Our pop culture landscape as it exists today does not exist without Star Wars. No one knew what this sci-fi fairy tale was in 1977. As much as George Lucas says he had this or that mapped out, history has revealed that he could never nail down this pastiche of Flash Gordon and Kurosawa pictures. The initial drafts went through one drastic iteration after another, and still not coming together until Marcia Lucas found a functional story in editing–common for George Lucas to find the film in post-production. That Star Wars would spawn an international franchise of an endless series of films, a few television shows, and an incalculably vast expanded universe is somewhat of a miracle. Now though, Star Wars is as sure of a thing as can be.
Forty years later, Rian Johnson’s addition to the Skywalker saga is the freshest, most polarizing entry in the series since the first film. No other Star Wars film has done so much to move Lucas/s groundbreaking vision forward. Where the prequels, including Rogue One, do their best to fill in the gaps–and where The Force Awakens borrows so relentlessly from the 1977 film–Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the kind of film that dismantles a legacy in order to make room for a bigger, fuller world.
The Last Jedi picks up right where The Force Awakens leaves off, spoiling the thrilling high where the latter film ends. Every plan and premise set up at the start of The Last Jedi blows up in every character’s face. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is unable to meet the expectations of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who reminds Ren that he will never be Darth Vader. Against the orders of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Poe Dameran (Oscar Isaac) leads Resistance fighters into a maneuver that wipes out their bomber fleet. Rey (Daisy Ridley) tracks down the elusive and hermetic Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), presenting him his old lightsaber, only for him to mindlessly toss the offering over his shoulder. Right from the get-go, The Last Jedi finds turmoil between generations unable to connect with one another.
The Last Jedi follows this trajectory. Our new young heroes continually bristle against their parents, real or stand-ins, looking for some sort of future with or without them. Rey begs Luke to show her the ways of the Jedi, only for an angry, regret-fueled Luke to do everything in his power to dissuade her from continuing the traditions of a problematic religion. Poe and Finn (John Boyega), with the help of engineer Rose (Kelly Marie Tram) go under the noses of Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) to give the Resistance a fighting chance–keyword: fighting–on their own terms. Kylo Ren does his best to snuff out Luke and Leia, urging Rey to defer the past, only for his rage and denial to get the better of him. All of these characters fail to understand their forebears, only to be let down, in one form or another, time and time again.
For the film’s duration, The Last Jedi knows that the past is not only inescapable, but essential for crafting a future. If Poe wants to be a capable leader, he has to know when to defer to Leia. If Kylo Ren wants to move the First Order forward, he has to move past his hatred towards Luke. If Luke wants to pass on anything useful, this includes accepting his own fallible humanity. For as much as The Last Jedi pokes fun at the prequels, or turns a nose at the questions regarding Snoke’s identity or Rey’s parentage, this isn’t a film that hates what the Star Wars films are.
Perhaps the most refreshing point of craft of The Last Jedi is how much style Johnson derives from other films. Whereas The Force Awakens takes entirely from the 1977 Star Wars, The Last Jedi has a smattering of influences that recall the synthesized influences of the first film. This includes, but is not limited to, Johnson taking narrative devices from Rashomon, or cribbing shots from Wings or The Godfather, or tossing in a shout-out to Hardware Wars–this, to say nothing of nods to Casablanca, All Quiet on the Western Front, a divisive bit of Mary Poppins, and even The Children Are Watching Us. In terms of visual effects, the film is hit-and-miss, but for my money, The Last Jedi is the most beautifully photographed of the entire saga–if only for the jaw-dropping showdown between Luke and Kylo Ren. This is perhaps the most effectively edited of any other Star Wars film–the telepathic link between Rey and Kylo Ren is simply a shot-reverse-shot that jumps locations. This, to say nothing of the impeccable ensemble–most notably the seductive and palpable chemistry between Driver and Ridley. And as tempted as one might be to nit-pick the mechanics of the Force, or this plot point or that development, such a shallow, pedantic approach obstructs the intense emotional honesty Johnson keys on here. The Last Jedi is not only absorbing, this is a journey whose construction and finer details reward handsomely with multiple viewings.
If The Last Jedi is difficult or unsatisfying, that’s probably because this is a film about difficult, often unsatisfying lessons. This is a story for the college kids who think that being on their own for the first time means they’re adults, in defiance of the reality that they’re only getting started in becoming a grownup. Most of what a person believes at 17 or 18 will change drastically by the time they’re 21 or 22. Our worldview begins in fits and starts, constantly challenged and reworked with every new life experience. The reason why Luke can regress as the pain-in-the-neck whiner of the original trilogy is because conflict never stops, and as many lessons as we learn, we default on who we know how to be until we’re ready to confront whatever stands in our way.
With that, The Last Jedi joins the ranks of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back as the third real masterpiece of the series–and the more time that passes, the film might be the best of the saga. Rian Johnson has given us something devastating, subversive, and gutsy as franchise films can be. The Last Jedi challenges our presumptions, not only in what a blockbuster can be, but in what we expect in the things we love and admire. We’re not given convenient answers or a procession of schemes that succeed by the skin of our characters’ teeth. This is a film that lives for the few victories we can pull off, amidst a sea of crashing and burning. The Last Jedi is often as murky and messy as life is, and revels in just how wonderful and necessary that reality is.