Some spoilers follow.
Walking into the Alamo Drafthouse at 5:45 on opening day, I had very little idea of the movie I was about to experience. I try not to watch trailers and commercials for movies I know I’ll see. Commercials are full of spoilers and I wanted to see “The Last Jedi” knowing very little of what was going to happen.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t have expectations. From the early reactions I saw online, I expected it to be the best Star Wars movie since “Empire Strikes Back.” That it is not.
Rian Johnson is an amazing filmmaker with a vivid imagination. His previous films are creative and enthralling. From everyone I talked to in the film industry the excitement around his turn at the most storied of sci-fi series was very high. They had faith in him to produce a more substantive Star Wars movie than J.J. Abrams did.
After all, 2015’s “The Force Awakens” was a lot of fun, and my young kids absolutely adore it, but it’s mostly a retread of the original 1977 movie with a few twists and a new cast. Johnson has made not a mimic of “Empire Strikes Back” or the best Star Wars movie since “Empire” (that title still belongs to last year’s “Rogue One”), but it is different. It is bold. It is still fun.
Lots of Action, Not Much Development
“The Last Jedi” is full of action, comedy, and unexpected moments. However, this film is in some sense hampered by its predecessors. “The Force Awakens” introduced us to a new cast of characters: Rey, the lonely scavenger, whom we disappointingly learn in this movie came from nothing or no one special; Finn, the ex-Stormtrooper who infiltrates his old employer this go around with little to show for it; and Poe, the hotshot pilot, who loses his sweet ride at the hands of the final main newbie, the ever-brooding Kylo Ren.
All these characters are important, for marketing and toy sales if nothing else, so each must play a part in this film. Not all of those parts are worthwhile, though. Finn and Rose, a new hero, try to take down the main Star Destroyer hunting down the last of the Rebels, but in the end, they fail spectacularly.
Their adventure does have some cool moments. We get to see a casino planet full of the Star Wars uber-wealthy, the kind of detached from reality people millennial tech billionaires would party with if they lived in a galaxy far, far away. There’s a jailbreak with pseudo horses reminiscent of a Western, and helping some oppressed children, but when Finn and Rose leave with the scoundrel who promises to save the Resistance, you just know he’s going to betray them. And he does.
Their plan is foiled, they’re captured by the First Order’s chromed Captain Phasma, and would die if not for the help of their intrepid droid, the always-lovable BB-8. Minus a much-needed confrontation between Finn and Phasma that ends with her second apparent death (although I’m sure she’ll be back, Disney merchandising and all), the trip is almost pointless. It’s fun to watch for sure, but doesn’t amount to much.
A Thoughtful Exploration of The Force
Johnson gets something spectacularly right in this movie: the conflict inherent in the Force. The mystical energy that binds the universe together and that the Jedi and Sith can manipulate has always been an intriguing mystery only fully developed outside of the main movies. In the old Expanded Universe, jettisoned by Disney upon their takeover of LucasFilm, the Force was deeply explored, and true masters of its power showed all that it could do. Johnson took that inspiration and ran with it in this movie.
In the 30 years since we last saw him, Luke Skywalker has become an angry old hermit, alone on an island full of Porgs, cute little birds that are the toy to give kids this holiday season. The famous Jedi master is tired of the legend the galaxy thinks he has become. He has detached himself from the Force, and resigned himself to dying alone away from Ben Solo, the prodigy he let fall to evil.
When Rey comes seeking his help and inspiration, he shuns her and tries to convince the heroine there’s no place for the Jedi any longer. Eventually, he reluctantly begins to train her. We also see Rey’s strong connection to Kylo Ren, née Ben Solo. They visit each other through the Force, can see the other’s surroundings, and can even touch through the great galactic distances.
This is a great evolution of the mystic power George Lucas created so many years ago. At one point Luke says the Force is more than “just lifting rocks,” an ode to his training with Yoda in “Empire Strikes Back.” He proves as much in this film.
After a visit from Yoda the Force Ghost, Luke lets the old ways die as he watches the last of the sacred Jedi texts burn away. That’s what this movie is about. Johnson takes Star Wars to new places. He sheds the Star Wars we knew as children to bring to the fore the Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo story of this new generation.
A New Revelation of Luke Skywalker and The Force
In the course of that transition, the “legendary” Luke Skywalker plays a pivotal role in the film’s final battle before disappearing, as Yoda and Obi Wan did before him. Kylo Ren, with the help of Rey’s “I know there is still good in him” turn, has killed his master and is the new head of the First Order. Luke lures him into a showdown on the barren salt flats of a beautifully stark planet that serves as the sight of the closing action scene.
As Luke toys with Ren, he gives the last dozen of the Resistance a chance to escape on the Millennium Falcon piloted by Rey, Chewbacca, and a mobile colony of Porgs.
After he bests his former apprentice, we see that Luke never really left his island after all. He had projected himself into the minds of everyone who saw him on Crait. He even talked to his sister Leia and handed her what looked like Han Solo’s dice from the cockpit of his old ship, but was never actually there. That is the true power of the Force, a power even Master Yoda never illustrated. That is what came from Johnson. And it was awesome.
There is much to love about “The Last Jedi.” It’s beautifully shot, with fantastic sets, intense action sequences, and plenty of unexpected twists and turns. In Johnson’s march to the sea he burns away nearly all the traditional Star Wars you know. By the end Luke is gone, and because of Carrie Fisher’s untimely death, Leia will be absent for the next film as well. The last holdout of the old movies will be Chewbacca, the “big walking carpet.”
Johnson takes us into a new chapter in the galaxy far, far away in a very unexpected way, having made a film full of brave and tough choices. It’s not perfect, but it has its moments. It toys with your emotions, makes you laugh, makes you cry, and makes you stare at the screen in awe on more than one occasion.
The powers that be at Disney and LucasFilm loved this movie so much they gave Johnson domain over an entirely new trilogy of films in the Star Wars universe we are sure to see in a few years. They have also left the last of the films in the “Skywalker saga” in the hands of the one who brought it back, J.J. Abrams.
By its final measure, “The Last Jedi” is a fun Star Wars film. If the last Star Wars you saw was “The Force Awakens,” then you’ll feel like this film fits right in with the rest of the Skywalker saga. If the last Star Wars you saw was “Rogue One,” you’ll be left wanting just a little more from Johnson’s epic production.