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Film Review – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017; Directed by Rian Johnson)

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” – 1 Corinthians 13:11 (King James Version)

If we’re being honest with ourselves, and we only rarely are, then we have to admit that, at its core, Star Wars – the biggest entertainment phenomenon of our time and a time or two before ours, as well – is a childish thing that we, as a culture, have never been able to put away. For all of its nascent futurism, Star Wars, even in its original iteration in 1977, is a relic of another time, a Manichean morality play of light vs. darkness built out of the venerable folkloric archetypes of myth (insert obligatory faux-intellectual Joseph Campbell namedrop here) and based in the aspirational chest-swelling of heroic adventure. It defined the childhood of a generation not merely because of its thrilling space battles and laser-sword duels, or because of creator George Lucas’ prescience in the marketing of cross-product commodification, for that matter. More profoundly, Star Wars enthralled youth because it employed the tools and the language of the technological age to conjure a distant, romantic magic that seemed not only inaccessible but almost unintelligible to the inhabitants of the sociohistorical context into which it dropped like a neutron bomb. Believing in the Force, if only for a couple of hours while watching a movie, was not only an escape from the modern world but a transcendence of it.

But believing in even the limited fantasy idea of transcendence, in rising ethereally above the messy, alarming, helplessly unjust modern reality in which find ourselves painfully mired, is childish. In this real world, the mythic dichotomous framing of light and darkness inspires not heroic self-sacrifice but endless conflict, wanton slaughter and destruction, and iron-fisted oppression and persecution of visible difference, all eagerly supported and greedily profited from by self-enriching plutocratic elites. Breathless boyish narratives of action and adventure undergird the horrors of war and colonial exploitation, and the destabilizing empires of territory, resources, and capital. Fate, magic, and destiny are the stalking horses of religious fundamentalism, choking off minority rights and murdering in the name of eternal reward in the hereafter, stoking imaginary divisions forever used by the powerful to maintain and expand their dominion. A text reliant on these tropes, no matter how thunderously popular and profitable, was always missing something essential and vital in our contemporary context. It was always, honestly, a bit childish.

Writer/director Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is what it looks like when Star Wars makes a concerted, serious effort to put away childish things. It isn’t always pretty or consistent or clean, but it’s a fascinating, invigorating, and often powerful attempt. “We are what they grow beyond,” says an unlooked-for and delightfully Frank-Oz’s-puppet-like Yoda about mentors and their apprentices, but he could be talking about the film he’s in, which is reaching (sometimes overreaching) to grow beyond what Star Wars has been. It’s stretching beyond the nesting-dolls of mythic archetypes and comforting nostalgia baked deep into the series and which Disney’s generally well-received new franchise entries have both productively worked to overcome and cynically relied upon, at different (and sometimes the same) times. It’s a similar movement to the one The Empire Strikes Back is understood to have made in the wake of the very first film, but with a much greater weight to be shaken off.

A common observation concerning last year’s standalone anthology film Rogue One was that, in its tone of fatalistic heroism and mud-splattered in-the-trenches content, it was the first Star Wars movie to take war seriously. The Last Jedi extends that seriousness concerning war to moral, political, and even economic grounds. It opens with, continues through its running time, and closes with a desperate pursuit-battle of gradual attrition, as the military-industrial Space Nazis of the First Order chase down a dwindling remnant of the plucky but outmatched Resistance, fighting as ever for the survival of a nebulous freedom. The latter’s leader, General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher), is worn down by the battle losses, but soldiers on, forever shifting to the last lingering shred of hope; the dynamically foolhardy, action-inclined Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) questions the seemingly unwise patience of Leia’s surrogate, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), even as the slashing assaults he leads (including an intense bombing run on a First Order dreadnought that opens the film) inflict more crippling losses on the Resistance than they do on the enemy.

Poe, despite being demoted for insubordination, greenlights a covert side-mission by his established buddy Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to locate a renowned codebreaker who can help them infiltrate the First Order flagship and deactivate a tracking device that would allow the surviving Resistance fleet to escape into hyperspace. This mission takes them to a sort of interstellar Monte Carlo on a planet called Canto Bight, where the well-heeled galactic elites gamble and bet on animal races and generally engage in boundless hedonism with their ill-gotten wealth, obtained by selling weapons to both sides of the galactic conflict. Johnson has Finn and Rose (the latter lost a sister in the war and relates the strip-mining of her whole life and world by the First Order) engage in some wish-fulfillment smashing-up of the gilded mirrors of this self-satisfied casino world as they escape it, but the substitute codebreaker who aids them, a shifty, muttering and stammering underworld type called DJ (played, in an utterly non-Star Wars kind of performance, by Benicio del Toro), represents a much more pragmatic and cynically capitalist view of the socioeconomic order of the galaxy.

On the side of the moral philosophy of power, budding Jedi-esque heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) engages in a complex and ambiguous journey to understand her relation to the Force, her role in the wide sweep of events, and her family history. The two magnetic poles tugging fitfully at her are Luke Skywalker (a haggardly badass Mark Hamill, acting the fuck out of this bitch) and Kylo Ren (the excellent Adam Driver), the conflicted, dark-side-leaning right-hand man of First Order Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), the estranged son of Leia and Han Solo (whom he killed in the last movie), and the former student of Luke, the master excoriating himself for failing with his apprentice. Luke, whom Rey sought out at the visually memorable conclusion of The Force Awakens, at first unceremoniously and then more comprehensively tries to disillusion her as regards the universe-saving potential of the Jedi, while a mysterious psychic connection with Kylo gives her insight into his inner conflicts which leads her to believe that he can be turned to the side of light, as Luke convinced Darth Vader to do before his death.

For a self-confessed diehard Star Wars fan, Rian Johnson certainly reveals himself to be a skeptic of many of its core assumptions, at least as they have developed in recent films. Productively so, mind you: not only does he recreate and then deconstruct the core light/darkness power dynamic that closed the Original Trilogy in Return of the Jedi (and punctuates it with one of the most thrilling and best-choreographed lightsaber fights in the entire series), he also gestures towards a certain democratizing of the Force, a freeing of its magical properties from the exclusive hegemony of quasi-aristocratic heredity. Johnson’s story structure and plotting have rough patches (there’s a moment with Leia that is already dividing fandom, Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma is a useless and perfunctory character, and Finn and Rose’s kicking-against-the-rich-pricks subplot is highly tangential, not to mention excessively on-the-nose, ideologically speaking) but it features repeated, delightful fake-out ruses which further emphasize his willingness to push Star Wars in different directions. Each of these shell-game story beats plays on audience expectations formed by common franchise conventions, and Johnson wrings meaning out of each sleight-of-hand misdirection.

Nonetheless, for Johnson, as for Star Wars at its best, the impact of the grander themes matter infinitely more than the tensile moment-by-moment strength of the plot. And The Last Jedi‘s themes are so ambiguous and resonant, so worthy of consideration and discussion for those versed in the franchise and even for the thoughtful general moviegoers, that it’s easy to focus on them rather than the spectacular, inventive movie that they are a part of. The visuals are epic and often gorgeous (Steve Yedlin is his cinematographer), and the use of red – both in Rey’s dramatic audience in front of Snoke and Kylo and on the salt-and-mineral planet upon which the final First Order-Resistance confrontation is set – is striking and, in the latter case, dramatically and symbolically significant. The dizzying detail of the casino sequence as well as the teeming life on Luke’s isolated Jedi temple island (including the already-popular big-eyed puffin-esque porgs) sees Johnson filling out the frame of his world. New kid favourite droid BB-8 is roughly treated but also demonstrates an amusing ability to infiltrate almost any piece of technology. Cathartic fist-pump moments (of a kind with Rey satisfyingly grasping the lightsaber Kylo was Force-calling in their final battle in The Force Awakens) abound, mostly timely, save-the-day character appearances but also a stunning use of a hyperspace jump as a devastating offensive weapon. Numerous performances are memorable, too, from Isaac’s boisterously confident Poe to Driver’s petulant but soulful Kylo to Domhnall Gleeson’s gloriously hateable sneering tool General Hux to Tran’s Rose, a humbly inspiring figure. With both Hamill and Fisher bidding their characters farewell (Leia survives, mind you, but what can be respectfully done with the character from here, it’s hard to say), there’s a certain pathos for longtime fans at work as well.

But The Last Jedi sees a franchise known for looking back gazing significantly forward. “Let the past die,” Kylo Ren tells Rey. “Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.” In hopes of becoming the dark lord that he believes he should be, Kylo has attempted to wipe out his past, from his father in the last film to his mother and his Jedi-instructing uncle in this one. His opposite, Luke Skywalker, might even agree with him, to some extent; he harshly criticizes the Jedi’s fatal arrogance and complacency in the face of the rising Empire, and bluntly advises Rey to abandon her naive notions of the hope that he might represent. But neither Luke nor Kylo can put the past behind them (nor can Rey, obsessed as she is – and as fans are – with her mysterious parentage): Luke cannot forgive his costly failure with his powerful nephew nor can he entirely rid himself of the Jedi legacy, while Kylo self-consciously impersonates his grandfather Vader’s menacing attire (though abandons this homage early in the initial act, when mocked for it by Snoke). And neither can overcome their personal history, which drives their decisions through the breadth of the film.

The Last Jedi cannot kill the past either. No Star Wars movie truly can while remaining Star Wars. But it can, and very excitingly does, put elements of that past away. Under Rian Johnson’s steady eye and intelligent storytelling mind, this is a Star Wars film that understands and thinks as an adult: with pain, regret, doubt, and memory, and ultimately with a wisdom only earned with experience of a difficult and unromantic world. And with that wisdom comes a tempered but resilient hope, a wounded and wavering but never squelched sense of the persistent value of progress. In trying times, The Last Jedi steps forward to be the Star Wars we need it to be.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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