Home > Reviews > I finally saw STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (spoilers)

I finally saw STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (spoilers)

I finally got a bit of money for a writing project this week, so I decided to celebrate by finally going to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi while it was still in theaters, and before I got spoiled on more than I already have been (which fortunately was mostly little things). I gather that the film has generated some controversy, but it sounded like the aspects that were making a stir were the sort of things that I’d enjoy. And I was right. I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt so happy and fulfilled at the end of a movie. I’m not even that big a Star Wars fan — or at least I wasn’t in the past except to the degree that it’s been an ongoing part of my pop-culture awareness since I was 8 years old — but the recent iterations of the franchise, both theatrically and on TV, have been really well-done and have given me new appreciation for it. And The Last Jedi is probably the best installment yet. It was moving in ways a Star Wars movie has never been before (not that they’ve never been moving, just not in these specific ways). It was unpredictable in a good way, full of surprises and plot developments that didn’t “go the way you think.” It was one of the darkest, most tragic SW movies and one of the most optimistic and inspiring ones at the same time. Its action scenes were brilliant and innovative and remarkable. It was funny, sometimes a bit goofily so, but often quite cleverly. And it managed to hit all the nostalgia buttons perfectly while simultaneously challenging and deconstructing all the pat assumptions of the prior films’ heroic narratives.

If I have a problem with it, it’s that there’s simply too much going on, with all the lead characters separated on their own individual subplots for most of the film, only coming together at the climax. It’s kind of wild to realize that two of the central new heroes, Rey and Poe, never actually meet until very near the end of the second film out of three. And there were times when one or two subplots had been going on for so long that I found myself wondering, “Okay, when do we get back to Rey?” or whoever.

But most of the cast does get a lot of great stuff to do, individually or in pairs. It’s great to see Mark Hamill playing Luke Skywalker again as a mature actor, bringing much more nuance and depth and that superb voice to the role. Luke here is basically the character Obi-Wan probably should have been in the original, or might have been if what we later learned of his story had been established from the start — a scarred and bitter ex-Jedi who resists teaching a new student because of his failure with his last student who turned to evil. As it is, he shares that reluctance more with Yoda, and comes across as a more Yoda-like figure in both his eccentric, hermit-like lifestyle and his teachings about the nature of the Force. (There’s even a bit of a Dagobah callback with his X-wing being submerged once again.) Maybe that’s why it’s Yoda’s Force ghost who appears to him on Ahch-To, because of that affinity. I have to say, it was a thrill to see the return of the real Yoda, the latex puppet with a puckish sense of humor, rather than the solemn CGI sage from the prequels.

As for Rey, her interaction with Luke is effective, but it’s her bond with Kylo Ren through the Force that’s really intriguing. The way the two of them connect and try to win each other over, not through big noisy saber fights or grandiose speechmaking but through understated interpersonal bonding, is really intriguing and effective, and it shows how much this series has matured from its pulpy beginnings. It went to an unexpected place, too. Both Rey and the audience were led to expect that it would play out like the legend of Luke and Vader yet again, the heroic Jedi turning the Sith apprentice back to the light and leading him to betray his master. And it felt that way until the very end of their big, brilliantly choreographed fight with Snoke’s guards — and then Kylo pulled the rug out of all our assumptions and we realized that Rey, and we, had completely misinterpreted the future she’d seen. That’s deft. The revelation about Rey’s parentage also does a neat job of deconstructing the stock “Chosen One” narrative. Kylo literally says she’s got no special place in this story, that she’s just a random girl. And I love that. I don’t want every story to be about dynasties, hereditary lines of people who are somehow more important than everyone else. What the Resistance is fighting for, and what this film shows really well, is that everyone is important. A hero can be anyone from the big legendary mystical knight-sage to some random bomber tech or pipe jockey or a little slave boy cleaning a stable.

Poe clashing with Leia and Holdo and having to learn the downside of being a macho hotshot space jockey was effective, but it was Carrie Fisher as Leia who really stole the show, and it makes me so sad that we’ll never get the third film that was supposed to focus on her as much as The Force Awakens focused on Han and this one did on Luke. Still, it helps that Leia has so many other strong, rich heroines to follow in her footsteps now, rather than being unique. And this movie did give her a hell of a swan song. It sure faked us out that she was going to be killed off early in the movie — and then just as it had started to sink in emotionally that she was gone, we got that amazing moment that finally, finally answered the question of whether Leia can use the Force, and in the most superheroic-looking way possible. It’s been a long time coming, but wow, what a payoff.

Finn’s little side trip to Canto Bight with Rose Tico was fun too. I’ve seen reviewers call it one of the weaker parts of the film, a sidebar that slows things down, but it was actually really important, because it was the part of the film that did the most to explore just what it is the Resistance is actually fighting for. As Rose said at the climax, it’s not just about destroying, but protecting. That’s a really important statement. I also liked how this and the later Crait sequence revolved around animals, around connecting with nature and listening to it, as the path to success. It reminds me of the sort of thing Star Wars Rebels is doing with the Loth-wolves. Plus the creature designs for the horselike Fathiers and the catlike, crystalline Vulptices were really good. The Porgs were okay, too.

Oh, plus the Finn subplot ends up giving Captain Phasma the big moment she was deprived of in TFA. We finally get some payoff for all the setup for her character, with Finn getting a final battle with her as his personal archnemesis, and getting to deliver a pretty cool hero line at the end there.

The first really wow-inducing scene in the movie is Paige Tico’s sacrifice in the bomber. That’s a very different way of depicting a Star Wars action scene, really focusing on the heroism of one of the background rebels who are usually treated as faceless cannon fodder. We never really learn anything about her beyond her determination and self-sacrifice, but in a way that’s all we need to know, and her action drives a lot of what follows by motivating her sister Rose, without whom Finn would’ve deserted and the plan to shut down the hyperspace tracker would never have been formulated. (I was so moved by Paige’s heroism that I didn’t even stop to wonder how dropping bombs could possibly work in weightless space.) The sacrifice of Vice Admiral Holdo later in the film is also one of the most powerful moments, and the way the effect of her action is depicted visually and acoustically is extraordinary. It’s notable that both women’s quiet, powerful, almost unwitnessed acts of self-sacrifice are in contrast to Poe Dameron’s pursuit of the more conventional, flashy, masculine hotshot fighter hero narrative, are ultimately more effective than his efforts, and are arguably the avoidable result of his arrogance, certainly in the former case.

Not that this film is lacking for flashiness. I’ve already praised the fight choreography in the throne room, and the idea of setting the Crait battle on a salt plain makes for some inspired and unique visuals, even if they did have to toss in a slightly stilted bit of a random soldier commenting on the salt for the audience’s benefit. It also allowed for a subtle clue about Luke’s climactic trickery, which is one of the things I was spoiled on in advance, so I was able to notice a certain lack of footprints.

John Williams’s score was great too. TFA’s score didn’t stand out to me the first time I saw it, though I noticed its character themes more on a second viewing, and I’ve really come to like Rey’s theme. But this was a really strong and impressive score. Like so much else about the film, it did a great job balancing novelty and nostalgia, bringing back all the familiar themes from past movies and combining them with effective new motifs.

I really love the way this film managed to balance two things that might seem contradictory — honoring the past and the nostalgic elements that bring us back to Star Wars again and again, and taking a critical look at the franchise’s past assumptions, deconstructing their simplicity, and responding to them with a more thoughtful and nuanced point of view. Perhaps that’s because the deconstructions don’t invalidate what came before — they just show that it’s only a small part of something bigger and more complicated. To really honor the positive values and the spirit of hope that the heroes of Star Wars fight for, and to understand the stakes and the cost of their fight, you have to look beyond some of the more superficial elements like the traditional action cliches and Chosen One narratives. And the more traditional aspects of the stories and their newer elements can come together harmoniously, as Leia did with Poe, and as Finn did with Rose.

It’s that harmonious blending of old and new elements that makes The Last Jedi so intensely satisfying, because it fulfilled both the part of me that thrilled at nostalgia for the characters and adventures of my childhood and the part of me that needs something fresher, more adult, and more thought-provoking. Rian Johnson really pulled off a remarkable balance here.

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  1. Roger McCoy
    January 24, 2018 at 5:23 pm

    Good review. Much like with Empire Strikes Back or Wrath of Khan, I think time will be much kinder to this movie than the “fans” are being now. The prequels made fans uncomfortable by reminding them that these movies were made for children. The sequels now make them uncomfortable by growing past childhood. Seems appropriate.

    “how dropping bombs could possibly work in weightless space”

    People keep complaining about this one, but if I’m remembering the sequence correctly, it seems pretty straightforward to me. The bombs started dropping from inside the ship where there was gravity. Once they left the ship the inertia continued, as it should. (As with so much of Star Wars, hand-waving issues of vacuum.)

    I try not to hold Star Wars to many standards in the way of physics, but if anythings was going to bug me it was ships running out of fuel and then grinding to a halt and listing to the side like they’re “dead in the water”… (Some have tried to justify all of this as the ships constantly accelerating rather than using fuel to maintain a top speed. Sorry, I don’t buy it. And it doesn’t explain the “listing” in any case.)

    • January 24, 2018 at 5:44 pm

      The thought about the bombers’ internal gravity accelerating the bombs occurred to me too, but the problem is that the distance they have to drop is so short that it wouldn’t accelerate them much. And if they stopped accelerating once they left the gravity field, then the ones that fell from the top racks would have more time to accelerate and would collide with the slower-coasting ones from the bottom racks, which would blow them up right outside the bomber. Some kind of mass driver or railgun system would be much more effective.

      Of course, I know that STAR WARS is space fantasy, not science fiction. It’s never been meant to be realistic, just an homage to old war movies and samurai movies dressed up with spacey trappings. But it does get hard to swallow when spaceships behave like they’re under gravity — especially when, later in the same movie, we see a character blown into space and clearly floating in free fall. Even a fantasy following imaginary rules should follow them consistently.

      And the constant-acceleration bit was my rationalization for the ships running out of fuel too. It does make sense — as long as the pursuing ship is able to thrust, then it could eventually close on a coasting ship, so the only way to avoid that is for the coasting ship to continue thrusting as well. That’s actually the story engine (pun intended) that drives Larry Niven’s 1967 story “The Ethics of Madness” — except there, the ships were ramjets and could never run out of fuel, so they just kept on accelerating closer to the speed of light and getting more and more time-dilated for thousands of years.

      The listing could be the result of different thrusters running out of fuel at different moments, creating an asymmetrical thrust.

  2. January 27, 2018 at 4:48 pm

    This is the best review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, that I ever read.

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