The Last Jedi Carries Star Wars into the Future

In many ways, writing a Star Wars review for a geek-focused site is a fool’s errand. You’re going to see The Last Jedi no matter what I say, or if you aren’t planning to see it, I doubt I will change your mind. Still, this franchise has been my defining geekdom for much of my life, so at the very least I can offer the point of view of a very geeked-out film critic. So, from one student of Star Wars to the rest, I submit to you this view of the latest film. It is a fairly complicated one by Star Wars standards, and that is something remarkable about it.

An X-Wing in battle

X-Wing versus Dreadnought! © 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Opening in a similar way to The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi begins with a First Order assault on the last Resistance stronghold on D’Qar. The battle does not go as planned for the Resistance, and their remnants find themselves in a race against time as General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and his Star Destroyer chase their ragtag fleet and limited fuel across space and hyperspace. The heroes Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) head off in a classically Star Wars–style quest to find the means to stop Hux’s forces.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her conversation with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and learns more about both her own background and those of her would-be rival, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). She discovers some previously unknowns connections, and that’s when things get interesting—the old demons of the Skywalker family show themselves in all their violent glory, and the film makes good use of the struggle that has haunted Luke since losing his hand on Cloud City. The Good versus Evil certainty of the Star Wars universe has never been as gray as it is in The Last Jedi.

Finn and Phasma fighting

Finn (John Boyega) battles Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). © 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Likewise, the thematic elements of trust and betrayal are all over this installment. The hero/scoundrel DJ (Benecio Del Toro), the Resistance’s Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), and even Kylo Ren himself show plenty of duality to keep the audience guessing and the plot moving. For a space-opera series not known for its overall subtlety, director Rian Johnson gets a lot of ambiguity and suspense into what appear to be straightforward Star Wars tropes. Ultimately, the film is most surprising and works the best if you know how the Star Wars story goes; the expectations of the audience are as important as the effects, returning characters, and iconic musical score. The trailer told us it wouldn’t go the way we think it will, and that was not fake news. Seriously, Han shot first.

Kylo Ren contemplates

Kylo Ren ruminates, plots, or mopes. © 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

I suppose it shouldn’t be too surprising that the Force gets a lot of screen time in this episode—probably the most of any film in the entire series to date. Happily, it does this without the midi-chlorian crap that dragged Episodes I through III away from the “magic” of the Force. Luke is only too happy to explain the paradoxes of Jedi philosophy in a way that echoes some of the  traditions that inspire this fantasy faith. Joseph Campbell would probably be proud of Luke’s “dark night of the soul” and existential doubt; he is a twilight warrior who affirms Yoda’s all-but-forgotten reminder that “wars not make one great.” Rey’s powers do grow alongside Ren’s delayed adolescence, and even Supreme Leader Snoke shows off some Force tricks that are new to the Star Wars universe. There’s high-level wizardry on display all over, and the “hokey religion” is shown to be more powerful than ever before. If Rogue One showed us the technomilitary world of the galactic civil war, Episode VIII is firmly in the mystical and fantastic.

Rey with her staff on a rocky cliff

Rey (Daisy Ridley) faces the age-old enemy of the Jedi: rock cairns. Jules Heath/©2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Overall, The Last Jedi is a good film and a solid entry in the overall arc of what is to be known as the Skywalker Saga. The film finds inspiration in all the parts of the previous seven, and that includes parts that have left many fans a bit cold. The fact that it tries to fit everything Star Wars into one film is a valid criticism—it can feel too brisk and like it’s trying too hard at times. The Porgs, charming as they are, fit pretty solidly into the aesthetic that gave us Ewoks, Jar Jar Binks, and the prequel Federation droids. There are plenty other elements for the preteen set, but that’s not a shock for franchise that needs to appeal to younger generations to stay relevant. So perhaps the main opera trilogies will be for all audiences, and the spinoff films will be for the more serious-minded fans. Reported changes on the Han Solo project may reflect this shift in focus at the studios. Regardless, The Last Jedi shows that the franchise is quite willing to change and expand the known universe of Star Wars and also to work alongside the expanded canon of stories. If you haven’t already, I strongly recommend the summaries online that offer CliffsNotes-style versions of all the stories that have been told covering the span between Episode VI and Episode VII. If you have the time, most off these would likely offer plenty of good entertainment and additional depth for the feature films.

Captain Phasma and two Stormtroopers

More of Captain Phasma. David James/©2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

On the technical side, the film is an accomplishment on every level. Some of the lushest and most poetic imagery of any Star Wars film is on display here, and director of photography Steve Yedlin has delivered a truly awesome canvas filled with the best visuals in the Star Wars palette. Performances are solid across the board, with Driver, Ridley, and Hamill all getting the most out of their raging internal dramas. Hamill, in particular, should be credited for the range he brings to this part of the Skywalker story. This older Luke shows much of his father at times. All the space battles and dogfights rage and twirl as expected from the best moments of the earlier installments, though these fights are slightly abbreviated in favor of the character stuff elsewhere. This is a tradeoff that will no doubt leave some fans unimpressed, but they are amazing while they last. (Many will still wonder, though, why the Star Wars space-strategy book is still based on 19th-century Earth tactics.)

There is a moment during the battle of Crait when the new AT-M6 walkers advance across a white field toward a group of entrenched Resistance fighters. The gun emplacements, the trenches, the advancing walkers all point directly to the last stand on Hoth some 33 years earlier. One soldier reaches down and grabs a hand full of the white stuff and puts it in his mouth. “It’s salt,” he says as he spits it out. So it is with the film in its whole: while there is plenty that is recognizable, do not expect things in this film to go the way they always have. There are big changes afoot in the galaxy, and this film has set the stage for generations to come, for the first time looking far, far, ahead and seeing as far into the future as it once looked into the past.

AT-M6 walkers advancing

AT-M6 walkers, along with Kylo’s Shuttle, not on Hoth. © 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The Star Wars story encircles all worlds, all beings, and the entirety of the Force for the first time in 40 years. This is no doubt something of the hope that Princess Leia whispered into R2-D2 all those decades ago—which is maybe all the more powerful now that it is clear the mythology of this galaxy may well outlive all of us.

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