This article contains light spoilers for The Last Jedi.
What is a Star Wars film? One thing it is not, and hasn’t been since May of 1977, is solely George Lucas’. Despite his claims over decades of interviews, Star Wars is not an intensely personal work inexorably tied to a single creator, but a vast mythology spanning numerous collaborators, mediums and fans. Being charitable, Star Wars is our modern mythology, up there with the Western, the detective film, the comic book superhero and so on. Undoubtedly, Star Wars is an institution, a franchise that is arguably the most popular in the world, a property that means so much to so many. With that much popularity and influence, every new Star Wars film bears a weight of almost crushing responsibility, to be as many things to as many people as possible. For better or worse (I personally think the former), JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens (‘15), which was then the first new Star Wars movie made in a decade, took on this responsibility, and successfully rekindled the popularity of the series. The story that that film told, buried as it was under nostalgic iconography, was of a young generation discovering that the sins of their elders had returned to menace them, and how the veterans of an old conflict discover that assuming the war has been won has blinded them to a new threat. It was a vibrant and vital film to reboot the franchise, reminding old fans why they fell in love with it while progressively bringing in new ones. 2016’s Rogue One was a bold break from the Star Wars mold, a boots-on-the-ground look at people on the fringes of the main Rebel Alliance/Galactic Empire conflict who commit themselves to a cause and an ideal in the face of near overwhelming adversity. Despite it feeling like no other entry before or since, Rogue One, by virtue of being set in the past, still carried a large amount of nostalgia. Whether intentionally or not, writer-director Rian Johnson must have understood that Episode VIII would be a film that had to forge a new path for the series, unable to just continue coasting on the visuals and structural templates of the prior films. The resulting movie, The Last Jedi, is a marvel in that it successfully pays homage to Star Wars’ traditions while forging a bold new path.
Along with Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One, The Last Jedi examines the reality (as much as possible in a science-fiction/fantasy setting) of the “wars” in Star Wars. For the most part, battle scenes in the prior films have either been grand and mythic (as in the prequels) or urgent and chaotic (the original trilogy). Our heroes have been down many times before, but The Last Jedi allows the Resistance to feel legitimately desperate. Each battle scene in the film isn’t primarily geared for thrills and cool visual tableaux (though there are plenty of them), but rather to emphasize the precarious position the Resistance is in. With the First Order’s forces constantly bearing down on them with all the efficiency and officiousness of fascism, Johnson never misses an opportunity to show the Resistance soldiers down on their luck. The opening battle scene evokes “bombing run” scenes in films like Tora! Tora! Tora! (‘70) and Dr. Strangelove (‘64), and the final battle is like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk in space, where the soldiers must find victory in defeat. There’s a moment where a character sacrifices themselves to turn the tide of battle that’s so jaw dropping emotionally and visually, that it sent a sold out IMAX audience into stunned silence. More so than any Star Wars before it, The Last Jedi emphasizes that the Resistance is more about a cause, an ideal, and is not just a rag-tag group of “good guys” with endless resources and personnel.
It’s that theme that resonates throughout the movie, best embodied in its primary characters. Or, more accurately, found by the primary characters, as each of them undergo a crisis and trial through which their beliefs are challenged and changed. Our core trio of new heroes, Rey (Daisy Ridley, sublime), Finn (John Boyega, eminently likeable) and Poe (Oscar Issac, an endless fount of charisma) each find themselves upended, their determinism to do what they believe is the right thing blowing up (often literally) in their face. Conversely, our veteran heroes General Leia (Carrie Fisher, impossibly regal in her final performance), Master Luke (Mark Hamill, giving his character the most dimension he’s ever had) and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, giving life to a new instant classic character) know best, yet their methodologies are as problematic as anything, causing more harm than good. Fortunately for the Resistance, there is a common person who can help the cause move forward in the right direction: Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran. An engineer who between battles prevents people from cowardly defecting (aggressively, at that), she and Finn go on a journey that allows her to see the true cause of the Resistance: fighting for something, not just against an enemy. It’s a revelation that’s utterly elegant and simple, and yet within the context of the film and the series, completely upending.
It’s that sly reversal of expectation that makes The Last Jedi so vibrant, and, sadly, so condemned by a multitude of fans (as seen in the online response to the film during its opening weekend). Everything from Rey’s confrontation with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, emerging as an even more dynamic actor than previously seen) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, voice and body language dripping with evil as ever) to her training with Luke to the Resistance’s escape from danger “isn’t going to go the way you think”, as Luke says to Rey. It’s these reversals and reveals that has caused so many people to cry foul, to demand better “payoff”, based on the years of expectation and fan theories and personal ideas they’ve had in the years between films. However, that payoff exists, and it’s within the film itself. There are several moments and scenes that, upon first watch, seem superfluous, aimless, even purposeless. What makes them work at the end of it all is that, unlike, say, Obi-Wan’s journey to Camino in Attack Of The Clones (‘02), which exists purely to serve that film’s plot but is a lengthy and dull digression, all of the major scenes and plot lines serve The Last Jedi’s theme of moving on. Moving beyond conflict for conflicts’ sake, beyond labels, beyond protocol, beyond the self. It’s an ethos that certainly can apply to the world’s current political climate, but the sentiment of forging a new path while honoring a legacy definitely applies to franchise filmmaking. There have been some bold, exciting, vibrant films made this year alone that have been derided for daring to be different and challenging by an entitled fandom. It’s a cycle that needs to stop, for in clinging to the past so rigidly, many of these fans are missing some truly delightful things.
Are there elements of the movie that are flawed? Sure. It might have a awkward joke or two, it might make an offputting editing decision, it might have its cute CGI creatures be too on-the-nose sympathetic, it might bring back a certain character from The Force Awakens that doesn’t make that character any more interesting or worthwhile than they were in that film. But overall, it’s exceedingly rare to have such a huge blockbuster film as this be so thematically sound, with something honest and inspiring to say. It’s time to recognize and appreciate Star Wars not for what it was, nor for what you think it is, but what it is now, and what it still can be. 40 years on from the release of the original film, George Lucas’ vision has now been passed on to all of us, and rather than look back in anger at what was or wasn’t with the story being told to us, I wish to stare up at the night sky and dream of a future ripe with possibilities.