*Warning: Spoilers Ahead*
The greatest teacher, failure is. Luke, we are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.
Star Wars means a lot to a lot of people. In many ways, it’s the perfect film portrayal of the Hero’s Journey, summarizing hundreds of years of myth into the story of how a farm boy makes a stand against the seemingly unstoppable machinations of evil. The original trilogy is full of some of the most eminently likable and recognizable characters to ever appear on screen, and is bursting with a warm oddball spirit. It may be it simple tale of good and evil, but it’s rendered with the sort of grand cimematic gestures that drew so many to the medium in the first place.
After a dismal set of prequels, J.J. Abrams and Disney brought the series back with what felt like a near-perfect emulation of the original’s charm. Arguments that The Force Awakens was too safe certainly have validity, but that made its follow-up all the more tantalizing. With the first film in their new trilogy a success, the franchise was set up for sequel that could take more risks, and define a new course for the series.
Despite the fact that it has proven to be one of the most divisive mass market films in recent memory, even the naysayers can’t deny that The Last Jedi deviates from the blueprint of the original trilogy.
Rian Johnson blasts almost of the dangling plot threads from the previous film out of an airlock, destroying droves of fan’s preestablished head-canon. Apparently this is where my opinion on the film seems to deviate from much of the fan base, as the reality of Rey’s backstory is far more interesting, tragic, and human than the seemingly obvious answer of a Skywalker lineage. Perhaps even more importantly, it breaks from the series’ obsession with royalty and chosen ones, cementing that bloodlines don’t define us.
Another sticking point for many fans is that The Last Jedi is a film much more concerned with progressing its characters than progressing its plot. We see a broken Luke, consumed by his grief and obsession with his own failings. Rey must come to terms with her power, and learn what being a Jedi means. Poe has to learn how to not be a self-destructive action hero. Finn needs to internalize why the rebels fight. And of course Kylo seemingly continues to struggle between his good and evil inclinations.
Some of these arcs are handled better than others, but the ones that work soar. Luke’s bitter cynicism and world-weariness offer us a glimpse of the possibility of what happens to the unstoppable hero after their triumphant victory. His interactions with his mentor and reconciliation of his failures are stand out scenes.
The development of Rey and Kylo’s relationship is a welcome surprise, tethering two of the film’s most charismatic actors in scenes absolutely oozing with tension. Kylo’s backstory paints him as a tragic villain, allowing him to fully embrace the dark side without becoming a simple caricature of evil.
Against the backdrop of a rebellion on its last legs, we are given some of the most powerful images the series has ever produced. Luke, embodying the dwindling flicker of hope in a universe being crushed under the unyielding boot of totalitarianism, emerges from decades of exile. The rebels slowly rise out of their trenches in awe at the arrival of the hero. Luke facing down his mistakes, his past, and reaches self acceptance.
Poe’s ill-advised bombing run, and the tremendous loss of life it inflicts is depicted in brutal detail. Holdo’s sacrifice is an arresting sequence that works as a perfect counterpoint to Poe’s actions.
Luke and Yoda reunited, gazing at a burning tree on a long abandoned monument to their orders ‘s beginning. The very symbol of what many Star Wars fans seem incapable of doing, moving on from the past. All in all, these moments can live proudly among many of the series other triumphs.
Johnson also manages to slip in a bunch of lines that work as some clear commentary on the dilemma of making a new Star Wars film. When Kylo screams at Rey to let go of the past, he is also addressing the audience, affirming that for the franchise to continue it needs to deviate from the formulas of the past.
These disparate character arcs and moments are tied together through the thematic cohesion that can be found in many of the arcs. The notions of accepting and moving past failure, breaking from bloodlines as well as the past, and the act of defining true heroism echo throughout the different plot lines, mostly succeeding in unifying what could have been a total mess.
Still it’s tremendous highs are somewhat dragged down by some rocky patches. The writing can frequently be too quipy, undercutting the dire circumstance. The Rose/Finn subplot could have been cut in its entirety, and some parts of the Canto Bight casino story are actively bad. It feels a little overlong, especially on subsequent viewings.
But as I continue my journey into increasingly weird and specific cinema, it’s good to know that the film franchise that largely got me interested in movies in the first place still resonates. Its comforting that in the galaxy far, far away there are still plucky Rebel scum that refuse to let the space-fascists win.
Author’s note: Also for the record I’m pro-Porg.