The Last Jedi
Starring Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker
Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa
Adam Driver as Kylo Ren
Daisy Ridley as Rey
John Boyega as Finn
Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron
Directed by Rian Johnson
When Star Wars: The Force Awakens opened two years ago it was met with incredible box office and rapturous reviews with many calling it the best film of the saga since The Empire Strikes Back, while also citing how much it recycled elements from the first Star Wars film. Remove The Force Awakens from that sentence and replace it with The Last Jedi and you will have pretty much the same effect, which raises the question of how much of the response to these films comes from the films themselves and how much from what viewers want them to be and project onto them. This isn’t merely an academic question either; it’s the central dramatic conflict of The Last Jedi itself.
Picking up seconds after the end of The Force Awakens, we find young Rey (Ridley) face to face with the titular Last Jedi, long missing Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Hamill). The meeting is not at all what she has been expecting as Skywalker refuses to conform to her expectations of him. As she spends more time with him in an attempt to learn the secrets of the Jedi, a burgeoning telepathic connection with the anguished Kylo Ren (an excellent Driver) reveals a similar disappointment, one which eventually gave rise to the villainous First Order. Slowly, Rey must ask herself how much of Skywalker and the Jedi’s reputation she was creating in her own mind (a reality Luke continually attempts to puncture), and if she was wrong about that, has she been wrong about Kylo and the Dark Side as well?
There’s more going on than that; quite a lot more. At 150 minutes The Last Jedi is the longest film in the series, probably 30 minutes longer than it needs to be. Writer-director Rian Johnson (taking on his first Star Wars film but surely not his last) is clearly most interested with the Luke/Rey/Kylo triangle and the depths of ambiguity it allows for (not coincidentally it is home to the strongest dramatic conflict and deepest characterization in the film, particularly as it delves into Ren’s background), but that sort of development requires time. So, as Rey and company stew in their increasingly complicated juices something must be found for former Stormtrooper Finn (Boyega), ace flyboy Poe Dameron (Isaacs) and weary Resistance leader Leia Organa (Fisher) to do. And something is indeed what they do, but the exact specifics are a complex mess which never really gels, though it does allow some development for Isaac’s Dameron, who barely appeared in the last film (he was originally slated to die in the first act before a last minute reprieve which meant Johnson had to work quickly during pre-production to figure out what to do with him); he strains against the perceived conservative leadership of General Organa, another case of perceptions running into reality.
Boyega on the other hand gets lost in extensive MacGuffin work which bogs down much of the middle of The Last Jedi. After being run out of their last base, the Resistance fleet is busy escaping from the First Order after it has somehow taken over the galaxy between the last two films (according to the opening scroll) despite one film picking up directly after the other. In order to survive and rebuild their forces (even after emerging victorious after destroying the Starkiller Base, which again occurred mere moments before the current film), the Resistance needs a master codebreaker from a nearby casino planet in order to disable the main First Order ship. Exactly how that works is neither clear nor necessary because little comes of it – though it does introduce us to Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose and Benecio del Toro’s DJ, both of whom bring much needed life to the film’s mid-section – it is merely a scene setter to get all the players to the deserted Crait where speeders will do battle with giant walkers.
Many sequences in The Last Jedi are clearly descended from The Empire Strikes Back, except for the ones descended from Return of the Jedi, though unlike The Force Awakens, Johnson mixes and matches with great skill, upsetting expectations as often as he plays into them. While Johnson plays the nostalgia card as willingly as previous director J.J. Abrams did, he is also cannier about when and how to implement it. He’s also an abler visual director and if he does fall back on ‘scene X from the original trilogy but more so’ the more so is really, really more so.
Making a film he is a fan of as much as a filmmaker results in Johnson employing metatextual commentary on the Star Wars story itself within the film as individuals from all corners of the galaxy become somehow more and more aware of the big players and events around them and begin to imagine themselves taking part very much the way fans of the series have since the franchise began. More importantly, from the fan perspective, it uses that motive to refocus the series onto classic fan desires (beyond superficial ones like puppets and practical effects) such as undoing messianic themes in favor of the idea that anyone with dreams could eventually become a Jedi, a hero, what have you, your lineage is immaterial.
The draw of such ideas is obvious. What’s less obvious is if it’s possible to build a sustainable narrative around them, because the same demand requires such deep nostalgia baiting. Not all of that is Johnson’s fault – he has inherited the issue as much as anything else and it’s unclear whether his story can ever overcome the ontological sin of returning to the status quo off-screen or if anyone even wants to. As much as The Last Jedi wants to be about the passing of the torch between generations, it also wants to be about replaying those greatest hits, and those are two contrasting ideas which may not be able to inhabit the same space. And if they can’t, which will be rejected?
There is only one film left in this sequel trilogy which is not a lot of time to invest with the idea that all of this will somehow come together or that the series will move beyond what has been done before as much as it sometimes threatens to. But maybe it doesn’t matter, as long as the series is able to generate such uniform celebration by just replaying its greatest hits in different iterations then what reason could there be for offering more?