Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi seems to bring the iconic series to a inflection point…regardless of the specifics of the plot of the movie.
Almost a year ago, Carrie Fisher died suddenly. And other than the waves of grief this caused among fans, this ultimately shifted the trajectory of the entire Star Wars series.
How so? Fans always knew that the original characters were not likely to be long for this galaxy. Han Solo had already met his fate…and there have been plenty of allusions to the mortality of both Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia; the title alone demonstrates that. Furthermore, the middle episode of a trilogy is almost always the darkest and most foreboding. All of these factors have prepared fans for the ‘worst’.
Director Rian Johnson thus had the unenviable task of balancing these issues of mortality, and reality, along with the inherent problems in the series. The Original Trilogy was one of the greatest commercial successes in the world, but had its own issues. The Prequels problems are well documented. And the last episode, The Force Awakens, was enjoyable but also roundly criticized for its grossly derivative plot and inability to expand the Star Wars Universe.
The movie begins right where we left off several years ago: with Luke (Mark Hamill) and Rey (Daisy Ridley); past and future; with despondence, and hope.
For those thinking this is will end up being another derivative installment, much the way The Force Awakens was a retread of A New Hope…the Luke/Rey relationship largely dispels the viewer of that. Surely, there are echoes of a master and his apprentice (mostly echoing to Obi-wan Kenobi and Luke)…but the comparisons stop there. While the Obi-Wan/Luke relationship was more fatherly/grandfatherly, the Luke/Rey relationship is tumultuous and argumentative from the outset.
In many ways, the strange part about this relationship is that it is based in large amount on fear; Luke fears Rey’s power, and Rey fears Luke’s demons. The irony is not missed by most of us, and we harkens back to Yoda’s famous words: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
For the record: this is Mark Hamill’s best performance; not just in Star Wars, but in any cinematic appearance. Maybe decades of doing voices for cartoon TV shows has benefited him. Maybe he has simply grown with age. But he is a presence on the screen in this film.
Meanwhile, the galactic war continues…and it is not going well for the Rebels. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) becomes a far more interesting character. In the first movie, we saw him as a great pilot; here, we see him as a strategist and a true leader. In fact, while much of his group is flailing, he seems to be one of the few that are actually trying to make an impact on the war.
Poe’s interactions with Leia are among my favorite in the movie. Leia is in charge, but Poe is now the true rebel; a flipping of the roles in a generation. Added to this mix is Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). I was ambivalent about this character at first, but she is a very nice addition to the storyline.
Meanwhile, Finn, our favorite new droid BB8, and Rose Tico (played by Kelly Marie Tran) go on a side mission where they encounter DJ (Benicio Del Toro) a smuggler and thief that is being rewarded by massive weapons needed to fight the galactic war. I will say, to me this was the weakest part of the film. They were trying to explain the military industrial complex, and how the rich were exempt from much of the fight of the war. There are scenes enjoyable on this side mission, but overall, I found it a waste of time.
However, the best character arc for me is Kylo Ren. We witness him murder his own father in the last movie, left bleeding and dying after confronting Rey; but in this movie, there are moments that you understand his anger, his loss, and his ultimate fall. And the interaction between Kylo and Rey is…complicated. That is as much as I can say.
I am sure there will be plenty of detractors to this film. I won’t say why, but I have my own complaints (some are stated above). But let us also note: I actually liked The Force Awakens. Yes, it was derivative, in the worst ways imaginable. Absolutely, Rey is a ‘Mary Sue‘. And yes, the movie leaves us barely advanced from where we were before we started the movie in the first place. But I still enjoy the movie; many can’t, and I can understand that. But at least that gives you an idea of where I am coming from.
For me…The Last Jedi is a success. It is in all ways a superior film to The Force Awakens; anyone that tells you otherwise simply wants to hate this film out of spite. The writing is better, the plot is better, the characters are better, the action scenes are better.
Is it a perfect film? Not at all. There is a long segment in the middle third of the film that is probably going to be too slow for some viewers, especially younger kids. I thought that segment of the film was hit-or-miss. But the first third of the film, and the final conclusion, are thoroughly on the mark.
This is the most nuanced of any of the Star Wars films, in many ways. Who is for the forces of the light, and who are for the forces of darkness? Is there a gray area where some can exist? Can the Jedi exist in that gray area?
What works in the film? Amazing…The porgs. Yes, I am a porg lover now. The vulptices (or crystal foxes) are pretty awesome. Kylo and Rey. Some of our last scenes with Carrie Fisher. And…Mark Hamill steals the show.
And the inevitable question: where does this rank in the Star Wars pantheon of films? Well, it is not as concise and perfect as Empire Strikes Back. A New Hope is still the classic. Versus the others? It is certainly better than all the prequels, and in my humble opinion, better than The Force Awakens. Meaning, along with Return of the Jedi, it is either the third or fourth best of all.
Not bad, all things considered. I strongly recommend it. Go out, see for yourself. You may not fall in love with it like I did, but I do think at the very least, you will have a good time. And that should be enough.