Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a fascinating pop cultural specimen, in that it represents the franchise contorting itself into a weird shape in its attempt to subvert the impossible and often contradictory expectations foisted on it by its own fandom and legacy. It’s a hideous mess of a narrative structure held together by superglue and duct tape. Nevertheless, I greatly appreciate its attempt to rip Star Wars a new one.
Anyway, the movie (written and directed by Rian Johnson) finally transforms the franchise into a complete serial by picking up only a few moments after the previous entry ended. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has tracked down Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) at the first Jedi Temple, hoping to coax him into aiding the Resistance in their fight against the First Order. The remains of said Resistance are being relentlessly pursued by forces under the direct control of Lord Voldemort (Andy Serkis), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and have only a few hours to escape certain doom.
From this premise, The Last Jedi fragments into a bunch of different plotlines, not all of which are even germane to anything. A considerable amount of time is given over to former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) going on a mission with newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) in what amounts to a shaggy dog story that only exists to give these characters some screentime.
Luke Skywalker is now a grumpy old man who has suffered a fall from grace and just wants to die quietly. This has apparently attracted a lot of criticism, though considered purely in light of this movie, his character arc is Pretty Good, and continues the prequels’ agenda of demythologizing the Jedi. It’s a quiet, poignant portrait of someone crushed by failure, but eventually eking towards hope and acceptance again.
But anyway, Rey is pretty disappointed by Luke, but feels a weird connection with Kylo Ren, and so goes to confront him. This leads into the rather interesting heart of the movie: Voldemort realizes that Kylo is just a discount Darth Vader, and even calls him out on it, while Rey thinkIt’s she is Luke 2.0 and capable of converting Kylo. But Kylo knows that Voldemort is a cheap CGI knockoff of The Emperor, and moreover has played enough Final Fantasy to know that if he kills Voldemort now, he has a chance at becoming the True Ultimate Villain of the trilogy. Which he does.
(This all sounds like the climax of the movie, which it kind of is, except that it’s immediately followed by a second climax. Again those structural flaws…)
The Last Jedi plays its own ambivalence towards the Star Wars legacy as a kind of Wagnerian drama, but rather than being Gotterdammerung (Revenge of the Sith), it’s more like the irony of Siegfried, where both new and old characters seem to go “off script” and break free of their archetypes. It’s not handled as gracefully as it could have been, but it elevates the movie.
In various ways, both large and small, The Last Jedi tries to tinker with our expectations of what Star Wars is, and I really appreciate the biggest movie franchises ever is willing to do that.
“The canon” and “the legacy” should never come at the expense of the work of art at hand. Everything bad about franchises comes from this, from a story becoming artistically constrained by something external to it. You can’t do x in this story because it contradicts Y in a previous story in some fashion. I don’t find the nerd obsession with canon to be worth it. In the particular case of a franchise that has spanned as many decades and passed through as many hands as Star Wars has, “impurities” are going to slip in regardless. It’s inevitably going to be a big, contradictory mess if you look at it from a macro perspective as one continuous story. You’ll only ruin things for yourself if you obsess over these things. Almost everyone loathes the endless digital tinkering George Lucas did to the original trilogy, but it’s the same logic of valuing some abstract fictional consistency over the unique artistic integrity of those movies. Better to look at franchises as a large canvas on which you can tell many different stories. More interesting to look at the Star Wars movies from the perspective of how they artistically comment on each other, complement each other, diverge and agree with each other.
Which leads me to my next point: we’re obsessed with trilogies, and Star Wars movies are traditionally supposed to come in threes, but it’s worth pointing out that the original movies were only accidentally a trilogy. It was just how they happened to grow. The new trilogy is a trilogy-by-mandate, and it feels like it would have been much better off as a two-parter. In spite of the lack of narrative momentum, it feels as though everyone’s character arc got burned through here, such that I’m not even sure of what you could do with an Episode IX that wouldn’t just be an extended final act.
The Last Jedi works better as a conclusion than as a conclusion than as a middle – I’m not even sure you’d need to change anything to make it work: Kylo’s humiliation at the hands of Luke thematically drives home how, although evil may have the upper hand at the moment, it has already in a deeper sense lost the war. Good will prevail in the long term. You don’t need to see the Last Order get wrecked onscreen to appreciate that. It may even be more poignant that way, to end on hope rather than triumph: you don’t see the good guys win, but you have faith that they will.
It’s the most beautifully shot Star Wars movie, with all sorts of interesting mise-en-scene and , which means a lot to me, as 90% of why I watch movie space operas is their ability to show me unusual, otherworldly stuff. The second climax on a barren, salt-covered planet feels almost like fantasy Lawrence of Arabia, while Lord Voldemort’s stark red chamber has an elegant, evil simplicity to it (not to mention that it features one of the best lightsaber fights in the franchise).
There are still things that just don’t work: I do think the abovementioned Finn plot does some interesting things, but it just feels so out of place. There are some prequel trilogy level instances of plot contrivance usurping natural character behavior. And, much like the prequels, its attempts at humor feel out of place and forced. The movie wants to say some things about the moral dangers of wealth and the exploitation of the poor, but never manages to integrate these themes properly. I like how Yoda (Frank Oz) shows up in a posthumous cameo to drive home how much of an absolute jerk he is.
Actually, there is one way I can see Episode IX working: Hayden Christensen returns as clone Anakin Skywalker. Maybe not so much “work” as “I’d totally pay to see that madness” but eh.