Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rogue One were both box-office successes and heralded as the return of the blockbuster franchise king, but both have a similar long-term problem: They hang onto nostalgia for the 1977 classic for dear life. My review of The Force Awakens called it the first “OK” Star Wars movie; Aly’s review of Rogue One called it “flawed but enjoyable.” I still rewatch them; the characters in Awakens especially are dazzling. But after two movies that so directly called back to Star Wars: A New Hope, it was natural to start wondering if Disney only had one trick up its sleeves with this new set of films.
So … Star Wars: The Last Jedi has the unenviable task of proving whether the Star Wars franchise still has meaning, and it manages to with tremendous success. Deeper, broader, funnier and more thrilling than its predecessor, The Last Jedi isn’t only the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back, it’s the first Star Wars movie in 30 years to truly feel like an evolution of the franchise. It may also prove to be one of the most controversial films in the series.
The story picks up where Awakens left off, separating our core trio of heroes — Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).
Rey has travelled to the ancient Jedi temple Ach-To to meet Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in hopes of luring him back into the Resistance to retaliate against the evil First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Finn is unconscious in a medical bay after a battle with Kylo Ren, and Poe is helping lead the Resistance evacuation. In classic Star Wars fashion, their stories separate and converge at different points. It creates an odd, but not unfamiliar, pacing dynamic that writer-director Rian Johnson navigates as gracefully as he can, slowly building thematic resonance between their separate adventures.
Strength of theme is where The Last Jedi separates itself from the other movies and where it is most similar to The Empire Strikes Back. While it moves the overall story of the trilogy further, it also exists within a self-contained unit of story that explores several specific ideas: the nature of war, the meaning of the Force, what legacy means. Each of the characters’ individual stories play off these ideas, and all of them contribute to the film’s final statement. Yes, there are space battles, lightsaber fights and other dramatic reveals, but beneath it all is a story of a galaxy at war and doing the absolute best you can do under the circumstances. It’s a much more contemporary understanding of war than the original trilogy ever provided in that it understands conflict is perpetual and difficult to definitively divide into “good” and “bad.” As the originals reflected World War II and the prequels reflected Vietnam and Iraq, this tale borrows from our globalized, millennial understanding of war as a condition and collapse as ongoing. It is marvelous.
The performances are all as good as they’ve ever been — particularly Hamill, whose reprise as Luke is everything you can ever expect, and maybe more. Ridley, Driver, Boyega and Isaac also bring real humor and depth to their characters, given far more nuance here than in Awakens. The standout here, though, is the late Carrie Fisher, whose General Leia more than gets her due. It’s a stark contrast from J.J. Abrams’ direction of Fisher in The Force Awakens, in which he seemed unsure how to light or even shoot the actress. Johnson knows what Fisher can do, and he lets her do it. It’s a tragedy that we will never see another Star Wars film with her actually in it, but it’s also a wonder we ever got this one.
There are many plot twists in The Last Jedi that I’m hesitant to spoil, but it’s worth addressing how deeply controversial many of Johnson’s decisions may prove to be. The fact is that the Star Wars franchise has always been, and may always be, about that core mythological story contained in the first three movies. A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi are the great 20th-century American mythology. Their prequel films are meant to be watched after them (that whole “machete order” bull about watching them between Empire and Return misunderstands how storytelling works) and their “expanded universe” of novels, comics, games and TV shows all are meant to be enjoyed in the orbit of those three movies. The new Disney era has so far churned out a remake of and a direct prequel to A New Hope. The prequels were three movies all leading to A New Hope. The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars movie in years to feel like it exists in a moral and philosophical universe that expands upon, rather than takes comfort in, that first movie.
I’m not sure how that’s going to go over with all audiences, but I was enthralled.
It takes its time in the middle, doing the hard work of setting up stories for every character that all pay off in the final act. Part of this is because The Force Awakens did a genuinely poor job creating threads for this movie to pick up; another is that Rian Johnson is interested in telling a story that echoes through each individual arc.
It’s a movie that wears its ideas and cinematic influences on its sleeve, a movie that aims for something higher. It’s about hope in the darkest of times — you could argue that’s the core thesis of the original trilogy and certainly Rogue One, and you would be right. But it’s more than just that.
It’s about the legacy of hope, the imperfection of heroes, the passing of knowledge down from one generation to another in the name of something better.
It captures the eternal struggle — not between good and evil but within the lived experience of individual people, faced with their own conflicts and hurdles. Beyond Skywalkers, Vaders and redemptions, Jedi, Sith and Empires.
“Legacy” is the buzzword for reinvigorated franchises these days, and many use it as an excuse to ramp up the same old stories with mere window dressing. The Last Jedi is something new, something beautifully realized that plays off what came before while finding a new direction. You can’t destroy the past. You can only learn from it. For the first time, it feels like the Star Wars saga truly has.