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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

January 4, 2018

I’ve seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi twice now. I had initially planned to rush out a hasty review, but I knew I wanted to see it again, and now here we are. Here are my thoughts on the latest Star Wars movie:

“Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to.”

This Kylo Ren line has been getting a lot run in the deluge of reviews and think-pieces written in the wake of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth numbered episode in the saga. This one from Yoda is just as good:

“We are what they grow beyond. That is the burden of all masters.”

Whichever you prefer, each is a nice one-off line that also serves as a meta-message to the audience in today’s self-aware blockbuster age. With as much lore and time-tested fan devotion as Star Wars has, a very important question now and moving forward will be—how much does “new Star Wars” have to resemble “old Star Wars” to still be good? The Last Jedi while still paying clear fealty to the original trilogy, seems to have primed the franchise to grow beyond its master.

Along this line of thinking, The Force Awakens was a mixed bag. I loved it, but at times, the parallels to the original classic were so surface-level, that it felt like Star Wars Mad Libs. Despite delivering a thrilling, energetic reintroduction to the saga, it still ruffled some feathers. If The Force Awakens felt like an announcement that Star Wars would eventually jump light years ahead with its new batch of characters, The Last Jedi feels like the franchise finally being ready to burst down the door to a new, broader Star Wars universe. Mission accomplished. The world is now a Star Wars sandbox, and we’re all just living in it.

To unpack everything that’s great about The Last Jedi is to consider the possibility that it is the greatest Star Wars movie to date, period. On the other hand, to unpack all the things that weren’t so great, would be to consider that it is more on par with the prequel trilogy. It’s not perfect, but The Last Jedi reaches a few rarefied heights that allow it to transcend any unevenness and land among the better Star Wars movies so far.

The story picks up immediately after the end of The Force Awakens. The Resistance is on the run, much as it was at the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back; meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on Ahch-To trying to convince Luke Skywalker to teach her about the Force and rejoin the Resistance. Poe (Oscar Isaac) enters into a power struggle with Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), following an attack that leaves Leia incapacitated. Finn (John Boyega), BB-8, and Rose (franchise newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) set off search for an ally who can help the Resistance evade the First Order. Kylo Ren is coming to grips with his place within said First Order.

One of the great things about this movie is how jam-packed with interesting ideas it is. On the flip side, with so much going on, the good stuff is sometimes crowded out by less worthy distractions. For every triumphant Luke Skywalker or Rey moment, we have to cut back to Finn’s aforementioned dead-end quest, which amounts to little more than a MacGuffin. For every stunning revelation about the Force (and there are a few doozies), there is a clunky reference to God, Hell, or other Earthly nomenclature that feels really out of place in a Star Wars movie. The movie’s very structure itself is odd, as the prime thread, the Resistance fleet struggling to evade the First Order, feels like the van tumbling off the bridge in Inception. It basically lasts the entire the runtime, yet barely goes anywhere. The timeline feels unnecessarily compact in a way that cannot be avoided when the characters are constantly reminding the audience exactly how many hours of fuel the Resistance has left (that’s a nit-pick, but hey).

And yet, it’s far far away from being all bad. Dern and Benicio del Toro are tremendous additions to the cast. Dern as Holdo, stepping in for Leia, is introduced early on as a potential heavy who pulls rank with Poe, but later proves to be a true wartime general if there ever was one. Her maneuver at the end of the film was a real cinematic stunner, and it was a joy to experience that moment in two different packed theaters. It was an instantly iconic moment, even if it does raise tricky questions like, “why haven’t they always done that?” Del Toro plays a quirky codebreaker, who’s assistance is needed to disable the First Order’s tracking systems. While “new Star Wars” has been positively vibrant thus far, bursting with wonderful new additions, it’s a small shame that we aren’t likely to see either of these characters (or the great actors portraying them), not to mention Luke and Leia, in future installments. Here’s hoping stars of their caliber continue to be involved in these movies.

Speaking of stars and things that are great, The Last Jedi serves as the swan song for Carrie Fisher’s Leia, who has been one of the defining elements of the franchise since 1977. Rest In Peace, Carrie Fisher, you are a legend, and it was great to see you in action one more time. I don’t care what people say about that flying scene, I thought it was awesome.

Star Wars The Last Jedi IMAX Poster

Those who clamor loudly for “old Star Wars” will undoubtedly scratch their heads over the implications of the breakthroughs in Force knowledge in The Last Jedi. Rey and Kylo Ren (or “Ben” as he is often referred to in this one) share a telepathic connection that goes well beyond anything we’ve seen before (shout out to whoever coined the phrase “ForceTime”). The reveal of Rey’s parentage suggests that there are many more potential Force-users out there than previously hinted. This promises to be a key development that should eventually allow future episodes to disentangle themselves from the Skywalker family drama entirely.

The Last Jedi is both darker and sillier than Star Wars has ever been. It opens and closes with the weight of harrowing wartime sacrifices rivaling those in Rogue One, and yet it also comes bearing porgs, crystal foxes, and other relentlessly cute galactic fauna. Finn’s MacGuffin Quest takes him, Rose, and BB-8 to Canto Bright, the swanky interplanetary gambling destination. Visually, it evokes some combination of locations from the prequels including Naboo and Coruscant. Narratively, it exists to give Finn something to do, allow a stampede of alien racehorses to trash a casino, and have BB-8 act like a slot machine. The BB-8 gag, and a few others, like characters getting hit in the head by objects being moved by the force, and a sinister piece of tech that turns out to be a clothes iron for First Order uniforms, would fit right into a Spaceballs sequel (The Schwartz Awakens… you’re welcome). The balance struck between the serious and the comical feels a little closer to that of Attack Of The Clones than Empire Strikes BackFortunately now, with Adam Driver we have a more interesting depiction of young male angst than we did in episodes II and III.

Speaking of Adam Driver, his Kylo is easily the best mega-budget movie villain to come around in some time, and possibly the best one Star Wars has ever had. In the original trilogy, we had to infer that there might be some lingering conflict within Darth Vader. With Kylo Ren, he’s always so conflicted, that we never really know what he’s going to do next. Despite his acting like a spoiled adolescent (replete with temper tantrums), we don’t really know what he wants. His gaze extends beyond what we’re used to seeing from villains. In The Force Awakenshe killed his father. This time around, he finds himself at odds with two additional father figures, Luke and Supreme Leader Snoke. He is intent on purging his demons left and right, and without discrimination. Maybe it’s Oedipal (thinking… he does spare his mother… hmm), or more likely he just has no tolerance for being governed by anything from his past. Either way, at least it’s intriguing and a little refreshing. Kylo finishes the movie with a bit of a clean slate. Finding out what he does with it, and how Rey figures in, is easily the most intriguing arc that will presumably be picked up in Episode IX. Were it not for Luke and Rey, Adam Driver would own this movie. He might own it anyway.

Along with Kylo, Luke and Rey are the best elements of The Last JediAs much as I have loved his voice work, this latest grizzled version of Luke Skywalker is probably the best Mark Hamill has ever been. His character arc isn’t likely to surprise you. He is Rey’s cranky, reluctant mentor, but Hamill brings a warmth to the role that feels true to the character (despite what Hamill has said IRL) and fits perfectly with the new movie.

Daisy Ridley returns as Rey, and once again, she is one of the highlights of the movie. What a find she has turned out to be. Rey is a worthy hero for this trilogy and really knows how to handle both action, comedy, and everything else these movies are throwing at her.

With the proverbial lifting of the velvet rope around the Force, and one of the most inspiring and open-ended finishes the series has seen, The Last Jedi almost feels as though it could The Last Star Wars Movie. Kylo and Rey have unfinished business, but no other part of Episode VIII calls strongly for a direct sequel. Nonetheless, a sequel we shall receive. Perhaps the trilogy-capper will dispense with the unnecessary over-complication of its story and develop a bit more of a laser-focus on the best stuff. It would do well to jettison the digressions and empty MacGuffins in favor of exploring the stories and mysteries that Star Wars is seems to be ramping up to. The original trilogy wasn’t perfect, but was much leaner than what everything that has come since, and there’s a lesson in there, somewhere. I hope that lesson is learned, because New Star Wars is definitely here to stay. The Last Jedi mostly succeeds in charting a new path into the future, and, like Kylo Ren, ushering its past slowly into oblivion.

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