Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi ★★★★

Before this new trilogy relegated them to "Legends" status, the Extended Universe books not only built into the canonical timeline of Star Wars but, at their best, truly deepened one's sense of the films' characters and the giant realm in which they operated. The Last Jedi feels like an adaptation of a top-tier Extended Universe novel, a story that never strays from the core characteristics or ideas of Star Wars but finds ways to tweak, and even outright interrogate, ideas that are core to the series.

Chief among these upheavals is the idea that the Jedi are an inherent good. So much of The Force Awakens was about comforting us with the sight of seeing old characters, with Leia and Han clearly having suffered their share of heartbreak in intervening years but ultimately living up to their best selves. Here, though, Luke is shattered by the generational accumulation of trauma, both inherited and inadvertently passed on to his nephew. In Empire Strikes Back, Luke travels into a cave where he confronts an image of evil revealed to be himself. One look at Luke here and you realize that vision never left him, that he still fears he could slide into evil at any time, and that paranoia passed down to the next generation.

Still, when he talks of Jedi being over-romanticized, he has a point. The prequels showed a robust Jedi order founded on detachment and self-improvement that nonetheless inserted themselves into politics and wars, their outward serenity masking their own narcissism. Here is a group that could stumble across a backwater planet where slavery still reigned and care only to rescue a child deemed to be of promise. How much of Anakin's fall could be attributed entirely to Jedi dogma that prevented him from discussing his fears and loves lest he be potentially drummed out of the order? Luke recognizes the immense failures of the system, yet he is informed by its teachings, concluding that the only answer is to retreat entirely.

This plays into the ways that this film builds up Rey as special entirely outside of the previous film's insipid teases about her lineage. Where Luke lives in fear of his failure and of the dark side, Rey rushes headlong into a similar pit of ostensibly dark energy. There, she sees not a shade of herself as bad, but endless mirror images that she can navigate upon centering herself. As with Kylo, who here becomes deeper than a mere reflection of privileged male entitlement and offers a mirror image of Rey's own willingness to live in the gray areas. Maybe it's time to let the old ways die.

Narratively, some things here can be frustrating. The Canto Blight material feels like a slapdash way to critique Episode I's Tattooine arc, and the film over-emphasizes Poe's hotshot attitude and its ruinous consequences. But everything here shows Johnson's ultimately shrewd plotting and his ability to make themes obvious without being simpering. This is also the best directed Star Wars film, with vibrant production design, judicious cutting and a grasp of action that takes the best elements of TFA and expands on them with more great lightsaber dueling and coherent dogfights. It's proof that a blockbuster in the current Disney era could have an auteurial stamp, even if Disney appears to be dead-set on making sure it never happens again.

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