There is really only one question coming out of The Last Jedi: is it an excellent Star Wars movie, or is it the best Star Wars movie so far? I’m leaning towards the latter, and seeing as how I’m already seeing some (extremely misguided) people on Facebook being completely underwhelmed, I decided to explain why—at great length, as is my preferred style.
This post is not just filled with spoilers, it talks about things ranging from the opening seconds to the closing credits. If you haven’t seen it yet (and really, why not? you’re nuts), close your browser and delete the application before proceeding, lest some stray electrons from my web server reach you and take away one iota from the movie.
The core reason why this is the best Star Wars movie to date: just as Star Trek: Discovery is doing, it is simultaneously part of the universe it’s living in, and a deconstruction of that universe. Last Jedi introduces critiques of Star Wars, which have been swirling for decades out here in the real world, in-universe for the first time.
The Force Awakens was very much a beat-for-beat homage to the original Star Wars, and that mainly for a Doyleist reason: it had to prove that the magic from the original movies was recaptureable (which it did admirably). The Last Jedi is the handing off of the baton from what came before to whatever is coming next.
It’s not a perfect movie. There were a number of scenes and characters which I thought were a bit questionable. But as I come to praise Caesar, not to bury him, I’ll gloss over these and maybe return to them in a future post.
Opening Scene: hands down, I will never have more fun in a movie theater than the 30 seconds when the Lucasfilm logo is replaced with Long, Long Ago, the fanfare begins, and I know that never again will I get to see this movie for the first time. Keep making them until I’m a Force ghost, Disney, because I’m going to keep buying tickets.
Rey’s Knighthood: there was much grousing after Force Awakens that Rey was far too powerful on zero training, which continues here: after being spurned by Luke and not getting any more Jedi pointers, she pulls off some Yoda-level Force levitation near the end of the movie. (And I recall that canonically, the crimson guard of the Emperor have Sith fight training, so the fact that she fights them off and does slightly better than Kylo is even more impressive than lifting rocks.)
But Rey’s self-tutored transition from neophyte to mastery is little different than Luke’s. Luke got maybe a few weeks at Dagobah, but his confrontation with Vader makes it very clear he’s out of his depth. By the beginning of Return, though, he’s all Jedi ninja. I’ve seen head canon explanations of this ranging from a return to Dagobah to training with Obi-Wan’s Force ghost, but the most obvious one is, “if you’re strong with the Force, you’re a self-starter.” Considering that the only time we’ve seen official Jedi training, it was for Anakin Skywalker, perhaps that’s further evidence that the Jedi curriculum is not as good as is promised in the brochure.
Combine this with Luke’s mini-sermon on the distinction between the Force itself, and the Jedi’s jealous guardianship against anyone else understanding it, and it seems clear: the Force decides whom it likes, and if you have that, who can ask for anything more? This nicely discards some of the most troublesome canonical problems with the Jedi which everyone has been glossing over for years: a pre-Schism Catholic separation of the learned from the unwashed, and control over whom is granted access to sacred knowledge; a theory of pedagogy whereby kindergartners are too old to be considered (concomitantly implying that the “right age” is fairly close to kidnapping toddlers from their parents); and while no one comes out and says it, the near certainty that the Old Republic Jedi were awfully cozy with hierarchical, patriarchal, and oligarchical governance and leadership structures.
Kylo’s Nonredemption: what are the two things we know about the Force? First, it has a light side and a dark side; dark side Force users get more superpowers, but have a tendency to be irredeemably evil. And unlike everything we know about the real world, where good people do bad things and vice versa, in Star Wars you’re one or the other.
Second, all of the light side users are super-concerned about the “balance” of the Force, which doesn’t make any sense whatsoever given that a) it’s hundreds of them versus two Sith masters, whom no one even believes exist at first; and b) it’s neither clear what the hell they’re trying to balance, or exactly what they do except talk about it endlessly. The most comprehensible Force balance we ever get to see is Luke’s Dagobah swamp yoga.
But wait! There’s a huge caveat to “irredeemable,” because even if you’re an evil space tyrant for decades and involved in the death of billions, it’s all okay so long as you get that teary final scene with your kid, and maybe throw an emperor into a deep hole. This makes about as much sense as finding out that Hitler made a Jewish friend in the bunker, so everyone decides to build a statue of him. (Presumably in South Carolina, by very fine people.)
I came out of Force Awakens saying, “I will be so pissed when they give us the inevitable Kylo redemption arc.” It’s as much part of Star Wars DNA as the hero’s journey. Before Vader, there was Han’s transition from selfish smuggler prick to deus ex falconia in Episode IV. And just so there’s no confusion: yes, of course he murdered Greedo. That’s what makes his story work.
So then they give us Kylo’s redemption. And turns out, it wasn’t half bad; I’m watching the scene thinking, “if I must have this, this is probably the best way to get it.” I’m already picturing Episode IX with plucky Kylo and Finn coming up with counterstrategies against the First Order, while marveling at a pretty damn good fight scene, ending with the moment where Rey unequivocably saves Kylo’s black-clad ass.
But then… Kylo wasn’t redeemed, he just did what Vader never did: depose the master and take over himself. Three minutes of Hux Force choking later, and he’s the undisputed Emperor. Suddenly the entire story arc of the next 1.5 movies (and maybe 4.5 movies) gets completely rewritten. Fuck that noise where he commits patricide against goddamn Han Solo and gets off scot free. Even in his own reconstruction of events, he’s still the guy who burned down a Jedi temple and killed off half of his (presumably teenage) classmates. And the redemptive quality that we’re supposedly seeing—his struggle with the light side—turns out to be Snoke’s plan to lure out Force-sensitive enemies.
Fuck him, he’s a bad guy. Even Rey’s given up on him by the end, and her unfailing optimism about the goodness of people is as fundamentally irrational in the Star Wars universe as it would be in Westeros. Chewie had the right idea: keep shooting at him with a bowcaster.
We Don’t Need No Stinking Hero’s Journey: Meanwhile, back on the island (and how amusing is it that an island features so prominently in the movie JJ isn’t helming?), Luke is not the guy we’re expecting. I probably annoyed my fellow moviegoers by how hard I laughed at the opening shot, where he tosses his lightsaber over his shoulder and off a cliff; we waited two years for the resolution of a nearly literal Force Awakens cliffhanger, and that’s what we get? Loved it.
This sets up the obvious Star Wars trope: Luke the reluctant hero (this time in a teacher role), unwilling to be involved, but gradually won over by the plucky determination and sheer talent of his padawan. (It doesn’t hurt that Daisy Ridley has preternatural screen charisma, making it entirely believable that characters would naturally come over to her side.) It’s the arc we get with Poe, when Leia and her second discuss how much they like him because of his mutiny. Luke is just being grumpy; surely Rey’s winning attitude will bring him back. Artoo even gets in on the plan, showing Luke the Leia hologram to remind him of his old attitudes.
But as it turns out, Luke isn’t in seclusion because he’s turned his back on the Resistance, or out of self-loathing after Kylo’s dark side turn, but because he’s lost faith in the Jedi as a whole. This not only makes his actions in this movie believable, but it fills in a major plot hole from the last one: short of this—which I wouldn’t believe would ever be in Star Wars if I hadn’t seen it—there’s no good explanation for the events leading up to Episode VII. “Our” Luke would never turn his back on either his friends or the fight, and that’s exactly what he did. Turns out, he had what I think might be the only explicable reason for doing so, which is a point of view that’s never been hinted at in any other movie (and certainly never from a Jedi).
And who should come back to exemplify this, but Yoda himself? Mr. “Do, or do not; there is no try” is now “failure is the greatest teacher,” and he puts the exclamation point to it by burning down the Jedi library-tree. (Which is kind of a weird concept unless it’s a swipe at Avatar.) Put simply, Yoda’s self-assuredness in the original movies is a bit odd after the decisions we see him make in the prequels—flying in at the lead of a platoon of stormtroopers rather put me off the little green dude for a while—and it’s interesting to see that wherever Force ghosts go when they’re not enjoying a big Yub Nub party, they’re giving some thought to their past actions.
Leia’s “Death”: after the dispatch of poor Han in the last movie (sending him off a trademark Death Star balcony, so there would be no misconceptions that maybe it was just a flesh wound), I think we were all steeling ourselves for the loss of the rest of the Big Three this time around. And there goes Princess Leia, whooshed out into deep space, her body drifting around for enough scenes for us all to think, “wow, they just did that.”
Then we get the dramatic close-up, and the hand flex, and I had just enough time to think, “okay, here’s the dramatic last message to Luke,” before she proceeds to Iron Man back to safety with goddamn Force powers. Which is, at a single stroke, both badass, and redemptive of one of the worst failings of the original trilogy.
First, there’s what she does. The Force can keep you alive in space? Wow. That’s new. But it also makes sense—it’s a life force, after all. So it’s easy to say, “sure, it’s 3° Kelvin and she’s out of air, but if you’re strong enough with the Force, maybe you just don’t die until you’re ready to.” After all, dead people get to become Force ghosts (even if they were evil for most of their lifetimes), so sure, there’s some serious mojo working there.
Second, there’s that she does it. She’s the sister of Luke, the Jedi master. She’s the daughter of Vader. Without mentioning that horrible midiwhatsis concept, the Force has a serious genetic component. And all we’ve gotten to see her do so far in Episodes IV through VII is have a cosmic Force awareness of things happening light years away. That’s great, but come on; Artoo can do the same thing with his T-Mobile antenna.
This, however, is a superpower. And just to remind you, she’s a girl. Which means that the most amazing Force badassery we get to see in this movie is wielded by two women. (I’ll get back to Luke in a moment.) Maybe you had to be alive for the original trilogy in theaters, but man, this is as big a deal to Star Wars as that interracial kiss was in Star Trek. Goodbye, gold bikini.
Luke’s Twist: Meanwhile, we get to see Luke pull off some never-before-seen Force powers as well, walking out of a vaporizing First Order barrage like some goddamn Kryptonian. I halfway expected him to wave his hand and blow away every attacking AT-AT seconds later.
But it’s not him; it’s a Force ghost. Which is at once a brand new superpower (we’ve only seen that from dead guys before), and also a perfect explanation for how he pulled that off. We all got to see hundreds of Jedi mowed down in Episode II, so it’s just not credible for the Force to confer invulnerability. But if he’s not there in the first place? That’s just some damn good writing—especially since it’s completely in character for him to not attack Kylo all during their lightsaber fight, so it’s only in retrospect that I realized that the only person who ever touches him is Leia during their conversation. (The Incomparable podcast notes something else I missed: everyone else’s feet kick up the salt to show the red layer, but Luke’s don’t.)
It also nicely wraps up, “how the hell did he get in?” Poe Dameron’s one-liner sets up the first (incorrect) explanation, which we see is impossible when they get to the rockfall. You get just long enough to think, “maybe the rockfall happened after Luke arrived,” before you’re told, “nope, ghosts walk through walls.”
Considering how much handwavium we’ve all had to deploy for the classic trilogy (seriously, I’ve seen explanations that time moves slower on Dagobah because it must be orbiting a black hole), this sets up an obvious plot hole, gives us time to justify it with a hand wave, corrects it in dialogue, destroys it again on screen, and then makes it all completely sensible.
Han Fauxlo: I don’t know how much there is to say about Benicio Del Toro’s character, at least maybe not until after we see Episode IX; I won’t be all that surprised for him to complete the Han Solo arc from scoundrel to hero. But for now at least, he’s the embodiment of the discarding of the light side-dark side dichotomy. Unlike earlier scoundrels we’ve come to love, his good guy turn is a matter of convenience, and he switches right back when the tide turns. But he gets off several one-liners exactly regarding how the line between good and evil is not so much gray as irrelevant, punctuated by the hologram showing that the same arms merchants who build Death Stars build X-Wings.
I’d rather keep the remainder of the new series redemption-free; it’s clear that Finn never needed one because he was never a “bad” stormtrooper to begin with. Del Toro can just vanish without loss, or remain a bad guy; he doesn’t need to be the next Han. (And probably can’t be, after “responsible for the deaths of half the Resistance.”) But this is interesting in-universe commentary that the new Star Wars universe is just as mixed up as ours is regarding good and evil, which is all to the good.
Rey’s Parentage: Likewise, we also seem to be somewhat finished with “everyone important is related to everyone else important.” Sure, Ben Solo is strong with the Force because he’s a Skywalker, there are still some genetics about. But unless Kylo is lying about Rey’s parents (always a possibility), Rey’s Force sensitivity is sui generis. That nicely democratizes the Force in a completely non-Lucasian way, and also resolves a lingering problem left over from Awakens: there really weren’t that many viable candidates for Rey’s parentage. Couldn’t be Leia and Han, very difficult for it to be Luke, nonsensical for nearly anyone else. I had my bet riding on “Kenobi granddaughter” as of two years ago, but considering the amount of backstory that would be necessary for Ewan or Alec to have had a descendent on Jakku, I’m happy to be wrong.
Remember, this is the universe that made Leia a princess, although her “official” Dad was a senator, because her secret Mom was… uh… an elected queen? But no one knew Padme was her mother, so why… oh, forget it. Princess Leia is a princess because it’s iconic, because rescuing princesses is a trope, and because Leia calling her rescuers idiots and blasting away the wall to escape was badass in 1977. Attempts to be Watsonian are doomed to failure here, and it’s simply completely weird that Lucas became uncomfortable with perpetuating hereditary monarchies, at the same time he was cementing the view that only certain people get to use the Force, those people mostly being the children of other Force users.
Carrie’s Dedication: “For our princess?” Oh, man. I’m not crying as hard right now as I did during the closing credits, but I haven’t been able to think of those three words without getting choked up.
Somewhere, there’s an alternate timeline where Carrie isn’t dead, and there’s no cosmic irony that Leia’s the last survivor of the Star Wars trinity, but can’t have whatever sendoff was planned for Episode IX. I wish I could see that movie.
Wrapping Up: So, yeah, I get it, there are flaws. The porgs have more than a whiff of Ewok to them, and scenes with them were a bit more Tex Avery than I’d like. Laura Dern could have saved everyone a lot of trouble by not keeping so many secrets from Poe. My particular favorite: really, no one has ever tried lightspeed at an attacking fleet before? Seems like it should be an obvious trick. (Considering how often Hux screws up in this movie, Vader’s strategy of rapid general disposal starts to look a bit better in retrospect.)
But not enough flaws to take it out of the running for best Star Wars ever, and since that’s a wholly subjective opinion, I’m comfortable saying it won. Which is to say: the original Star Wars is forever going to be the most fun movie ever made, partially because it’s pretty damn good, and partially because I saw it when I was seven. That’s also why I’ve always had less regard for Empire than most people: age 10 me didn’t get a lot of it, age 13 me judged it the weakest of the three, and while adult me likes it more now (and Jedi less), Star Wars still takes the cake and leaves no crumbs behind. Sure, you can appreciate Empire on a deeper level, but once you do that, you also need to evaluate it for its flaws, of which it has many. The worst flaws of Star Wars, they fixed in Rogue One.
(And to repeat age 10 me’s biggest objection to Empire: the whole point of movies is that there’s never a “wait until next week to see the conclusion.” Empire had one which you had to wait three years for. That should be considered child abuse.)
Coming out of Awakens, I was ready to say that it was on par with Star Wars, based on the simple fact that it made me feel like I did when I saw it the first time. That’s pretty damn rare; the only movie I can recall making me as giddy in theaters recently was Spider-Man: Homecoming. (There have been six, count them, six swings and misses at this by movies with Superman in them since Superman II, when making a feel-good Superman movie should be the biggest gimme in Hollywood.)
My joy at seeing a movie isn’t necessarily correlated with the quality of the movie as a movie; my favorite movie doesn’t have to be the best movie I’ve seen. I’m equally leaning towards saying Discovery has knocked DS9 off its perch as the best of Star Trek… but my favorite is likely to always be TNG. Likewise, Star Wars is always going to be my favorite… but for right now, I’ll call it. Last Jedi is better. It breaks the most ungainly Lucas toys and builds something better from them. Not only am I looking forward to what JJ does in IX, I can’t wait now for Rian Johnson’s run at X through XII.