Quite simply, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is magnificent. It’s no masterpiece and certainly not without a few flaws, but writer/director Rian Johnson is given plenty of room to continue the Star Wars saga, answer questions posed in previous installments, and create a world entirely his own. And that he does so without coloring outside the lines George Lucas drew all those years ago makes it all the more impressive.
First, a short spoiler-free description of the plot: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is hiding on a remote planet. Hiding from what? A moment of shame. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has been sent by General Leia Organa (Carrier Fischer, perfect in her final role) to convince Luke to return to the Resistance and fight. Against whom? The First Order, commanded by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his two lackeys: General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Sith-in-training, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). But Luke wants nothing to do with the Resistance or the Jedi for that matter. Leia and her band of rebels — which include Captain Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Issacs) and First Order Stormtrooper turned good guy, Finn (John Boyega) — are a small bunch and getting smaller with each battle; The Last Jedi puts an emphasis on the “wars” aspect of the title.
A plot machination keeps several of the characters suspended in one place for a great deal of time while other ancillary stories take place — it is essential a low-speed space chase — and a large segment of the movie deals with Luke’s hesitation to train Rei. There are many, many twists and turns before we finally come to the end, which includes some surprising cameos and quite a few jaw-dropping images, but what is most surprising about The Last Jedi is how natural it all feels. Even the silly stuff — and there is plenty of silly stuff — works alongside the high body count. And here, the dead are given their due.
In this regard, The Last Jedi plays like a direct criticism to the previous installment, The Force Awakens, the cultural reaction to the movie, the growing malaise with special effects franchises, and to the Star Wars galaxy overall. “What do you want,” Luke asks when Rei impresses upon him a need to return, “Me to stand in front of an army with a laser sword?”
Well, yes. And why not? Movies aren’t just what makes sense for the story but how it looks on-screen, and there’s an awful lot of Jedi that looks great. From a red planet covered in white salt that appears to bleed with every human interaction to a trip inside a mental hall of mirrors, Johnson makes sure every new environment explodes with originality and creativity. And in turn, that originality gives the familiar even more emotional resonance. Take the scene where Luke boards the Millennium Falcon and silently walks through the cockpit and the commons, on his face: melancholic nostalgia. For the character, this the first time he’s seen this ship in ages. For the actor playing pretend, it’s the same thing.
But then Johnson goes for the gut: R2-D2, who has been mostly dormant since Luke’s self-imposed exile, suddenly whirrs to life with bleeps and bloops at the presence of his old friend, racing to Luke’s side to give him what for. It’s a touching moment in a movie filled with touching moments but this one, in particular, reached deep inside and manifested a very simple, very personal, desire: I wanted nothing more than to go home and see my dead cat one more time.
I have always enjoyed the Star Wars movies, but never before have I experienced this level of an emotional connection with the films. Sure, I find them entertaining and exciting, and with every re-watch, A New Hope routinely marvels me with its use of cinematic iconography and collective mythology. But have I ever felt compelled to tattoo a Rebel or Imperial logo on my forearm? Dress as a Stormtrooper for Comic-Con? Buy a Star Wars themed bumper sticker? Never.
The Last Jedi might change that (though I doubt I’ll be heading out to the tattoo parlor anytime soon). I have always understood the Star Wars franchise as a father-son-drama playing out against the backdrop of a galactic civil war. The Last Jedi erodes that ancient theme, urging more than one character to unload their filial burden and set fire to the past. Only then can something new be born.
Star Wars is still about family; it will always be. Luke is Vader’s son, after all. And Ben Solo/Kylo Ren, Leia’s. We may not know the biological lineage of all the others we meet along the way but they are in this family as well. The same goes for the filmmakers who make these movies. And the audiences watching.
The final image of The Last Jedi is a powerful one, and in the Star Wars franchise, one that’s been a long time coming. While marveling at it, my mind echoed with a few lines from Lilo & Stitch, lines that have carried me through some of the toughest stretches of 2017: “This is my family. I found it all on my own. It is little, and broken, but still good.”
Yeah, Stitch, it’s still good.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
Based on characters created by George Lucas
Produced by Ram Bergman, Kathleen Kennedy
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher, Andy Serkis, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Running time 152, Rated PG-13, Opens December 15, 2017. Streaming on Disney+.