Dir. Rian Johnson. Starring Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver
If you love bar scenes, then Star Wars is historically a pretty good bet for you. There have been three Star Wars movies which make a Death Star the centerpiece of their plots; there are at least three Star Wars movies which place important scenes in bars. The Last Jedi has the temerity to show us a casino instead, and if we’re honest The Last Jedi is no more different from the other movies in the franchise than a casino is different from a bar.
For whatever it does which seems troublesome to longtime fans or vexing to would-be theorists who wanted to scream their rightness to the world, The Last Jedi does nothing more or less than expand the universe. With the possible exception of Holdo’s maneuver, everything fits in well enough with a set of rules which turned forty earlier this year. (Everyone has their quibble, and here’s mine: Leia pulling herself back into her flagship.) Nothing goes against the spirit of Star Wars—they say “hope” enough times that I expected Hope Solo to make a Beetlejuice-esque appearance onscreen—and so we get, at the very least, a worthy entry into the canon. No movie has expanded the Force so far. Not only does it give us a brand new set of powers to fool with, but it emphasizes the cyclical nature of the Force. It’s not history which repeats itself in Star Wars movies, but the nature of the Force to seek balance. If there is a Light side, then there must be a Dark; if one is ascendant for some time, the other will ascend later on at the former’s expense. The original movies seemed to view the Dark Side of the Force as a chosen path which could be rejected by a Jedi, and thus defeated. The prequels talked about the one who would “bring balance” to the Force, casting Anakin Skywalker’s training, turn to the Dark Side, and ultimate return to the Light as a chiliastic event. The Last Jedi does not have any such pretensions, knowing that the Dark Side cannot be defeated any more than the tides crashing on Luke’s island can. Nor has any movie considered the ramifications of a “galactic civil war” which, if you include the prelude events of the Clone Wars, has been going on for nearly six decades. The great crankiness surrounding The Last Jedi is that the movie could not be “solved” in that very J.J. Abrams way. Snoke and Rey’s parents are little more than MacGuffins, regardless of whatever sleuthing the Internet hive mind has worked out for them. If you’re going to be upset, be upset that Rian Johnson has rubbed your nose in the fact that these favorite movies of your childhood built your enjoyment on the slaughter of billions. There’s a case to be made that Johnson has been the boldest director of the year for making it impossible for his audience to view Star Wars as something either escapist or apolitical any longer. When Star Wars came out, it was instant American cheese; Johnson has given us a little taste of casu marzu instead.
When the noise dims around this movie a little bit, I hope it will be remembered primarily as a really fine character study of Luke Skywalker. The Force Awakens was our sendoff for Han Solo, a man who was always much more idealistic than he pretended to be; had he been less sentimental about his bad seed, able to dump him the way he used to dump his cargo at the first sight of an Imperial cruiser, he would still be alive and he would no longer be Solo. Similarly, The Last Jedi recognizes Luke’s own tensions. Born in the last moments of the old Jedi Order, enraptured by the living myth of Ben Kenobi and the noble past he represents, we found out in The Force Awakens that his efforts to restore that glory failed. The Last Jedi places much of the blame on Snoke for the failure of Luke’s new order of Jedi, although the turning point is when Luke decides to pick up his lightsaber to kill his dangerous nephew. We see three versions of the story, culminating with Luke’s presumably truest version in which he goes to Ben’s bungalow to kill him but stays his hand too slowly. It’s not the first time that Luke makes the wrong choice and has to work his way out of it later; this is the last half-hour of The Empire Strikes Back. The trouble is that Luke has no safety net in The Last Jedi; the Millennium Falcon only comes out of the sky to try to save him years after the destruction of his temple.
It was nice to see Yoda again. One of the greatest sins Attack of the Clones committed was Yoda’s lightsaber battle with Count Dooku, which in a single sequence mauled the Empire Strikes Back Yoda, who had his eye on the Force in much the same way Luke does in his early scenes in this movie. Fittingly, it is Yoda who sets Luke straight. “Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters,” he says in front of the fiery purging of the old Jedi texts. (“Pageturners, they were not.”) Yoda can recall the glory days of the Jedi Order, while Luke’s work was to begin them anew. Yoda lived through the hubris of the Jedi Council and did too little to combat it; Luke, without enough reference, came to believe that his godlike powers made him a godlike person. Yoda failed to stop the Sith from rising again, while Luke vacillated in a crucial moment and in so doing solidified his nephew’s path towards the Dark Side. There’s no question that if Rey is to become a Jedi, or something like it, she will have to singlehandedly forge a path which veers away from the mistakes of the old Jedi, losing their religion, as it were. Yoda and Luke never changed; perhaps Rey can.
Going ahead, I think the greatest problem this new Star Wars has is that its characters are sub-interesting. I’m more sure that Ridley is a solid actress now than I was two years, and Adam Driver has turned into a personal favorite in that same interim. For my money, the best moments in The Last Jedi are in the profound mental connection that allows Kylo Ren to speak to Rey from many lightyears away. The two of them have a chemistry even when they aren’t in the same shot which outstrips anyone else’s (excepting Chewie’s chemistry with the porgs). It’s manipulative and bold while simultaneously retaining some subtlety in Driver’s voice and Ridley’s cat-eyed tendencies. In those scenes, there’s still some possibility in what might happen; both believe that the other will turn to their preferred side of the Force. At the end of the film, that seems significantly less likely in the short term, given that Kylo Ren has made himself the Supreme Leader of the First Order and Rey has saved the last two dozen members of the Resistance from a grisly death in the dark reaches of a cave. Together, there’s something. Individually, I’m not sure there’s much there for either of them. If there’s a downside to revealing Rey’s parentage (and, believe you me, I am totally in favor of her Mayor of Casterbridge beginnings), it’s that it basically eliminates one of her major motivations and leaves her with that much less to work from. Her desire now is…to do good? To save the Resistance? To become a new Jedi? To turn Kylo Ren? It’s not clear what’s driving her, but even that’s better than the possible arcs for Kylo Ren. He can either become good again or really go dark, a set of choices which is either mealy-mouthed or exhausted.
If our principals are already this troubled, then I don’t know precisely what that means for Finn. John Boyega, who was at the center of The Force Awakens, feels like a liability in The Last Jedi. I was interested in Canto Bight, where the war profiteers gamble away their war profits above an underclass ready to revolt. I was not terribly interested in what Finn or Rose were doing there, and if we’re honest neither was Rian Johnson. Holdo’s suicide jump to hyperspace is one of the most cinematic moments in any Star Wars movie, and it also obviated Finn and Rose’s hacking mission on the dreadnought. I worry about Finn less because I care about the character and more because I worry what my lack of interest in him means for this proletarian thrust Johnson’s made in the franchise. Rey comes from nothing, but wields the Force like Mjolnir. Finn comes from nothing, doesn’t wield the Force, and thus seems significantly less noteworthy. Poe Dameron begins The Last Jedi as an always-right, never-wrong daredevil and ends it as a significantly more tempered leader. Finn begins The Force Awakens as a man deathly afraid of the First Order, desperate to run from them, and does the exact same thing to kick off The Last Jedi. Who is he? What is he for? Is Star Wars actually going to try for a love triangle when no Star Wars love triangle has ever led to anything more than raised eyebrows? The Last Jedi, as it continues to kill off our original trio (and as real life kills off the only extant member thereof), made a point of passing the baton. As a standalone movie, The Last Jedi is perfectly successful. I have no idea how it intends to pass the baton to characters who don’t always feel like they’re on the track.