Undeniably the most divisive of the Star Wars franchise, The Last Jedi sought to challenge the very foundations of the property. Building off of the events of The Force Awakens, director Rian Johnson chose a different path than many of the films that came before. Yet at the same time, his mechanisms for crafting the story created the rhyme that remains essential to the franchise. Discarding the “planet-destroying” monstrosities that have plagued most of the franchise, he instead focused on character development and philosophy. This Empire Strikes Back illusions are heavy throughout the film, especially as the characters are pulled in different directions. However, the “kill the past” message reigns supreme throughout the film. How that message has been interpreted is another matter entirely, but it provides the groundwork for a future Star Wars with incredible hope.
The Last Jedi begins moments after The Force Awakens. Poe (Oscar Isaac) leads a raid on an Imperial Dreadnaught, taking down a dangerous weapon for the First Order. As General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) looks on, she orders the evacuation of the other ships in the fleet. Among those evacuated are an unconscious Finn (John Boyega) and a young engineer named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). The First Order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) tracks the resistance through hyperspace, leaving the Resistance on its last legs. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) continues to spark hate in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), pushing him to his emotional limits. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a distant planet. Unfortunately, he refuses to train her in the ways of the Force.
The emotional core of the film comes from Ridley, and Johnson quickly establishes an unconventional nature to her side of the story. He fully embraces the Luke parallels within the character, including her ambition and excitement to receive training. He knows that Ridley comes across as an infectious performer. She needs to belong to something bigger than herself and having the ability to utilize the Force has always sparked an internal examination. Its only fitting that Rey’s involve the biggest hole in her heart, and wanting to belong can often stem from knowing where you come from.
Johnson cuts the core with the answer of “no one,” a liberating and emotionally devasting choice all at once. Yes, it means that Rey’s central quest to find her parents will never be solved. However, it means she can be free to pursue her own destiny, one that means she can define herself by those she loves and those she chooses. In a more practical sense, it means that anyone can a savior. Anyone can be a hero. You don’t have to come from privilege or legacy to pave your own way forward. In an age of populism, this particular story rings true. It also builds upon a heartbreaking choice from The Phantom Menance. It does not say that midichlorians are necessarily irrelevant, but it does not mean that only the select few in the galaxy can use the power of the force.
Meanwhile, Driver delivers the best performance of this franchise to date as Ren. While I saw him as an unstable and broken character for most of The Force Awakens, Driver transcends the story in Last Jedi. Rocked by a master that still sees him as weak, his connection with Rey deepens both characters. You can see his manipulation at work, showing how his point-of-view diametrically opposes the truth. Yet Driver turns on the charm. He’s slick and raw. Johnson’s choice to dump the Kylo mask means we actually get to see one of the most emotive actors deliver emotional dialogue. He knows he must stand-in for Vader, so his physical presence can overwhelm the screen. Driver’s textured take on a man broken from his own actions, seeking someone to understand him becomes empathetic. But he always comes home. He may not be beyond redemption, but he also holds an unsafe level of influence over our hero. That makes him the most dangerous man in the universe.
Returning to the role of Luke, Hamill gives the most introspective performance of his career. He locks into something beautiful about the character at the edge of the world. He has followed the footsteps of his masters, and like both Yoda and Obi-Wan, he chose exile over facing the problems head-on. After freeing the galaxy, he plunged it back into darkness. His failure destroyed everything his friends had lived, fought, and died for. Hope has been extinguished, and for the entirety of the film, Hamill gets to charm his way back into your heart.
Even as grumpy and frustrated force wielder, he remains funny and weird. He was never the traditional hero, but a nerdy kid who starred into the suns hoping to find something better for himself. He was the embodiment of George Lucas as he created the franchise, a young boy in California who would rather work in movies than for his father. Like Lucas, he created something reviled, something inherently broken, and was forced to leave it all in the hands of someone else.
Yet failure does not stop a legend from continuing to be a spark for hope. Johnson’s dissection of Luke reminds us that while the worlds and stories we create can be inspiring, the important thing is for the next generation to build on what we’ve built. We do not ignore what came before, and instead, use that failure as a way to push beyond what we’ve accomplished. Just as Luke learns from the failure of Vader, Rey too must learn from the failure of Luke. The film’s dialogue never disposes of the past but reframes the way we look at what came before, and the exciting prospects of what can come next. It’s an eternal message, one that deserves to be delivered by one of the great cinematic characters. Hamill’s pathos and heart can be read on his face throughout the film, and while he struggles with his own failure, you can see the hope reborn. His final moments on-screen feel impossibly beautifully, impossibly sentimental, and fit the rhyme of Star Wars. No character in the franchise has ever received a more impactful farewell.
On the flip side, the Resistance does its best to survive. Regardless of where you sit on the Leia utilizing the Force sequence (a scene that feels like we’ve been building towards since Return of the Jedi), this section defines why we fight against oppression. Simply painting the world as good guys and bad guys do not create personal stakes for our characters. Isaac begs the audience to see him as the new Han Solo, but he needs to grow into the role. Before this moment, we’ve barely even met him, and allowing him to contrast himself with Hondo and Leia offers that growth.
Meanwhile, Finn has never given a reason for why he would join the Resistance. The only motivation he reveals throughout The Force Awakens comes from his feelings for Rey. He was 100% against the First Order, but he was never for the cause. The scenes with Rose, especially those at Canto Bight, snap several political realities into place. First, it directly pushes up against the idea of the rich, or in many cases corporations, caring about the cultural ideologies that play out in public. Anyone can sell anything to any side. After all, Republicans buy sneakers too. It’s a harsh reality, but one that feels undeniable as consumerism and activism continue to blend. Boyega owns the transformation, becoming a movie star in the process. His line reading of “Rebel Scum” will always be his defining moment to me in the trilogy.
Tran does not get the strongest dialogue, but her ability to ground the story creates its own benefits. She’s someone who grew up hearing the stories of rebellion and has actually felt the costs firsthand. She believes in heroes and puts herself on the front lines. It’s an admirable character, one that is slightly diminished by a one-sided love subplot. That does not diminish the earnest nature of her role, which in many ways in a non-Force sensitive version of Rey. Yet her message of love and togetherness feels essential, especially as political divides grew deeper within American politics.
Finally, the technical aspects of The Last Jedi far outpace any previous entry in the franchise. While the original trilogy did not have the technology to create the images this one does, the creativity Johnson showcases throughout the film creates dozens of brilliant setpieces. The Red Room fight remains one of the greatest fight sequences of Star Wars history. The Holdo Maneuver took the breath out of the theater, creating a visually spectacular shot. The Dreadnaught fight and the battle on Crait provide their own brilliance. Even the little Crystal Foxes and Porgs deserve credit. Johnson unleashed one of the most spectacular visual feats within the Star Wars universe. The use of unique sound, visuals, and production design sprinkled throughout the film makes this one stand out.
If you did not like The Last Jedi, it is very unlikely I have converted you to singing its praises. This was an exercise for me to write about my love of one of the great films of the decade, and The Last Jedi earns that distinction. As a piece of blockbuster filmmaking created by a media conglomerate, there are few equals. For this film to come from Star Wars, in particular, was shocking. Yet the message resonates with me years after its release and remains as socially relevant today as it ever has. In a world where young people from around the world are fighting now, its hard to not see the real world parallels of where Johnson chose to focus this film. The world is changing, and Star Wars should adapt to meet that change. Otherwise, it will be left behind as a relic, one with entertainment value but little else,