“Let the past die, kill it if you have to.”
*SPOILER ALERT* I’m talking full spoilers in this review. You have been warned.
Two years ago, The Force Awakens brought the start of a new era of Star Wars films to the big screen and boy were expectations high. Facing the immense pressure of years of pent-up fan expectations and cravings, J.J. Abrams was given the almost impossible task of delivering a film that brought old and new together in a way that payed homage to the past while still allowing breathing room for a fresh world of characters and adventures. While some dismissed the TFA as A New Hope 2.0, I think Abrams managed to thread the needle pretty well and provided some solid nostalgia alongside introducing some of the Star Wars universe’s most vibrant characters. That being said, I do agree it often leaned toward the safe side, and seemed timid at times to really grow its narrative beyond what had been done before.
No matter your feelings on the TFA, it’s safe to say that The Last Jedi faced similar, if not higher, expectations. Pressure fueled by fans who had either fallen in love with its predecessor, or wanted it to reach further, making its own unique mark on the Star Wars mythos. Fan theories exploded about Rey’s parentage, Snoke’s origins and purpose, and what awesome things Luke would do in his triumphant but mysterious return.
Enter The Last Jedi.
From the first scene between Rey and Luke, The Last Jedi makes its message loud and clear, things are not going to go the way we expect. Rey doesn’t find a mystic hero waiting to sweep back and save the galaxy, but a grumpy old man filled with guilt who wants to die alone. The Resistance, even after destroying The First Order’s super weapon, finds itself desperately outmatched, its survivors fleeing for their lives and fighting among themselves. Even Kylo Ren, after murdering his father to complete his path to the dark side, finds himself only further conflicted. The approval he desperately seeks from Snoke is outright denied him, and he’s told he can never become Darth Vader.
This is all absolutely fantastic, setting the stage for Rian Johnson to foster some of the best character direction we’ve seen yet from Star Wars. This approach is what sold me the most on The Last Jedi: its dedication to telling meaningful stories about its characters. Every decision and direction the film took was in service to these characters and the stories it wanted to tell about them. Some of them work better than others (cough Finn cough) but I couldn’t help but love the film for framing its narrative this way.
One of these central themes is the dichotomy between legends and the humans behind them. Luke Skywalker, master Jedi who destroyed the first Death Star and saved Darth Vader is nothing but a self-loathing hermit who’s cut himself off completely from the force because of his guilt. Snoke, the mysterious dark force user who seduced Ben Solo to the dark side, is murdered unceremoniously halfway through the film. Rey parents turn out to be nobodies. Even Finn, who has only recently gained legend status, is caught running away from the Resistance in their most desperate hour (reminder here that in The Force Awakens Finn only went to Starkiller base to save Rey, he’s never really done anything for the Resistance that wasn’t for his own benefit).
Even in the midst of tearing down its legends, The Last Jedi still allows them to shine. After smothering hope for The Resistance, it shows us how that same hope can never truly die, reminding us that every action we take creates it. Rey doesn’t need some sort of legendary lineage to carve her own path in the universe, she can do that through her own character and deeds. And though Luke can’t win the war by facing down the whole First Order with a laser sword, he can face them to find peace from his failures, and help The Resistance live to fight another day.
But seriously though, how cool is this final moment. The whole movie beats down our expectations, telling us Luke isn’t a legend but a flawed, conflicted failure, before treading right back over them, convincing us he actually is a legend. Of course he can deflect a barrage of AT-AT fire, beat Kylo Ren, and save The Rebellion, how could we ever have doubted it. Then the truth is revealed, Luke fades away, and the film leaves us somewhere in the middle. It asks, why can’t he be both? Our great deeds and accomplishments don’t mean we can’t fail, but our failures also don’t take away from the great things we can do.
All of this is why, despite the endless arguments we can have about plot devices and whether or not hyper space ramming should be a thing or if Holdo should have told Poe the plan, I can’t help but love The Last Jedi despite its weaker parts. Even after a second viewing I came to appreciate Finn and Rose’s arc more, despite feeling like it didn’t completely accomplish what it tried to do. To discuss how it pulled away from the immediate conflict or not being on board with where the relationship ended up have merit, but to discredit the arc entirely because their plan didn’t work feels dismissive of what the film was trying to portray.
Beyond discussions on theme and character, the Last Jedi was also some of the most fun I’ve had in theaters all year. There were several moments where the entire theater cheered together, from Snoke’s untimely demise to Luke causally taunting The First Order after Kylo attempts to blast him from existence, The Last Jedi was a blast from beginning to end. John William’s exquisite score only added to the excitement, and a sad day it will be when we have to continue Star Wars without him.
Failure, hope, legends and humanity, I loved The Last Jedi and everything it accomplished. Going into TLJ there were two things I wanted: A Star Wars movie that pushed the new trilogy beyond the boundaries of The Force Awakens and really gave its characters a chance to shine, and a double-bladed lightsaber for Rey. I got the first and the second is totally still a possibility. I’ll consider that a win.
The Last Jedi 9/10.