Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
based on Star Wars characters by George Lucas
written and directed by Rian Johnson
Alright, it’s been a couple of months since its release, so now we can calmly talk about Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the sequel to 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens. At the time it divided audiences sharply, for many reasons I agree with and which we’ll go into in this review. But the main point of contention seemed to be that while fans were incredibly excited to see one of their favorite characters, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), come back, they were dismayed to see him turned into an old, tired, embittered former Jedi.
Many Star Wars aficionados exclaimed in outrage, “This is not my Luke, this is not my Star Wars!” Perhaps you were one of them, lamenting the loss of a hero that represented integrity, bravery, and the good side of the Force. But, as someone who has grown up with all these films, this never struck me as odd or out of character. In fact, just like The Force Awakens echoed Star Wars (1977), so does The Last Jedi serve as a mirror to The Empire Strikes Back (1980) with Luke now standing in for the exiled Yoda in Dagobah. This in and of itself is not always a good thing (The Force Awakens erred on the side of familiarity), but director Rian Johnson is after something else here: Whereas Yoda reluctantly trained Luke for his confrontation with Darth Vader, Luke refuses to train Rey, in fact constantly telling her why the Jedi should come to an end. It’s a smart, literary decision: Luke is an emotional wreck in need of redemption, and his final confrontation with nephew Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) makes his arc come full circle as he gives his life for the Resistance, his faith in the Force restored.
In fact, Johnson has taken the formula and tried to breathe new life into the saga by deconstructing it, much in the same way that Rogue One went for a more realistic take. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it elevates The Last Jedi somewhere closer to art: By far the film’s best sequence has Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo joining forces (briefly) to defeat Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his Praetorian Guard. As they fight, acting, choreography, art direction, costume design, and special effects all coalesce around the color red as both a symbol of anger (Kylo) and strength (Rey). It’s jaw-dropping. There are other inspired moments: Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) rams an enemy ship at light speed, resulting in ten seconds of silent images that are as beautiful as a painting; resistance fighters pilot their ski speeders so close to a planet’s surface that they leave streaks of scarlet behind them; as Luke dies he stares longingly at the sunset in a poetic callback to his young self in Star Wars: A New Hope. Aesthetically, The Last Jedi is the best episode since The Empire Strikes Back.
Not all is perfect, of course. Johnson wants to be free from Star Wars‘ pre-existing expectations, which is an interesting notion in theory. But there are moments that feel inconsistent with the universe that’s been established before. A particularly bizarre scene has General Leia (Carrie Fisher), seemingly dead and floating in space, employing the Force to fly like Mary Poppins in a display of power we never knew she possessed. The question of Rey’s parentage – is she Luke’s daughter? Obi-Wan’s granddaughter? Ben’s sister? – is resolved (or is it?) in a perfunctory manner that doesn’t feel like a continuation of what was set up in The Force Awakens. And how can the ghost of Yoda (Frank Oz) summon lightning, let alone hit Luke in the head with a cane?
The Last Jedi also features a terrible subplot involving Finn (John Boyega) and a maintenance worker (Kelly Marie Tran) on a mission to find a “master codebreaker.” It’s protracted and dramatically unsatisfying. There are also thematic issues throughout. For example, one of the recurring motifs is sacrifice, but its presentation is confusing: While Holdo and Luke help the Resistance escape by staging their own respective acts of valor, Finn is stopped in his tracks as he tries to maneuver his craft into an enemy weapon. Why? Because, as Rose puts it, that’s “…how we’re going to win, not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” Sorry, can’t have it both ways.
Whereas the writing in The Force Awakens felt somewhat derivative, The Last Jedi is chock-full of ideas… too many, in fact. Still, kudos in trying to forge something new and move the Star Wars myth forward. This is one of the most audacious installments yet.
Carlos I. Cuevas