A Rebellion Built On Hope
I’m told that Star Wars was the first movie I ever saw. My parents made the fairly questionable decision to take two-year-old me to a crowded theater, and my gut tells me it was probably my mother’s idea. At some point, Dad probably said, “It’s not like he’ll remember it.* What’s the point?” Mom probably insisted due to the principle of it, and now there’s a strain of George Lucas’ magnum opus winding its way through the DNA of my childhood.
Hardly original, right? For most of us, that’s the reason Star Wars is inexorably tied up in feelings of nostalgia. The warm blanket. The grilled cheese sandwich on a snowy afternoon. It’s all about comfort, the safe and contented smile. That’s great…for a while. Nostalgia can only push us so far. After a while, it starts to feel backwards-looking, a little too safe. That’s true for everything from public policy to narratives. That’s also why I fell out of love with Star Wars.
Star Wars? A stone-cold classic. The Empire Strikes Back. A stone-colder classic. Yet I remember seeing Return of the Jedi and trying to convince myself it was brilliant, when it’s really just kinda okay. Years passed. The Prequels came and went, and while there were flickers of the old magic, we received a clunky trilogy that plodded when it should have soared. That did it, and I transferred my fandom on to other things. Sure, when The Force Awakens was released in 2015, I saw it and enjoyed it. But the fact remains that The Force Awakens is about as risky as making Jello, and beyond introducing some compelling new characters, it doesn’t venture into uncharted waters too much.
I figured that was that. Hey, at least I had the MCU and Mad Max to fall back on, because you have to love something. That’s the funny thing about love, though. It ebbs and flows. Love flares up initially, then settles into a gentle smolder. Sometimes, when the right circumstances occur, the flame explodes again. Star Wars: The Last Jedi made me love the franchise.** There will be some hardcore fans that will straight-up despise this movie. I’m very curious about what you think.
We begin with the spunky fleet of the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), pursued through the galaxy by the villainous First Order. Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leads a desperate assault to break off their pursuit, and there’s a funny moment between Poe and the sniveling General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) that leads us to believe we’re seeing another swaggering hothead win the day through guts and panache. Nope, and this won’t be the first time our expectations are confounded.
Meanwhile (and there’s a lot of meanwhile), Rey (Daisy Ridley) has located the legendary Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). He’s on the world of Ahch-To, an oceanic world scattered with craggy islands. She’s come to ask for his help, and to learn the truth about herself. The young hero has come into possession of Luke’s iconic lightsaber. Trembling, she hands it to him, ready to begin her training. Things don’t go the way Rey thinks they will.
What happened to the wide-eyed and whiny farm boy from Tatooine who lusted for adventure? He’s become a Grumpy Old Jedi, haunted by the destruction of a Jedi temple and the rise of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is the Big Bad in the world of the First Order, and he’s nurtured the darkness within Kylo Ren and made the angry young man an apprentice. Luke blames himself for all of this. He tells Rey, “I’ve come here to die.” Way to be a buzzkill, Skywalker.
Meanwhile meanwhile (See what I mean?), heroic coward Finn (John Boyega) makes a discovery. Well, he kind of makes it alongside Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a good-hearted mechanic and the best new addition to the Star Wars universe. The First Order has implanted a tracking device in the Resistance’s lead ship, and the Resistance needs the galaxy’s best hacker to deal with the problem.
And then…well, an awful lot happens, and it would be churlish of me to spoil it. You’re getting a lot of movie for your money, a smidge over 2 ½ hours. I’ve got good news and better news for you. The good news is, this is the first movie in decades to feel like a proper Star Wars movie. The better news is, things happen to push the series in new and exciting directions.
If you know writer/director Rian Johnson, it’s most likely from either his high school mystery Brick or his very good time-travel thriller Looper. Johnson also worked on the legendary TV series Breaking Bad, and weirdly enough, I could feel aspects of that in his direction of The Last Jedi.*** Despite some bloat, he keeps the pace moving, but in terms of knowing when to take a breath for a character moment, his timing is impeccable. He’s also made an absolutely gorgeous film, and there’s a red walled scene in Snoke’s throne room that looks like it came straight from Dario Argento’s cerebral cortex.
Johnson wrote the script as well, which we haven’t seen since George Lucas was in charge. Just when you think the story is going to play out in a certain way, it pinballs in a totally different direction. But Johnson isn’t being random for random’s sake. He’ll set up something that, on first glance might seem a little lame. When you get to the payoff, it has more of an impact than you were expecting. Every mission, every decision, is rooted in character or theme. There are a few moments when the humor comes off as a little too arch, but I’m reminded of comedic stylings of one Jar Jar Binks, and then I think arch humor isn’t such a bad idea after all. Wisely, certain concepts from previous films have been jettisoned, and Johnson makes the mythology of the Force feel weird and compelling again.
Back in the day, a sentence containing the words “good acting” and “Star Wars” would have been met with smirks, eye rolls, or chuckles, if not outright guffaws. Things have changed. As Kylo Ren, Adam Driver is building a role with real psychological complexity. Rather than a garden variety villain, Ren is operating on rage and resentment. While Snoke might delight at being called a bad guy, Ren probably thinks he’s a twisted kind of hero. Oscar Isaac’s Poe begins to learn the difference between a hero and a leader, and he does all of that with the same kind of swashbuckling charm as a certain Corellian smuggler. John Boyega is, as usual, great fun as Finn. I thoroughly enjoyed Daisy Ridley, and she makes strength and vulnerability feel natural.
One guy who never got the credit as an actor he deserved? Mark Hamill. Yeah, he’s a little stiff in Star Wars. As time went on, he gave voice to an iconic and alarming version of The Joker, and age has given him experience and gravitas. There’s no whiny talk of power converters here! Hamill’s craggy face and darting eyes often tell more of a story than any monologue could, and the guy we’re seeing on screen may not be the Luke that some fans hoped for, but it’s understandable how and why he’s ended up at this point.
Speaking of a lack of credit, let’s talk about Carrie Fisher for a moment. Sadly, this is her final film role. She’s given a lot more to do here than her glorified cameo in The Force Awakens, and she plays Leia with great dignity. There’s a scene with Fisher that brought gasps from the crowd with whom I saw the film — you’ll know it when you see it. Some loved the audacity of the scene, others hated it. Either way, she plays the hell out of it quietly.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi already has a backlash against it. Maybe you feel that way. Maybe it seems like a betrayal of beloved characters, or the story is going in a direction you didn’t expect or don’t care for. I get that, and I’m sorry. I’d give nearly anything to share with you how I felt, from the opening scene to the finale. There was one thought that kept running through my head. It kept popping up at quiet moments and during bombastic action scenes. This thought was fueled by joy, curiosity, awe, and even a little sadness.
God, I love this movie.
*Spoiler alert — I don’t remember it at all.
**This might be the first Star Wars film where critics love the movie more than general audiences.
***If you’re hoping to see Luke and Rey cooking crystal meth together, you’re going to be super disappointed.