Warning, this is a review of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” written nearly a month ago. It assumes you have seen the film and processed the cascade of fan backlash against it. If you haven’t, you might not want to read this.
Hold back the tears, stop gnashing your teeth, Star Wars has (finally) grown up. Albeit in the tiniest of ways but still in enough to send obsessives into fits of despair. Even Mark Hamill who plays Luke Skywalker in what is probably the strongest performance of his career has gone on record saying “This is not my Luke Skywalker.”
I’ll tell you what, the version of Luke Skywalker in “The Last Jedi” directed by Rian Johnson is my Luke Skywalker–the one I’ve been waiting for. In fact, he’s the one I’ve been expecting. And “The Last Jedi” is the most daring Star Wars movie ever made.
I’ve met a number of my heros and they have turned out to be flawed men and women. When I was a child this was a horrifying occurrence. Why did I look up to you if you aren’t something more than human? But as an adult I began to find it empowering. Are we all suffering from imposter syndrome? Are we all slightly uncertain if we belong where we are? Do we all question, at times, whether we are capable of fulfilling our mission? The more talented people I meet the more I’m certain the answer to that question is “Yes.”
What makes people heroic is not just overcoming enemies and obstacles but also facing down their internal struggles–doubt, depression, anxiety, illness, and all the rest.
Audiences were fascinated by Darth Vader–the menacing man in a black mask–but they became obsessed, enraptured when it was revealed he was once a good man, a leader even.
Luke was too pure, too innocent, too slack jawed to ever truly love. Yes, he was tempted, ever-so-briefly by his father’s plea of “Join me!” but Luke is never truly fleshed out in the original trilogy.
I admired Luke Skywalker as a child because he stood up to his father, questioned his choices and chose the good of everything over power. That admiration increased as I got older because I realized how much he struggled over the choice to side with good over his own flesh and blood. But other characters were much more interesting. Even Ewan McGregor’s portrayal of a young Obi Wan had more depth and humanity than Luke in the original Star Wars.
Now, almost 50 years since the first Star Wars film, Luke Skywalker is forced to admit that he’s flawed, that in a moment of weakness he was tempted by the Dark Side, by the easy way out.
In “The Last Jedi” Luke Skywalker is an old, bitter old man living on an island by himself. Confronted by Rey who demands he school her in the ways of the Jedi, Luke tells her that the Jedi Order should not continue.
Luke looks into Kylo Ren’s mind into and we’re told he sees terrible things. It’s revealed that in a moment of weakness Luke decided to kill Kylo Ren in his sleep before this terrible future could come to pass–only to change his mind at the last minute. It was too late, Kylo understood what was happening, and he fought back, turning fully to the Dark Side.
Luke, disgusted with the Jedi Order and his inability to control himself, isolates himself and cuts himself off from the force completely.
This is a Luke Skywalker I can love because he grows–he battles back against regret and bitterness. He trains Rey, he admits the truth, comes to terms with the Jedi order and then in a moment that actually brought me to tears, sacrifices himself to allow the Rebellion to live on.
I’m honestly stunned that Disney allowed Rian Johnson to play with their toys in such creative ways. I’m amazed they allowed him to thumb his nose at tradition, lore, fan speculation. Who is the mighty Snoke? He’s the guy getting sliced in half after explaining how the younger generation is ineffectual. Who are Rey’s parents? Idiots who didn’t see her potential. Where is the supposed hero of the story? He gave up. As Kylo Ren says ““Let the past die; kill it, if you have to.”
But there’s another level of subversion going on here.
Hot head Poe Dameron and ambitious Finn are taught that war is war–no matter who is fighting it. The poor will suffer and die while the rich get richer. Both of the strong female leaders in the films are there to warn them that crazy plans that involve blowing stuff up are actually more likely to get people killed than succeed. Finn is told that the Resistance won’t win by destroying what it hates but by saving what it loves.
Yes, “The Last Jedi” has cringe-worthy humor. Cringe-worthy humor is part of the Star Wars franchise.
But Johnson had enough respect for the material to want to deliver something provocative, to test the audience, to create something new, to make something that feels alive rather than simply mimicking the past. By doing that he may be mirroring Luke’s exit from the franchise sacrificing himself to save the entire franchise from the dark fate of preprogrammed fan service.
As a father, it was powerful for me to see Luke have to defer to and trust in a daughter-figure in the form of Rey–this trilogy’s lead heroine. Leia, who was pushed to the background in “The Force Awakens,” is featured as a leader of the Resistance.
This is certainly the most visually-stunning Star Wars since perhaps “Empire Strikes Back.” It’s the kind of sci-fi film we need more of–immersive, daring, provocative and artistic. We’re lucky that we got two-such films this year–”The Last Jedi” and “Blade Runner 2049.” Both films were criticized for being too long–I feel that sci-fi films of this scope deserve to live in those larger time frames because how much sci-fi depends on world building. Were I not interested in the worlds of either film I would certainly rather a shorter run time. It is in fact easy to spot where Johnson could have trimmed the film–despite the fact that it was reportedly already pared down from an original three-hour cut.
Yes, this movie is designed to sell toys, but it would be folly to ignore its larger influence on politics, cinema and art.
Giving Rian Johnson the reins of the franchise was a brave and productive choice.