Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi ★★★★

Yeah, I missed the boat. (Three times, actually.) On the heels of the annoyingly reverential Episode VII, Johnson’s subversive, deconstructive spirit is a real tonic; I found myself frequently tickled by his mischievous efforts (which some fans are misconstruing as contemptuous) to subvert and/or ignore the banal mysteries that Abrams set up in the previous film, and his refreshing lack of pretense lends this installment in the Star Wars saga a thematic resonance that hasn’t been present since Lucas. In particular, I have a newfound appreciation for the way that the film develops the character of Luke Skywalker—or, more accurately, transforms him from an archetype into a human. I was initially frustrated that this galaxy’s shining beacon of hope had lost all of his own, but not only is this shift completely emotionally plausible,* it’s a trenchant statement about both the necessity of Luke Skywalker’s role as a symbol to this galaxy and his incapacity to fill it. To wit: Johnson isn’t saying that our heroes, our legends, and the things we hold dear are silly or don’t matter—he’s saying that they do matter, even though part of growing up is realizing that the things that inspire us are flawed and more complicated than we once thought. After discovering over the past few weeks that the film series that made me fall in love with movies isn’t as unimpeachable as I would’ve once stubbornly claimed, Episode VIII’s treatment of Luke hits home in ways I never would’ve expected two years ago.

The film is also just plain entertaining, hopping around from plotline to parallel plotline in rhythms that keep you engaged with (if not always thrilled by) each. Admittedly, the Finn/Rose and Poe/Holdo subplots pale in comparison to the central Luke/Rey/Ren story—the Canto Bight excursion feels like a narratively inconsequential means of exploring new corners of the galaxy and a grab bag of political issues, and the quarrel-turned-mutiny aboard the Resistance ship is nakedly contrived to put Poe’s ego through the ringer. None of those are unworthy ambitions, necessarily, but their executions clang too much to ignore, and that they together constitute roughly half of the already bloated runtime is what makes The Last Jedi fall shy of true excellence. But the film’s pleasures are plenty, from the uniformly excellent performances (the series’ best, if you ask me), to Johnson’s adroit direction, to the heavy Kurosawa/samurai allusions in the Ach-To and throne room sequences, to the decision to once again democratize and mysticize the Force (cf. The Phantom Menace), which both recalls the transcendental energy of Luke and Yoda’s training sessions on Dagobah** and is a fitting complement to the dual arcs of Rey and Ben. (The former, born to nobodies, has no place in this grand story, and the latter wants to leave it all behind.) The thing ends so beautifully, too, that I’m frankly unsure that I even need to see Rise of Skywalker, for doubt that it’ll conclude the saga as satisfyingly as even this middle chapter does. But off I go…

Anyway. Have I sufficiently eaten crow? The Last Jedi still sits around the middle of the Star Wars pack for me, but that says more about my veritably nuts opinions on these movies than anything—I’m happy to be in its pro camp. Be kind to this movie’s non-bigoted naysayers. Speaking as a reformed one, they’ll come around eventually.

* To those unconvinced: the third Rashomon-style flashback reveals that Luke did not, in fact, give up on Ren; he was just briefly overtaken by impulse, and immediately recognized his mistake thereafter. And that impulsivity is completely in character with his actions in the original trilogy (recall how he rashly postpones his training on Dagobah in a failed attempt to save his friends on Bespin)—as Aunt Beru correctly remarks in Episode IV, he’s got too much of his father in him. Regarding his lost hope in the galaxy, we must remember that Luke had never really failed before in the events of the original trilogy, at least not to the extent that he did with Ren. It's true, Vader bests him in The Empire Strikes Back, but in the next film it takes Luke all but about three hours on Endor to succeed in turning his father back to the light side. And he had only ever known Vader as a genocidal maniac, so even if he had failed, it’s not as though he bears responsibility. Losing an apprentice (especially one who’s the son of your best friend and sister!) that you’ve trained from youth and seen learn and grow, on the other hand, takes a different kind of emotional toll. After all, it’s not like this is without precedent when it comes to Jedi masters. When Yoda failed to preserve the Jedi Order, he went into self-exile on a swamp for thirty years; and following Anakin’s betrayal, Obi-Wan went to live as a hermit on Tatooine. To boot, Luke also has hindsight that the other two lack: he sees that the Jedi's track record is one long list of failures. So he figures, temporarily: if Obi-Wan and Yoda, in all their wisdom, couldn’t prevent the downfall of the Republic, why should he even try?
** That Luke has essentially become Yoda in Episode V makes it easier to see where his reluctance to train the younger generation, as well as his sly sense of humor, stems from.

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