The Last Jedi and Empire Strikes Back have things in common.
SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Last Jedi…
When last I wrote about Star Wars, it was late 2015. I’d seen a screening of The Force Awakens, and I left the film feeling pumped. It’d been ten years since any of us had seen a Star Wars film on screen, and while 2005’s Revenge of the Sith was probably the very best of the prequel trilogy, I’d left that film somewhat disappointed – it just wasn’t the unqualified space opera tragedy I was looking for.
The Force Awakens, however, ticked off all of the boxes in the theater:
– Fresh, new characters
– Surprisingly heart-warming performances
– Fantastic effects
– Action Action Action
I wasn’t alone. Take a look at Rotten Tomatoes and it’s clear that nearly everyone liked The Force Awakens, but — and there’s a but — we all knew it was the beginning of a new story, and one that was clearly part of a trilogy making it feel, by design, incomplete. In fact, looking back on my 2015 TFA review, I ended saying, “I want to know what’s next.” This incompleteness was a nagging feeling – one that eventually became annoying during subsequent viewings of TFA, which eventually, over two years, knocked my original enthusiasm about it down a few notches. This isn’t the first time that J.J. Abrams’s so-called “mystery box” approach to filmmaking left repeat views feeling somewhat emotionally lacking, but because of our cultural intimacy with Star Wars, it felt like more of a problem than it would with, say, Alias or Lost.
The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson is not J.J. Abrams – and that’s a good thing because this unbearable incompleteness is NOT at all an issue with The Last Jedi. Johnson’s depiction of the never-ending conflict in that far, far away galaxy is robust, to say the least. Indeed the film felt quite unlike most other space opera or adventure films I’ve come across in that rather than the traditional three acts, it could be argued that The Last Jedi took the viewer through an obstacle course of four or five. Johnson made this possible through the use of strong narrative anchors, rooted in place for the most part, rather than in character. This is quite a remarkable feat when one considers that in essence, The Last Jedi is something of a chase movie.
Many Star Wars films have used anchors of place to depict climactic, darkest-before-the-dawn battle sequences (e.g., Return of the Jedi & The Phantom Menace), but The Last Jedi is able to jump around the galaxy using anchors of chase. The Resistance fleet, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), is being chased across the galaxy by The First Order, and Finn (John Boyega) is with a new friend Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), chasing down a solution to the Resistance’s problems, all while Poe (Oscar Isaac) is attempting to chase down position, power, and heroics within the Resistance movement. Rey (Daisy Ridley), meanwhile, is chasing her identity – through Luke’s tutelage and her conflict with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
The Force Awakens’ familiar phrase, “who are you?,” recurs in this film, and holds more and more meaning through the narrative. While many fans and YouTube critics have focused on what Rey is – a Skywalker, a Kenobi, a vergence in the Force – Johnson breaks away from old ties to give her character powerful depth, again focusing on who she is, not what she is. Ridley’s performance is strong, though not as riveting as it was in 2015. The conflict is clear, and we see her piecing Rey’s character together organically and sometimes spontaneously, exposing a wonderfully authentic heroine who doesn’t need to rely on stereotypical tropes of sass to get a laugh, and instead draws on her flaws and failures to determine her path to a level of success that she’s able to self-define, rather than chase some arbitrary standard. It’s refreshing and cathartic. Her heroism is on her terms.
We cannot speak of heroines in The Last Jedi without speaking of the Tico sisters – The Resistance would literally have fallen but not for the strength of their character and their individual sacrifices. As all Star Wars films are wont to do, The Last Jedi opens up with a big bang, and while all of our familiar faces seem to all have a role in that action, we meet a new character, Paige (Veronica Ngo), who arguably has some of the most anxiety-driven, tense, and unforgettable scenes in the film. Her sister, Rose, is also a pivotal character in Finn’s story, and approaches her heroism from another angle altogether. Both initially seem expendable, but it’s clear that their contributions are quite literally indispensable.
Without feeling like some sort of “message film,” The Last Jedi shows so many types of people as heroes. Johnson’s work piles glory upon yet more heroines. Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) and General Organa are the leaders of the Resistance alongside Admiral Akbar, and, despite doubt, and uncertainty at the darkest time (like Rogue One-level dark), it becomes pretty clear that they’re not only in these roles because they’re the best Resistance fighters out there, but that they’re people with some of the most noble characters in the entire galaxy. Their poise fills their ranks with both hope and inspiration by not only waging and winning spectacular battles, but by understanding the cost of those skirmishes very deeply, and taking actions to mitigate those costs. Dern’s heroics are a showstopper, featuring a battle tactic that we’ve never seen before in Star Wars. Fisher’s General Organa, meanwhile, is able to clearly distinguish the difference between a hero of the Resistance and a leader of the Resistance. It’s a subtle distinction, but one in which all who watch could benefit.
[Heroes & Villains of the Last Jedi]
Powerful characterizations aren’t limited to females though. The one thing The Last Jedi did that sticks out most in my mind is how the film was able to capitalize on the previous films without falling into the trap of copying them. There’s no better example than Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. Once the exuberant farm boy eager to do anything to chase down the action, Hamill’s character has grown, sobering on the wanderlust of adventure, and instead focused on the quiet contemplation of the center of his Jedi religion. Just a few decades before, the Force was unknown to Luke – now he’s so familiar he’s got convincing contempt for the mystical essence while still holding onto the awe. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, but also a difficult one. With age comes character, and with character comes complication. Luke is a good guy. But how can one that abandons the cause, ceding his responsibility, and allowing the First Order to use the Force, unopposed, be considered “good”?
While we’re on the subject, I’d say the movie was unequivocally good, though, there are a few caveats. It’s long. The nature of place means that the film takes a five-act approach, rather than the standard three-act approach that U.S. viewers so often see. Homages to the battle of Hoth and the destruction of the first Death Star are a little less than seamlessly built into the storyline. They’re great fun to watch, but it’s unclear if they were necessary to plotline or if they were added to give the fans what they want (always a laudable goal). Poe’s character has to grow up in The Last Jedi and it’s unclear whether or not he does at all. It’s also a little unsettling to see a character like his make some serious mistakes and experience few repercussions for those infractions. On some level, this theme can be explained by two key facts – (1) problematic as it might be, it’s difficult to argue with success, and (2) The Resistance isn’t the Rebellion: they are far too few to reject talent or willingness. These are realities of the film, but also, interestingly enough, realities in our own world – here in this galaxy.
Ultimately, Johnson’s Star Wars episode, The Last Jedi, creates the most powerful example in this 9-film universe, of how to create and explore new territory within the boundaries of a format that seemed, to most, all but fully explored. We know Luke. We know Leia. We get that the bad guys have bigger ships and more of them. And yet Johnson manages to break new ground. Do we really know Luke? Have we previously underestimated Leia? In exploring these issues, The Last Jedi fulfills its destiny and becomes “the Empire” of this Legacy Trilogy in a way that the Prequel Trilogy’s second film, Attack of the Clones, never could. It does that by distilling the emotional value of The Empire Strikes Back without trying to recreate the saga’s most beloved film.
There is surprise and there is melancholy. There are multiple moments when our characters are put in the sort of peril that there seems to be no way out of. There are spectacular ways our heroes outwit their opponents.
Most important though, is the fact that despite all of these traits, The Last Jedi delivers on something that may not be new, but has long been the most important emotional ingredient of Star Wars.
I tweet @DwayneD.