While The Last Jedi is not the Star Wars film I expected, it is the Star Wars film I did not know I wanted.
At this point, Star Wars has been part of my life for as long as I have been aware of movies. The first film came out when I was seven years old, and since then, I have been able to track major milestones in my life using Star Wars as a point of reference. It is, in many ways, one of the central texts of my life as a film fan. I’ve written more words about Star Wars than anything else in my career, including an entire book about how to share the series with your kids called You’re Watching It Wrong, and I’ve spent plenty of time thinking and talking about the entire series. The release of a new Star Wars film is a major cultural event, and even more so in my house. Now that I have kids who are crazy about the films, it’s a generational thing. We all get excited, and we share the experience now, enjoying these movies together, and in some ways, my kids have surpassed me in fandom, watching the TV shows and reading the books and filling me in on things that I would otherwise never know. Honestly, I’d started making peace with the fact that these things do not belong to me anymore, and I was feeling myself start to finally let go of the hype. Over the last few months, I’ve had a curiosity about The Last Jedi, but I didn’t feel that same urgency, that old familiar mania. Even once the day of the screening arrived, I had other business during the day, and that was my primary concern.
It wasn’t until the lights went down and the film began with those same familiar touchstones — Lucasfilm logo, “A long time ago,” and then the orchestra strike and the yellow outlined letters giving way to the opening scroll — that I finally felt that old familiar excitement. Just a hint of it. And then the film began. And very quickly, it became clear that Rian Johnson is a fan of all of Star Wars, including the old ‘70s Marvel comics and the Ewok movies for TV. His is a pure and focused love. It is Star Wars fandom writ large, in a way that I did not feel from JJ Abrams. I thought Abrams approached this franchise the same way he approached Star Trek. What are the things that are most important to Star Wars? What things make it feel like Star Wars? How do you create a new ongoing series that honors the original, but moves forward at the same time? Honestly, there was no greater big-budget storytelling tightrope to walk than figuring out how to launch the new series. Abrams did exactly what he needed to do, and his real gift seems to be casting movies and creating characters that hook audiences. Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron managed to genuinely resonate with a whole new world of fandom, launching Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac to a new level of stardom and turning Adam Driver into a credible bad guy. The Force Awakens got all of the balls in the air, but The Last Jedi is something else entirely. This is a film made by someone who is expressing his love of all things Star Wars by inventing new pieces to the puzzle, something that may not sit easily with all fans of the franchise, but that is absolutely essential.
Like the serialized storytelling that inspired Star Wars in the first place, there is a nearly breathless sense of invention here from the moment it begins. The First Order has discovered the hiding place of the Resistance and they have arrived to destroy their hideout. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is back and even toadier this time, constantly gloating about his impending successes before inevitably failing, and he continues to bow and scrape to Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). As the Resistance frantically evacuates the planet, Poe Dameron (Isaac) leads a foolhardy attack that buys them some time, and once again, Isaac scores some big laughs by openly mocking the bad guys. It’s a very busy opening sequence, and one of the things I like about The Last Jedi (and Rogue One) is the way war feels like it has human consequence in these films. New Star Wars seems determined to underline the cost of war, and while Rian is very aware of the central role that comedy plays in this franchise, that melancholy distinguishes The Last Jedi and makes it feel like it matters that little bit more. It’s not until the end of this big, harrowing opening that we finally jump back to the moment that ended the previous film, finding Luke (Mark Hamill) on his remote island on his remote planet, face-to-face with Rey (Ridley), who has brought him his long-lost lightsaber. Watching how Johnson handles the conclusion of that moment tells you a lot about how he plans to handle Luke Skywalker in general, and here’s where I feel like the series zagged at the exact moment anyone else would have zigged.
There’s a meta-textual narrative that’s playing out in these movies, and I’m not sure how much is intentional and how much is simply the result of the relationship we have to Star Wars in pop culture. You can read Kylo Ren as a comment on fandom and its tendency to elevate bad guys to a place of worship, and you can also read Rey as an example of what has to happen to the series overall if it’s going to speak to a diverse 21st century audience, someone new and different than the white guy heroes who blew the happy ending of 30 years ago. With The Last Jedi, that meta-text gets even more interesting, and if you’re married to fan theories about the origins of Rey or the history of the Jedi or the background of Snoke, you’re going to feel roughly handled here. Simply put, Rian Johnson doesn’t care about your fan theories. He’s got his own story to tell, and he’s going to tell it. And, yes, the story of the Skywalker family is obviously the central story of the primary Star Wars saga, but this is the first film that dares to point at a future where that will not be true, and perhaps the most thrilling idea that’s in play here is the idea that we have reached the end of something and it’s time for whatever’s new, an idea that feels antithetical to a series that depends on nostalgia as a way of maintaining its cultural currency. There’s also the way The Force Awakens mirrors the 1977 film with The Last Jedi reacting directly to people’s expectations that this will be a retread of The Empire Strikes Back.
As usual, there are several stories playing out on several fronts, and part of the pleasure of these movies is seeing who they pair up and send on side adventures. Finn (Boyega), Poe Dameron, Leia (Carrie Fisher), and the newly-introduced Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) are in one storyline, contending with the oncoming threat of the First Order and the questionable leadership of Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). In the other main storyline, Rey struggles to get Luke to step into the role of teacher, frustrated by his resolution to stay out of whatever’s happening. There’s a reason for that, of course, and there’s a dance going on between both Rey and Luke, and between Rey and Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo, who is apparently connected to her now by some sort of Force connection. Why? What is the bond between them, and what does it mean about Rey’s future?
My favorite thing about The Last Jedi is the way it boldly reclaims some of the core concepts of the series, throwing off any number of ideas that have irritated fans over the years by simple brute storytelling force. Johnson has made big choices here, and those choices are going to resonate through any film that comes after this. Without specifying, I’ll just say that he’s almost completely burned down something that has been a problem with Star Wars since 1999, and watching how he does it is genuinely impressive. This is what happens when you give the reigns to someone who cared deeply about the story as it was being told. It feels like he has to tell this story, and it also feels like the fate of each of these characters is very important to him. He’s not just moving things around hoping for big kicks and set pieces.
Johnson was given the chance to write the return of Luke Skywalker, and the way he handled it was by taking the character to a place that even threw Mark Hamill at first. There is a fearlessness to youth that only becomes clear with age, and as I close in on 50 and look back at my life, I am amazed at how fearless I was at a certain point, and how much of a constant companion fear has become at this point. The more you have to lose, the more people depend on you, the more you work for what you have, the higher the stakes. It is easy to let experience push us past caution to weakness, and it’s understandable. Once we have lost something that matters to us, or once we have destroyed something we love by mistake, or once we have disappointed the ones who we want to protect, we become bruised by it, and we overreact. There is an acceptance that is important to living a healthy life, an acknowledgement of our own flaws and imperfections, and if we can’t accept those things, we cannot learn from them. The wisdom of The Last Jedi is very different than the wisdom of The Empire Strikes Back, and it represents a genuine moment of growth for the saga. We are not simply repeating the same mistakes and the same lessons over and over, and that is what matters most, Johnson seems to be saying.
And, yeah, it’s fun. I love the Star Wars that exists in the margins, the weird aliens and the strange other planets and the new ships and the different cultures, and Johnson positively ladles it on. Porgs have gotten a lot of pre-release attention, and I’m pleased to see how they are used in the actual film, simply as texture instead of as an overbearing joke. They are just one of dozens if not hundreds of new things we see as the film races from one setting to another. One of the things that always distinguished Mark Hamill’s work was how authentically he seemed to fit into the world of Star Wars. He believed it completely, and that translated to us believing it completely. If you watch the way he interacts with props or spaceship controls or wardrobe, he always managed to make it feel like he was just going through mundane normal life. It’s a subtle thing, but it is important, and watching him go through his daily life on the isolated planet of Ahch-To, that gift is still on full display. Daisy Ridley has the same knack, and as soon as she baked her instant bread and sat eating her meal in the shade of a fallen AT-AT while goofing around in a pilot’s helmet, I knew she was the right choice to play Rey.
I do have some reservations. I think Ridley is tasked with playing some things here that do not seem to be part of her palette at the moment, and it actively defuses some of the tension for me. It’s hard to know exactly how to pinpoint why it doesn’t connect completely, but it’s the kind of thing that will have to be discussed more once the entire film is fair game. And on that note, do not get too hung up on spoilers for the movie; there are surprises, sure, and you should try to preserve as many of them for your theatrical experience as possible, but there is also an inevitability to the big broad strokes of the film. It is what you think it is, story-wise, but it is not what you think it is, character-wise. That’s the meat of the film, and you have to watch it to see how that all plays out and whether it works for you.
Because Johnson makes big choices, not everything he does is going to work for everyone. Driver, who I have really learned to appreciate in the last few years, is keenly aware of what is expected of him here, and he’s doing iconic work. Oscar Isaac, who we should all prepare to watch for decades to come, gets to score both big laugh and cheer moments throughout, and there’s this weird joy to the way he plays the role that makes it feel like Poe just happens to love everybody in the Resistance fiercely, including his droid. The new additions, including Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, and Benicio Del Toro, all fit nicely into the world and add interesting colors to the overall picture. Johnson knows he has to sketch quickly, and so things like wardrobe and affectations of speech become really important in defining characters. He does a great job of making it feel like these are important additions, and one of the things that comes through most clearly from the film as a whole is that he believes in the idea that we are at our best when we take strength in one another. He wants it to be clear that the Resistance isn’t just Leia or Luke or Rey or Poe. The Resistance is an idea, a belief, a determination that there is a right way to do things and it is worth fighting for, and that idea is something that can live within anyone. Heroes are everywhere, and they are defined by thousands of choices that push a movement forward. Johnson even loves his bad guys, and he makes nice use of both his most prominent characters and his supporting cast, including Serkis in his mo-cap role as Snoke, and Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma.
John Williams remains the heart and soul of the Star Wars franchise, contributing a score that ties the new and the old together in a brilliant way, and Johnson’s regular collaborators make a seamless jump into the galaxy far, far away. Steve Yedlin’s photography is terrific, and the film is filled with genuinely thrilling Star Wars iconography. Bob Ducsay’s editorial hand is confident during the biggest moments and quirky in some of the smallest moments. There are real chances taken in terms of storytelling technique, and I love the adventurousness of it. This is one of my favorite things Rick Heinrichs has done as a production designer, and he’s captured the feeling of Star Wars in details both large and small. At two-and-a-half hours, it’s a lot of movie, and it definitely feels like there’s some stuff in the middle of the film that is a digression. But that digression allows Johnson to take the series in directions that I didn’t expect, and that is thrilling considering how many times in the last 34 years I was convinced I would never really see another Luke and Leia adventure. There are moments here that are so great, so central to the series now, that it’s hard to honestly digest it quickly.
What is clear above all is that Star Wars is in good hands, and that the series retains the ability to both give us what we crave and surprise us with choices, and that is good news, indeed. Everything else comes down to just how important this ongoing saga is for you, and if you have ever been transported by the series, brace yourself. This is the good stuff, straight from the tap, and you may find yourself drunk on it, all the mileage simply shaken off, that old love rekindled and burning bright again. I’m not done with Star Wars after all, because Star Wars certainly isn’t done with me.
Running time: 152 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic