loathing. Hamill’s eyes are constantly welling with tears, even when Luke is hiding behind biting sarcasm or self-deprecating humor. The Luke Skywalker of The Last Jedi is a broken man, one who has been crushed under the weight of his own expectations.
The themes explored in The Last Jedi are, in true Star Wars fashion, universal. Thematic ruminations on failure, in particular, take a starring role. The idea that one must fail to learn is explored throughout the film, with Luke, Rey, Poe, and Finn all learning hard lessons along the way. Like true heroes, their failures ultimately make them stronger. Not because they are able to move past them, but because they embrace their failures, learn from them, and endeavor not to repeat them.
The movie also explores the idea that the past must be laid to rest in order for the future to have a chance. Past failures and past successes. Tragedies and disappointments. Past loves and past hates. All must be laid to rest at the foot of progress. One living in the past is unable and often unwilling to accept that a future—or even the potential for a future—even exists.
Johnson takes this theme one step further, moving it into the meta-narrative by leveling the playing field. Hope, power, and the ability to change the galaxy are no longer the exclusive purview of the Skywalker family. And while members of that family are undoubtedly heroic in this movie, they aren’t the heroes. Their time is in the past. And that is okay. It is okay in the context of the plot, and it should be okay for the fans.
Star Wars is a living, breathing thing. It is bigger than any one creator, one movie, one director, one character, or one fictional family. It isn’t a story about the Skywalkers. It is a story about a galaxy on the knife’s edge, and the billions of people—great and small—that struggle to maintain that balance. Some fans might not appreciate that sentiment. Those fans are clinging to the past at the expense of the future.
The sum total of all these disparate parts is a proudly idiosyncratic and anomalous Star Wars movie. One that is divisive, confounding, unforgiving, and ultimately more rewarding than any piece of the Star Wars puzzle has been in years. Everything a Star Wars fan wants in a Star Wars movie is there for the taking. Questions are answered. Seeds for the future are sown. And a bold new trail is slowly being blazed through the heart of a galaxy far, far away.