There’s really no good reason to treat this coming onslaught of words in the manner of any traditional review. But let’s just get this out of the way before anything else; I absolutely adore Rian Johnson’s initial foray into the world of Star Wars. Meaning, since the moment the announcement of his directorial duties for the follow up to JJ Abrams’ 2015 revival, instantly I began to glow with anticipation. A cinema classicist with a penchant for novel twists, and unexpected human drama seemed an inspired fit for everyone’s favorite galaxy far, far away. Thankfully, as I write these words out, there is a spring in my step and so much John Williams music in my heart as it has more than delivered for this one-time toddler of Star Wars.
Let’s be wholly clear;
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is for me the first genuine, to the bones SW adventure in nearly thirty seven years, and is a perfect reclamation of the property after years of collective misunderstanding, and fetishization.
For once, it isn’t a film about SW’s place in pop culture. It isn’t merely two and a half hours of mindless service, or marketing for toys that will no doubt be strewn across the floor at your local Target. From start to finish, it is a film strictly about people and their choices, and what those choices mean for the future of their kind. Even more importantly, this is a story of one generation’s mishandling of history, and the future’s need to reconcile with that history in order to create a new one. (Even if it means acknowledging the mistakes made along the way) Gone, is the simple reliance upon lightsabers, abuse of Force power, and blood lineage to sell a story. When the film begins with the Resistance already in a dire escape situation as the First Order closes in with legions behind them, we are given a vision of the rebellion with greater focus on the small sacrifices that are made in order for General Leia Organa(Carrie Fisher), and friends could live to see another day. It is in these moments peppered with moments of simple mortal valor, that we are again reminded of both the stakes and costs of this ongoing struggle. More than sheer spectacle, we are made privy of what it took to get out by a hair. Best represented by a lone bombadier’s last act of bravery.
This thread of sacrifice over self-aggrandized power fantasy continues the moment we return to TFA’s final moment on the island, where Rey is seen handing an aged, hermitic Luke Skywalker his long lost lightsaber. What happens in response to Abrams’ in many ways bizarrely staged branch moment, is an appropriate one ending in Skywalker unwilling to help Rey as she pleads for the once legendary Jedi master’s help in turning the tide against the First Order. As the somewhat haggard look on Luke’s face indicates, this is the face of a man long haunted by things he could not avoid, nor properly stop. The young would-be student, in utter confusion, also finds herself inexplicably linked to a still recovering Kylo Ren(Adam Driver), which further tinkers with past ideas of destiny, as well as sets us up for some much needed course-correction for the saga.
And when I mean course-correction, let me again clarify. It is no real secret that Abrams’ entire filmography, no matter how in the moment entertaining it could be, often is so because there is little reason for a lot of what is happening. As much good mileage as he tends to get by casting amazing talent, and creating memorable moments of sensory panache, there is often an emptiness to a lot of it. And a lot of this tends to be by design. It’s a methodology largely popular with commercials. As long as there is a hook, there is the potential for drama. What, of course tends to happen when this is the only focus, we tend to be distracted to another complication before any of us have time to clock that nothing of any true consequence has truly happened. Not so with Johnson, who if anything believes wholeheartedly in setup and payoff. Even the opening scene, with its resistance heroism and sacrifice, sets us up for both the coming leadership changes for the fleet, but in the introduction of maintenance crewmember, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), who’s fresh addition to the heroic ensemble again emphasizes the Resistance as an entity comprised of everyday beings without benefit of unreasonable amounts of power.
Through the adventure of Finn(John Boyega), and Rose, we are not only taken on what is some of the new saga’s more lighthearted adventure material, but we are also granted a window into the Star Wars saga’s truest unsung bastions of hope; the young and downtrodden on the ground, longing for a better life. Children whose only hope of change lie in stories of bravery and pluck. Much like those kids, I myself can thoroughly resonate with this illustration as a child of the late 1970s and early 80s, yearning for a life beyond a region most well known for Cesar Chavez, and the migrant movement. While conditions may not have been as severe as that of the kids we see here, there is such a clarity of understanding on Johnson’s part regarding the original generation who grew up on these films. What it meant to them, even as the parents at the time felt they were doing everything they could to help make things better for us. As such, Finn, and Rose, become something of a window into that world, while both grow into becoming players in a conflict that is so much larger than the two of them. This window also extends to those just outside the conflict, which evokes our current era where divisions have become so sharp, that the pull to see onesself as above or beyond the conflict at your doorstep.
The film’s ultimate concerns with efficient expectations of the future versus the handmade rigor of those willing to grant their all to an uncertain one, are made explicit when Rey, is at last brought by Kylo to the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke(Andy Serkis). And it is where the audience is at last ready to face two years’ worth of internet riddling questions and debates, only to have it all handily obliterated in what is both a fun remix of the finale of ROTJ, and a powerful statement on the nature of fandom at its most dogmatic. As exciting as it may be to wield a laser sword to face down upon your enemies, it is far more engrossing when we face our fears and acknowledge places we’re eager to go, as well as won’t. Every exchange between the former Ben Solo, and unexpected element, Rey, has led to a moment where all that remains is fire, and a surprisingly satisfying reply to an occasionally unwelcome myriad of fan bait.threads. It doesn’t matter what those answers were. What matters, is what these two intend to do with what each other knows. What are they truly about?
And what most energizes me about these questions? The realization that so much of what goes haywire in the lives of these characters, is due to either flying off the handle without proper information. Or long enough hesitation, that someone else takes the shot for you. This is perhaps TLJ’s biggest secret weapon. Even characters we empathize or wish to win, find themselves making hasty decisions that often mean costly repercussions. This includes dashing Resistance ace pilot, Poe Dameron(Oscar Isaacs), who’s antics occasionally save the day, at times run headlong into unnecessary pain and sacrifice. Much like generations past, there is a spectre of guilt that hovers over the proceedings, as if to remind us that a good deal of such emotions is precisely what led to the rise of the First Order in the first place. Hindsight, at long last coming home to roost.
Most importantly on the topic of Luke’s one time teaching of a young Ben Solo. A boy with an innate gift, but nowhere near the necessary amount of guidance. It turns out that yet another case of not properly considering the situation is what led to Skywalker’s failure. It is only in confiding this to Rey, as well as a surprise meeting with an old friend long gone, that he at last begins to better understand the role of the elder in the face of such great change. Is he truly the last Jedi? Is this the end of the Resistance? Does it matter? What is capable of growing out from all this?
This is a film largely about the past coming to terms with its role in the fragmentation of their world, and what it means to help the future shoulder the struggles ahead. The Baby Boomers, have had their shot. And the Xers, have long been swerving in wayward directions. Generations afterward, are now assuming roles we once took for granted, and are now seeing possibilities we never imagined possible. And a great deal of The Last Jedi, is nothing if not about the reclamation of Star Wars from the oblivion of birthright myths, close gates, racial and gender bias. If The Force Awakens, was a hint of what was now possible with a rebellion of all backgrounds and beliefs, The Last Jedi triples down, settling in no uncertain terms that this Star Wars, is the world’s Star Wars. And that we are stronger by way of our differences. And that The Force, is always within reach. Just as long as we breathe. Let it in. Trust that all is capable of balance. The Last Jedi, at last takes a longview of our struggles of the past, and posits that it takes more than legends to move galaxies. It takes plurality, action, and unwavering heart. Greater still, Johnson doesn't stop at pithy platitudes, and illustrates how none of this comes terribly easy for any of us.
This is the real deal. A Star Wars movie about finding peace and purpose with respect to the past, and a reverence for those out there yearning for a voice. An emotional culmination decades in the making, and one of the most satisfying pieces of franchise filmmaking ever constructed. And make no mistake, this is a film for 2017 as a whole. It is a call to attention while the world stands on a precipice of falling over a cliff due to a popular inability to let go. The Last Jedi, exists as a reminder that the future requires the ears, hearts, and hands of all in order to ensure that the far more colorful world we now see, becomes a beacon beyond the confines of our one galaxy.
It's now, or never.