In a moderate surprise, it appears that The Last Jedi is divisive though I found it thoroughly superb. Some portion of that can be attributed to some online trolls review bombing the winter blockbuster, but some of the problems are sidling up with certain viewers stronger than others. And it’s hard to get into it without spoiling the entire movie/talking about light plot points that overly aggressive fans consider spoilers. So…
Spoiler warning: this is going to be a full breakdown of what happens in Star Wars: The Last Jedi and my thoughts on them as they pertain to the movie itself, the trilogy at large, and the franchise as a whole. So if you haven’t seen it but are planning on it, go see it and then come back. If you haven’t seen it and aren’t planning on it, then, I dunno, try to make sense of this, I guess? Live your life.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here we go!
You’ve surely seen all the marketing online promoting the fact that both Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro have joined the Star Wars universe, perhaps through the less awkward gamey interviews on YouTube. (The character quiz one is actually pretty fun.) And that’s huge news considering the franchise is otherwise known for being a breeding ground of new, unknown talent. Sometimes it works out and other times it, well, doesn’t.
Here, however, is precisely what is accomplished with those two prodigious actors: diddly. Okay, that’s not entirely true. Dern’s Admiral Holdo engages in one of the most visually beautiful and cathartic and wholly badass instances of the Heroic Sacrifice. But between Holdo and del Toro’s underworld codebreaker DJ, they don’t contribute much in terms of thematic advancement.
DJ is a prime example. We’ve encountered his kind before—a Han Solo-type of rogue who is ostensibly out only for himself. But then, after the failed sabotage aboard Snoke’s ship, it turns out that this trickster was just that: a trickster. It categorically reduced del Toro’s performance and that character into a weird, dour bag of speech impediments and odd tics. In essence, he existed only to get our heroes out of and then into more trouble; his philosophy of profit being the prime and only motivator is neither fleshed out nor interesting.
But this movie and pretty much every Star Wars movie is about defying expectations, rising to the George Lucas mantra of anyone—maybe everyone—can be a hero. And for that to work, you have to assume the opposite at some point, but Holdo’s arc is painfully apparent from the get-go. As soon as she steps into the Admiral’s seat and she butts heads with Poe, it’s clear that she’s not going to survive, but she will be teaching a lesson in her death. Both Dern and del Toro give it their all, but there’s not a lot of meat for them to chew.
A Grateful Reset
Speaking of Lucas, this movie does something absolutely wonderful. (Two somethings, actually.) Somewhere towards the start of the second act when Rey finally begins her tutelage under the legendary Luke Skywalker and then closer to when the final resolution of the movie starts to unfurl as Kylo Ren has a very intense heart to heart with Rey. Let’s start with the former.
Luke asks Rey what she thinks the Force is, and she tells him: it’s a thing that let’s the Jedi move things with their brains. But Luke lays it out plain and simple; she’s wrong. She’s dead wrong, in fact, because that’s what the Force does but not what it is.
And that’s an important distinction because for the longest time since A New Hope premiered in 1977, the question was what in the world is the Force. And then Lucas answered it in The Phantom Menace, much to the astoundingly confusing relief and chagrin. Blah blah blah midi-chlorians blah. It answered the exact question we were asking but not the question we knew we wanted answered.
Writer/director Rian Johnson knew this, and he gratefully hit as hard of a reset as possible on it. Luke gives a poignant, achingly poetic lesson of what the Force is to Rey, and at no point does he mention midi-chlorians. It was more or less a giant middle finger to the guy that created this universe, and it was exactly what we’ve been needing for the past 18 years.
The same goes for the second scene with Kylo and Rey, although it is two simultaneous birds instead of just one. Lucas, you see, clearly loves the monomythic hero that is predestined and bred into a lineage of galaxy-saving. He couldn’t let it go with Anakin and he couldn’t let it go with Luke. And while JJ Abrams was the perfect steward to usher into the new age of Star Wars under the mouse-shaped Jolly Roger, his broken love affair with mystery is so well-documented at this point that it’s pretty much his new lens flair.
Combining those two immense and overwhelming instincts, you have the question of Rey’s bloodline. Is she a Skywalker? Someone mentioned in a prophecy long-lost? It was the perfect storm of unknown to get butts back into seats for The Last Jedi. But the answer, obviously, would never be properly satisfying even if it was what we all assumed it would be.
This is where the genius of Johnson emerges. In that heated exchange with Rey, Kylo pulls out of her the truth that she knew all along. She, despite her tremendous potential and innate power, is nobody. Her parents were nobody. The mystery was something used to tease her along into this Snoke-fueled struggle between these two prodigies of the Force. It feels an incredible amount like in Johnson’s Looper when the aged Bruce Willis tells Joseph Gordon-Levitt that it doesn’t matter how time travel works; it just does.
It’s the perfect resolution to a quandary that didn’t ever—or should have ever—matter.
A Middle That Wants the End
It also leads into an odd criticism for a movie, but it’s vital for the middle act of a trilogy. The second part should be the entry that resolves threads that managed to open new, exciting doors for the rest of the trilogy while exploring said doors. The Last Jedi, however, closes what feels like one too many.
Without Snoke, for instance, the entire impetus for Rey to question her alignment is gone. He’s not there to pull the strings, seed doubt into her mind, and effectively give us reason to buy into the drama betwixt the two/three of them. Even with Luke and Darth Vader, we still weren’t clear on whether the allure of saving his father would be enough to sway the newest Jedi Master from the light.
It has to be clear to Kylo that without Snoke, he can’t pull Rey over, especially after the rejection after their electrifying lightsaber battle. This leaves us with Rey trying to pull Kylo over and effectively save his soul, but what cards does she have? Fight him again to yet another stalemate? Where’s the excitement in two commensurate waves cancelling each other out?
And let’s not get into the fact that the Resistance is pretty much obliterated. It’s easy to see where either all those distress calls will pay off after they hear that Luke stood up to Kylo and a giant laser and we jump ahead a few years to where they’ve rebuilt their forces a bit (and they can find a way to write out Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa), and it wouldn’t really be a problem save for the fact that there’s still Episode IX on the horizon.
It is a film that will have to create wrinkles in the fabric whole cloth. Doubling down on that problem is that Colin Trevorrow was fired from the project and Abrams was brought back in, a man famous for creating questions and not answering enough of them and rarely in a satisfying manner whereas Trevorrow, as shown in Safety Not Guaranteed and Jurassic World, has the perfectly matching knack for closing books while leave just enough pages blank to leave the world open.
Treat Your Eyes
Regardless of who directs, it seems like this new trilogy is perpetuating a fantastic knack of making your eyes twinkle with delight. Obviously, credit goes out to a lot of the production crew including cinematographers Steve Yedlin and Dan Mindel, but the end result is the thing worth discussing here. And The Last Jedi has a lot worth discussing.
We already talked about how Holdo’s sacrifice turned a First Order fleet into a stunning set of celestial modern art, but there’s so much more. Rey’s excursion down the hole was a trip on the level of Under the Skin, her delayed reflections acting like a sonata in a round as we push backwards and forwards through just one infinity until we reach some unknown end. It’s a beautiful scene that plays into the mental and philosophical implications of the introspection.
Not the mention the unending, incessant crimson motif. Snoke’s room full of his elite Praetorian Guard and a red gradient that seems to start and end at forever is a treat, but also plays into the finale on the salt-ridden planet Crait. It’s a terrific visual metaphor for as the battle goes on, more red is revealed just as the First Order seems to gain more and more of the upper hand. It’s as if our faith in victory is bleeding out along with them, each of those speeders leaving behind a trail of an inevitable doom that fights against our rebellious hope.
And that finale? When Luke steps out against the encroaching mechanized behemoths? Completely and thoroughly stunning. It’s a shot that I have honestly thought about every day since watching the movie. It’s the kind of thing that would make me cry if I were emotionally capable of it. Rebel scum and all that.
That leads to one of the stranger problems with the movie. It suffers from a chronic case of bathos, or in other words, the undercutting of a dramatic climax by way of something antithetical to the event. Do you remember that scene in Doctor Strange where he looks in the mirror with renewed resolve but then the cloak wipes his face? That is bathos.
And The Last Jedi has a lot of that. Some jokes are good, solid goofs that arise naturally and play into how the movie develops its characters. Take for instance when Rose first encounters Finn and they mutually expose all their flaws and facets, and it’s charming and funny and loving. It’s a scene that’s hard to fault.
But then take a look at when Rey is atop the cliff, training with her staff before she chucks it aside for Luke’s lightsaber. She swings it around with a preternatural capacity before slicing through a bear-sized rock with masterful precision. And then it falls and crashes through a couple of Lanai’s cart. It undercuts an otherwise potent scene of Rey holding aside the strength in her history and past for her ongoing and rabid reach at power and understanding.
Almost every joke comes at the expense of something serious, taking out drama at the knees with Tonya Harding-level whimsy. Rey is encountering Snoke for the first time and she gets hit in the head with her own lightsaber. General Hux is overruled at every turn so we can laugh at his expense. This is a movie that succeeds at crafting an exceptional and powerful narrative, but it fails to know when to subvert and when to bolster itself.
A lot of that power comes from the action, though, as well. These set pieces are unequivocally enormous and astounding. The battle between Kylo and Rey and the Praetorian Guard is the best lightsaber battle of the entire franchise. (Granted, that isn’t a high bar to clear, but still.) And the fight between Finn and Captain Phasma is making a strong push for number two.
And the tone is almost entirely set by the opening collision of First Order and Resistance forces when Poe uses his supernatural piloting skills to almost single-handedly take down a Dreadnought. It’s visceral and exciting and draws you in immediately, giving the entire film a timeline stuffed with visual stakes. It sets up the push and pull between good and evil with just the right amount of bombast.
It covers entire planets and cities, blowing up what feel like the equivalent of space-bound nations, but instead of lingering in the conceptual consequences of the Starkiller destroying a planet, all the fallout is tangible—real. Granted, an entirely valid complaint is that it’s a bit of kitchen sinkism where everything the franchise has ever done in terms of action is thrown at the wall, but with full credit to Johnson, almost all of it sticks.
See the Gears Turning
It’s a returning quibble I had with The Force Awakens where the mechanics of the film were too obvious. Another Stormtrooper smears blood across Finn’s helmet? Well, it’s because we need a way to differentiate him from the rest of the bleached infantry. Kylo keeps smashing his chest in that climactic forest duel? It’s so we understand how two relatively underskilled lightsaber users can keep up with a fully trained combatant.
This comes back in the shape of the Vulptex, those icy little fox creatures that hang out with the Resistance on Crait. They boxed them into the old Alliance base to up the drama of the First Order closing in, cornering them into a mostly assured end. But how to get them out without straight-up beating them? Escape. The only question is how…
It a rule of storytelling that you can get your heroes into trouble through coincidence but you can’t get them out of it with the same sort of shenanigans. But here, as the Resistance is on their last legs with no hope on the horizon (even Luke Skywalker can’t take out all those walkers on his own), these Vulptex reveal an escape route. How utterly convenient. It’s the mechanics showing themselves again, and it feels just shy of lazy.
He fucking rules.
So does Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, and pretty much everyone in the cast. But seriously, Driver, as much as he blew the role out of the water in The Force Awakens with his ability to simultaneously showcase his character’s naive rage and burgeoning, frightening power, is just as good here even though he has less to work with.
They make the wise and symbolic decision, too, to have him smash apart his helmet. It represents his eventual turn away from Snoke but it also shows that his past—the foundation of his character from his heritage to his perceived betrayal at the hands of Luke Skywalker—is the thing that truly powers him. The way he plays it out and his aching, bloodied brooding is a nuance that not many actors can handle.
The Last Jedi is a truly remarkable film. From the art direction to the production to the acting to the base storytelling, it is an achievement. The way it subverts certain expectations is going to rub a lot of fans the wrong way, but it is a movie I could write about for another 3,000 words. But I’ll just leave it here. Leave in the comments your own thoughts about The Last Jedi!