If you’ve seen any trailers for The Last Jedi, by now you’ve heard two lines over and over. Kylo saying, “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,” and Luke saying, “This is not going to go the way you think.” This is a fairly remarkable example of a film’s marketing not being misleading in the slightest. Both of these lines that you’re probably getting tired of hearing by now are not only part of intensely important character moments, they actually do a pretty good job of summarizing the goals of this movie and how it achieved those goals.
Though there was much less backlash to The Force Awakens, what backlash did exist basically seemed to amount to, “They just copied and pasted A New Hope!” While I think that reaction is extremely overstated (and it ignores a lot of really important elements of the film), there is definitely some validity to it with certain elements of the film. So of course when The Last Jedi swings wildly in the other direction, everyone is upset because it’s too different. Because no one can make up their minds. (My abiding fear here is that Disney, Kathleen Kennedy, and J.J. Abrams are soaking up this reaction and coming to the conclusion that Episode IX needs to play things as safe as The Force Awakens. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen. At least we’re not still stuck with Trevorrow.)
What’s frustrating about these reactions is that, functionally, it makes perfect sense for the first film in the new trilogy to be a little “safer” and the second to be a bit more daring. The Force Awakens needed to do what any good first installment in a trilogy does, introduce some new characters, get us to love them, and give them a goal to overcome that feels like they’ve really Done Something but doesn’t overshadow the more important goal of getting us invested in the world and characters. No, that obstacle didn’t necessarily need to be “we copied and pasted the Death Star lol” but honestly, I’m not super worried about that element of the film and I’m mystified that it seems to be the most important thing to a lot of people.
Anyway, as the conventional wisdom goes, the second act of a trilogy is supposed to take those characters that we now know and love and put them through some Serious Shit. And, while I’m very undecided about how I feel about comparing the two films in terms of overall quality (and Empire has a hell of a head start), wow does The Last Jedi blow The Empire Strikes Back away in terms of putting its characters through some Serious Shit. And this is where I’m wondering where all those people who were whining about The Force Awakens being too similar to A New Hope went, because The Last Jedi basically took a few elements of The Empire Strkes Back and a few elements of Return of the Jedi, put them in a blender, arranged them through the film in a seemingly random order and, as an added bonus, subverted your expectations of what it would do with those elements at basically every turn.
One of my favorite things about The Force Awakens was the contrast between its heroes and villains. The Resistance is visibly diverse, while the First Order is composed almost exclusively of humans, and (with a few exceptions) mostly white men at that. More to the point, they explicitly worship a fascist regime from the past and are trying to take another crack at galactic tyranny. Hux’s Nazi-style rally late in the film’s second act didn’t come off that way by accident. And as delighted that I was that The Force Awakens was “going there” even when it was fairly superficial (but noticeable), The Last Jedi actually doubles down on this and then some.
The linchpin of the whole thing is actually Finn and Rose’s excursion to Canto Bight, a sequence that was completely essential to the film’s thematic intent, and a sequence that basically every negative review I’ve seen completely misses the point of. Rose tells Finn before they reach Canto Bight that the place is a hellhole and he should expect to meet the “worst people in the galaxy” there. We then cut to the seeming incongruous visual of a bunch of rich people sipping what appears to be the Star Wars equivalent of champagne on a hover yacht, and then a casino full of glitz, glamor, and attractive, well-dressed people. Finn’s reaction is one of wide-eyed innocent enjoyment, until Rose shatters his enjoyment of the setting by pointing out that this sort of wealth is built on the backs of the rest of the galaxy. It isn’t incongruous at all. When you’re profiting from the suffering of others, picking up a glass of champagne is as much an act of violence as picking up a blaster.
I literally cannot understand anyone who finds this sequence anything but essential to what this film is saying, because otherwise all you get is a few throwaway lines about how the Resistance is fighting for the galaxy’s “downtrodden.” What is even the point of that if you don’t see it? And how would you apply that to the world around us if your only visual touchstone were spaceship dogfights and laser sword fights? And as much as I might enjoy that kind of escapism with nothing but superficial allowances towards something more resembling my worldview (hell, it worked well enough with The Force Awakens), how is this not enormously more valuable?
Attendant to the film’s pretty explicitly leftist political themes is all the stuff going on with Luke and Rey. He explains the Force to her (and the audience) in a way that is simultaneously familiar (the air of reverence and vulnerability that is, as always, highly enhanced by the score) and completely new. The Force doesn’t belong to the Jedi. While Luke is able to offer this bold insight, even he is taken aback by Yoda’s careless disregard for the ancient Jedi sacred texts. And the old master tells the new master that there is nothing in those texts that Rey doesn’t already have. And, while it didn’t really occur to me at the time, upon reflection I’m realizing that all of the fanboy brats who whine about how Rey is a Mary Sue probably pissed themselves simultaneously, so that’s an added bonus.
Since I already mentioned Rose, can I just say how fucking refreshing it is that this saga can finally have as many as four female heroes on screen at the same time? And I’m just counting semi-main characters, not even Roses’s sister who sacrificed herself at the beginning of the film. Leia, Rey, Rose, and Admiral Holdo. (And speaking of Holdo, I can think of very few movies that couldn’t be improved by Laura Dern with purple hair.) I mean, damn, movie. You’re spoiling me here. Under Lucas there had to be at least some questions as to how this universe was being populated when there seemed to be like a 99:1 male-to-female ratio.
This feels like the right place to talk about Leia, and just… man. This part of the movie was hard enough when I saw it opening night and was so anxious about what was going to happen with the movie as a whole that I couldn’t really give myself time and space to cry, but… there are at least three distinct scenes with Leia in this movie that made me almost start sobbing this time around. One of the most obvious ones is the scene where she gets blasted into space (as was heavily hinted at in basically all the trailers), and then uses the Force to pull herself back in as the music swells. Apparently there is actually a ton of backlash against this moment? I’ve heard more than one person refer to it as “space Mary Poppins”? And, honestly? If I ever reach this level of jaded detachment, just put me out of my fucking misery, because I don’t even want to know what it feels like to have that little capacity for vulnerability and genuine emotion left in my heart. I don’t know what the worst take I’ve ever heard on any individual element of a movie is, but that has to at least be in the conversation.
It’s difficult to overstate how much this franchise is going to miss Carrie Fisher. Not just because of her onscreen and offscreen awesomeness, but because apparently the overall plan for these movies was basically for the first movie to be “Han’s” movie (in terms of the original trilogy characters), the second to be “Luke’s,” and the third to be “Leia’s.” And, you know… after the way she provided the heart and soul of this movie, I really would’ve liked to see what a movie that was entirely hers would look like.
On that note, Luke’s part in this movie was pretty explicitly channeling some “disgraced samurai master” vibes, and I’m not gonna lie, I was really grooving on it. I especially appreciate that Rian Johnson actually managed to craft a mistake serious enough to make me buy Luke blaming himself for Kylo’s fall and cutting himself off from the rest of the galaxy. And his Western gunslinger-esque showdown with Kylo towards the end of the film was the most fitting sendoff I possibly could’ve asked for, especially in light of his arc in this film. (Not letting Kylo actually deliver the killing blow, especially after he just did Han in The Force Awakens, was also the right choice.)
This feels like the right time to segue from my discussion of “let the past die; kill it if you have to” to “this isn’t going to go the way you think.” Although it’s hard to definitively choose one element of this film I admire the most, I really think the way Rian Johnson plays with audience expectations might just be it.
How’s this for “this isn’t going to go the way you think”? After two years of buildup and wondering what was going to happen after that intense final shot of Luke looking wordlessly at Rey offering him his old lightsaber, his response is to carelessly toss it over his shoulder and literally turn his back on her. After two years of waiting. The first time I saw it, I guffawed. I couldn’t help it. Belated apologies, people sitting around me.
This set the tone for the rest of the film, though! And the reason it keeps being effective is that characters are given very clear goals–we’re told over and over “okay, this is what this character is doing, and it’s going to save the Resistance,” and they keep getting the rug pulled out from under them. Finn and Rose get thrown in jail, or chased to the edge of a cliff, or cuffed and put on their knees by a legion of stormtroopers. Finn goes on a suicide run, Rose crashes into him to stop him from sacrificing himself. Poe stages a mutiny. Leia wakes up from her coma and stuns his ass in order to help Holdo carry out her plan that the audience has been duped into disagreeing with. And, after all of that, the First Order finds out about their last ditch plan and starts blowing up the helpless transports. At every point, the situation manages to go from desperate to hopeless, and you find yourself questioning at several points how in the hell they’re going to get out of this, and eventually reaching a point of wondering, “… are they going to get out of this?”
Yet this somehow doesn’t hold a candle to what happens between Rey and Kylo. Now, let me be clear for a moment: since the first time I saw The Force Awakens, I’ve been solidly on team “if Kylo is redeemed, we riot.” It just seems like the absolute worst possible direction to go in when your antagonist is a privileged neo-nazi-coded emblem of everything that is fucking killing us. But through a believable progression of telepathic conversations between Rey and Kylo where they became increasingly vulnerable towards each other, Rian Johnson managed to walk me right up to the precipice of going down what I believed to be a completely untenable bit of storytelling. Somewhere, deep within me, my better instincts were still loudly protesting what was happening, but when the moment came, against all odds, I was… willing to live with it?
And then, of fucking course, it turns out that Johnson was just showing off. He led us into what I had previously considered an irredeemably disastrous bit of storytelling, made me somewhat okay with it, and then snatched it right back and almost winked at the audience as if to say, “Just kidding, I know that’s a hilariously bad idea.”
The other biggest mistake I think this film could’ve made, as I alluded to earlier, is letting Kylo strike Luke down. And again, The Last Jedi pump fakes at doing just that, only to opt for something much more appropriate. Luke passes on because it’s his time, he becomes one with the Force, but neither Kylo’s murder of his father nor Kenobi’s death at Vader’s hands is precisely mirrored. This moment is uniquely Luke’s, displaying a last act of mastery of the Force that’s frankly difficult to fathom.
This is Star Wars, so it had its fist-pumping moments. Poe literally flying circles around the Dreadnaught’s surface guns and enemy fighters was a great action scene to get things started. Leia using the Force made me cry and smile at the same time, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Rey and Kylo taking on a throne room full of guards was fantastically choreographed even if I felt conflicted about it as it was happening. The Falcon swooping in on Crait and the subsequent chase through the caverns was one of the most viscerally exciting aeriel (or space) battles of the series. Holdo’s sacrifice (and how many separate conflicts were coming to a head at that precise moment) was awe-inspiringly beautiful. It’s like no other Star Wars movie I’ve seen before, it’s explicitly thematically interested in doing away with parts of Star Wars’ past that are holding it back… but it’s still a Star Wars movie. And that is so much more interesting than anything I could’ve come up with, so if you would rather have seen Rey turn out to be Obi-Wan Kenobi’s long lost granddaughter, or hook up with Kylo… I’m genuinely sorry if you’re disappointed? But I think what we got is so, so much better.
Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. This is not going to go the way you think.
If you have actually made it this far, I would like to genuinely thank you for putting up with my rambling. Here is some much less consequential, but very “me” stuff:
• This has got to be the most bondagey Star Wars movie ever, sorry The Force Awakens. Kylo’s bondage chair was neat and all, but The Last Jedi had a scene of three guards bound and gagged (I genuinely never thought I would see a gag in the Star Wars universe). It does lose significant points for having them gagged with gloves, though, when if you’re going for an improvised gag, obviously socks are the way to go. However, we’re also treated to a variety of scenes of characters handcuffed, which is nothing new for the franchise, but what puts it over the top (in conjunction with the aforementioned bound and gagged guards) is the scene of a stormtrooper aggressively shoving handcuffs towards the camera (Rey’s perspective). It was shot in such a way that I almost felt compelled to hold my wrists up obediently.
No, I don’t have a problem. Shut up.
• Rey with damp hair = sexier than Kylo without a shirt by a mile and a fucking half, fight me.
• Vulptices > Porgs. Sorry not sorry.