You’ve already seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi, right? I don’t plan to delve into heavy spoilers, but don’t be surprised if I mention things not in the trailers. Obviously I won’t list the names of the nine characters who die, the two who turn to the dark side, and the one who debuted in The Star Wars Holiday Special that has now made that travesty officially New Canon.
But I kid! I kid because I’d been excited for this flick ever since they announced TLJ would be helmed by Rian Johnson, the director of Brick and Looper, two films that were very much keepers. Longtime MCC readers may recall I’m not a full-on hardcore unconditional Star Wars fan who super-loves anything automatically that has those two words stamped on it. And yet, ever since the not-bad relaunch of the franchise with The Force Awakens, I find myself looking forward to these new films with increasing curiosity as to where they’ll go, what they’ll change, and how many films it’ll take before we’ll see a new generation of young Star Wars fans who weren’t scarred firsthand by George Lucas’ prequels.
Short version for the unfamiliar: If you skipped TFA for some reason, you’ll be lost and shouldn’t bother jumping aboard the Star Wars saga here. The Resistance (i.e. the Rebel Alliance 2.0) is still on the run from the First Order (a.k.a. Son of the Empire), who maintain firm control of the galaxy with what feels like an overbearing majority. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, this time in the creeping flesh) is still full of himself, and urging his chief sidekick Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, all traces of weakness vaporized) to leave behind his Darth Vader fandom and become his own villain, because Vader was a loser and Snoke prefers Siths who aren’t losers.
Despite the First Order’s ironclad grip on the status quo, the tiny cadre of dissidents fights on because they’re the good guys and someone’s gotta do it. But they won’t do it as a unified front — TLJ splits them into three separate storylines:
* As all the remaining Resistance vessels attempt a getaway from their mortal enemies, ace fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) finds himself stuck on the flagship alongside the surviving crew and the great General Leia Organa, not a bad place to be unless you’re a maverick and a loose cannon who thinks he knows what’s best for everyone and doesn’t like taking orders, even if it’s from the Carrie Fisher. But they’re low on both options and gas as the First Order are nipping at their taillights.
* Our man Finn (John Boyega) teams up with new friend Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance engineer who’s kind of a fan, for a daring mission involving a secured MacGuffin behind enemy lines, a casino royale, space thoroughbreds, and a seedy hacker-y guy who may or may not be just the scoundrel they need.
* Meanwhile in another film far, far away, our ostensible young Jedi-to-be Rey (Daisy Ridley) continues her dogged pursuit of lost Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (the Mark Hamill, now with lines). Rey needs him either to come save the Resistance or teach her how to be the galaxy’s next top Jedi, whichever will bring on the happy ending she hopes to see, if only he’d stop being a total grump about it. She insists it’s training day, but he wants her off his lawn.
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Domhnall Gleeson returns as General Hux, the Resistance army’s head toady, all sneering and bellowing but well aware of his place in the grand evil scheme. Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie once more dons the armor of General Phasma, the spiritual daughter of Boba Fett. Of course Anthony Daniels is back as C-3PO, as is Joonas Suotamo, the new Chewbacca from TFA. Lupita Nyong’o cameos via Space Skype as wizened weirdo Maz Kanata. And Carrie Fisher’s own daughter Billie Lourd, a vague blip in TFA that I had to go look up, earns much more screen time as a Resistance fighter sporting her own pair of hair-buns.
Among the new faces, Benicio Del Toro is the alleged hacker that Finn and Rose have to settle for, as shifty and shady as he was in Sicario but with different results. Jurassic Park‘s Laura Dern hops aboard as one of Leia’s backup commanders, who lives just to aggravate Poe, he thinks.
Other cameos abound, including at least one key figure from previous films that I maybe shouldn’t spoil here, though his performance has certainly, um, evolved. At surface level most background faces were unrecognizable, but such insertions do tend to be disguised under helmets or painted over with CGI. To be honest, the way these blockbusters tend to invite so many surprise guest stars nowadays has become a tedious distraction, conning us into trying to overanalyze every frame in the theater in hopes of winning bonus geek points for spotting someone before news sites release their smug behind-the-scenes Easter-egg listicles.
On a related note, Justin Theroux (one of Leslie Knope’s ex-boyfriends) flits by as a well-dressed high roller.
Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? Numerous internet factions have been at war over the past two days as to what TLJ is or isn’t about, what it all does or doesn’t mean, who its “real” audience is or isn’t, who gets it versus who doesn’t, and what’s meant by the phrase “character assassination”. Themes and morals may or may not include one or more of the following, depending on who you ask:
* Our ego can be our own worst enemy.
* Our heroes can let us down, but sometimes they just need us to lift them up again. At other times, one of the most miserable things you can ask your hero to do is live up to their legend.
* If the student never surpasses the teacher, it’s either because the student quit trying or the teacher did it wrong.
* Patience, as it has always been with Jedi, remains a virtue.
* Just because your bosses aren’t sharing their plans with you doesn’t mean they have no plan.
* War profiteers don’t care about your alignment, only your money.
* Should war be motivated more by hate or by love? (NOTE: I did not buy the scene containing the film’s proposed answer.)
* A sacrificial suicide run is not the answer to every problem. Maybe a few, but not every.
* The power of temptation can lure us in our weakest moments into acting what we would consider “out of character”, only to realize too late we’ve gone and screwed up. Sin is pretty devious that way. Once we realize we’ve succumbed, we really need to get back in character ASAP if we’re ever to seek atonement.
That last bit is the film’s absolutely trickiest moment, at which exact point the dialogue speeds up and triples in density as an obviously collaborative effort between all involved parties attempts to nail the nuances as sharply as possible to get ahead of the debates that would follow, first on set and then online. Judging by the large portions of the internet still aflame as I type this, not every viewer got the point or met them halfway to accept it.
Many viewers were wowed by the inclusion of far more nonwhite characters than usual, continuing the trend from the last two films. Sometimes the film spools onward for entire minutes at a time without white guys hogging the foreground. Even the First Order boasts at least a few Asians of varying ranks, and not just cannon fodder. Whatever qualities separate the nefarious First Order from the good guys, racism doesn’t appear among them. Maybe they borrowed the cure for racism from Star Trek. Whatever works is cool with me.
For those who’d like to think less at the movies: yes, naturally there are still space dogfights, way-cool lightsaber battles, and plenty of explosions, including one climactic humdinger that for once does not involve anything planet-sized.
Nitpicking? TLJ is over 2½ hours long, and for the first ninety minutes it’s really noticeable. I would’ve loved an entire art-house film of just Rey and Luke hanging out on their scenic island planet, but they have to share running time with everyone else, whose stories don’t move at the same speed and aren’t nearly as engaging. While it’s sort of fun watching Finn get to know his big superfan Rose (with old pal BB-8 along for the ride!), their misadventure on lavish yet corrupt Planet One-Percenter is essentially a heist flick. Unfortunately for us and them, neither possesses any actual heisting skills whatsoever, making for one drag of a caper. They fumble the approach to their destination, stumble into where they need to go, luck into their quarry, escape only because someone else saves the day for them, and continue screwing up at nearly every step after that. Boyega and Tran have quite the fun meet-cute interactions, but once Del Toro arrives, he walks away with their entire section of film in his back pocket. They desperately needed a sharp mission leader up front, and maybe a few Leverage writers to make their heist crackle rather than fizzle.
Making matters worse: somewhere around the two-hour mark, well before the end of the film, everything they’ve done or had done for them, virtually every single minute of their mission, is proven a colossal waste of time. I mean, they got to know each other, that’s cool, but they could’ve done that over a few games of space cards back on the main ship with Poe instead of giving us a watered-down retake on The Usual Suspects.
Not too far away from those same lines: Poe’s entire thing is he’s a hotshot pilot. The big lesson he’s assigned to learn is how to be a better leader, not just a hotshot pilot. When the hotshot pilot is grounded from hotshot piloting and forced to do only non-hotshot-pilot things, it seems like a waste of the hotshot-pilot character altogether. And once he learns his lessons from more than one teacher, his one big leadership decision amounts to a strategic move inspired by someone else’s big fat lie that could’ve gotten them all slaughtered if not for the moral luck of some dumb animals wandering by at the right time. Three cheers for future General Poe, I guess? At least we get some nifty hotshot piloting in the opening skirmish, but the third-act standoff involving space unicycles fails to compensate for the dearth of second-act hotshot-piloting.
The film’s final 20-30 minutes do contain a few scenes that are flat-out mind-blowing on the first run-through (not the part where I winced at a mini-super-weapon made with “Death Star technology” because OF COURSE they probably have entire planet-sized hangars full of those), but one last twist very late in the game undercuts the awesomeness of what’s just transpired and subverts it for the sake of making a deeper point. I get the point, and denying viewers the full satisfaction of what we thought we were getting is an interesting way of making the point from an intellectual standpoint, but from a popcorn-film standpoint, it’s a pretty big letdown on the first viewing.
So what’s to like? English-lit trappings aside, Johnson loads The Last Jedi with plenty of The Year’s Best Moments in Cinema (here’s looking at you, Ms. Dern), and all the performances are on point. Hamill in particular knocks out one of the finest performances of his career, forcing anyone else sharing his scene to up their game in response. Ridley takes bolder steps toward securing her Star Wars leading-woman status, Boyega finds his courage, Tran emanates volume-11 optimism, and the sinister triumvirate of Driver, Serkis, and Gleeson form the best super-villain team-up since Superman II. It goes without saying that every minute of Carrie Fisher is to be treasured, a final performance that’s full of the steely mettle and surprises that made older generations fall in love with Princess Leia in the first place. If you’re an old fan looking for reasons to check out The Last Jedi, at least do it for her.
But wow, is that first half unwieldy. And it can be frustrating when the back half reveals between the lines that denying fan expectations is their intrinsic mission statement — i.e., that the new generation of heroes can come to the forefront only when the old ways are set aside and the classic tropes are deconstructed or blown to bits. I might appreciate TLJ more on a second or third viewing, but I wasn’t prepared on that first viewing for something so unlike any other Star Wars film to date. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing, especially for less intense fans like me, but being Something Different doesn’t make it automatically good on principle.
How about those end credits? There’s no scene after the Star Wars: The Last Jedi end credits, but what kind of Star Wars fan skips out early on hearing some new John Williams music? As an added bonus, if you can contain yourself for up to a whole minute when names start popping onscreen, you and all the other fans around you can share in the waves of emotion rippling from what were undoubtedly the hardest words for them to type:
“In loving memory of our Princess