What I disliked so intensely about “The Force Awakens” was that it seemed to miss the point of Star Wars. It looked like a Star Wars movie, but it struck me as rather soulless and empty, and the abiding feeling I had as Rey held out Anakin’s lightsaber to Grumpy Old Man Luke, and we irised out to the end credits, was, tragically, “meh.”
I remember shrugging a lot. I remember writing several articles and various Facebook rants about why they’d gotten it wrong. So much so that it also sparked some writing from me, on my blog, about the deeper themes in Lucas’s Star Wars trilogies. JJ Abrams is a Star Wars fan, but he’s the kind of fan I dislike. He obviously is no fan of the prequels and thus discounts all the wonderful ideas buried beneath the clumsy, stilted storytelling of those films.
But wait, you say. I’m supposed to be reviewing “The Last Jedi.” Well, you’re right. And the reason I’ve spent my first two paragraphs on setup is so you understand that I’m a hard sell for Disney Star Wars. Hopefully that adds the necessary weight when I say that I absolutely loved Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.
It isn’t a perfect film. Some of the dialogue, particularly in the opening scenes with Domhnall Gleason’s General Hux and his bridge crew, is so tin-eared it would make even George Lucas cringe. BB-8 is still a cartoon drawing of all the worst things about R2-D2. But Rian Johnson did what JJ Abrams couldn’t do (and likely was forbidden from doing) with The Force Awakens: he surprises us. The characters are actually characters now. Things happen with purpose and meaning. It’s a real movie.
Throughout the film’s 155-minute runtime, Johnson makes bold choices and leaves us constantly in fear for the safety of characters young and old. Things happen that the audience absolutely does not expect. And through it all, none of these choices ever rings false. In fact, although Johnson breaks in various ways from what we by now think of as the Star Wars formula, he does so with the full understanding of the weight of those decisions. Rian Johnson gets Star Wars. This is a man who has watched all of Lucas’s Star Wars movies and, like me, has found something to appreciate in all of them, even the prequels; likely even Attack of the Clones, with its broken pace and confounding love story.
Luke Skywalker tells Rey something like, “at the height of their power, the Jedi allowed a Sith Lord to take over the Republic and turn it into an Empire. That’s their legacy. Hubris.” Yeah, Luke Skywalker just explained the prequels to Rey. Everything about that pleases me. I’ve written before about one of the broader ideas in the original six films being that the Jedi were not so wonderful, and that Anakin, as the Chosen One to restore balance, had to destroy both the Jedi and the Sith, from within. Although Luke never says that as such, he does confess that he believes it’s time for the Jedi to end. A surprise cameo from a beloved character – and I won’t spoil it here – leads to the understanding that failure is the greatest teacher, that the burden of all mentors is to see their students grow beyond them, and that we must let go of the past. It’s bittersweet, it’s wrenching, and it’s absolutely dead-on.
I echo the sentiments of my favorite entertainment journalist, Drew McWeeny, when I say that I was ready to concede that Star Wars no longer belongs to my tribe, that it’s somebody else’s now for better or for worse, and that I’d probably never really love anything new that the brand had to offer. But Rian Johnson and “The Last Jedi” proved me wrong. I couldn’t be happier to be so mistaken.
That’s the spoiler-free review. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, don’t read on. I went in totally cold and I believe the experience was better for that. But if you’ve seen the movie, or you have no plans on seeing it and just like reading what I write (hi, Mom!) then let’s make like every customized Honda on the road in 2003 and bust out the huge spoilers.
I have detailed my thoughts on this film’s predecessor, “The Force Awakens,” here and also here. So I won’t retread too much of that but I will say that Rian Johnson addresses most of those issues perfectly and does so almost right from the start. When we catch up with the whiney little bitch Kylo Ren, he’s kneeling before Snoke’s throne. Snoke, by the way, is the worst name to happen to Star Wars since Elian Sleazebaggano in Attack of the Clones. “Snoke” sounds like something you name your pet badger.
Anyway, Kylo is back in his toy Vader helmet and Snoke says he realizes that he’s made a mistake in thinking that Kylo Ren, with those good Skywalker genes, would be another Vader. “You’re no Vader,” he says. “You’re a child in a mask. Take that ridiculous thing off.” Ren does. And then, in the turbolift, he throws one of his signature hissy fits and destroys the helmet and a lot of classic Star Wars wall lights. Fake Vader no more.
Then there’s Luke and Rey. The most depressing aspect of “The Force Awakens” was, for me, that they turned Han and Luke into assholes. I hate to say assholes, but jerks just doesn’t cut it. When his son turns evil and murders a bunch of people and runs away to conquer the galaxy, what kind of guy abandons his wife and returns to a life of crime? An asshole. When you make a mess and turn your nephew evil and you’re literally the ONLY PERSON IN THE ENTIRE GALAXY who can stop him, what type of guy runs away to stand on a cliff and cry for thirty years? An asshole. There’s just no other way to say it. For a guy whose name literally means “Bringer of Light” in Hebrew, that’s a bitter pill.
It’s too late to do anything about Han, but the way Rian Johnson solves for Luke Cliffsulker was to walk the only possible line that he had. He owns it. When we rejoin them, Rey is still standing there like Little Lord Fauntleroy and Luke is still scowling at her, and then what happens next? Luke takes the lightsaber from her, throws it off the cliff and growls at her to “go away.” So. Luke IS an asshole. I mean as long as we’re owning it, I’m fine with that.
In the second place, we discover that Kylo Ren actually is, at least partially, Luke’s fault. And as I’ve said before, one of the defining aspects of Luke is that he screws up almost constantly. Actually, sulking is in character for him, too. So it turns out that once I see it in action, it works. I have to admit, though, I was still bummed out about mean Luke for a while. Then Yoda’s Force ghost appears, and it’s a puppet, and it’s Frank Oz, and Yoda laughs and smiles and calls Old Scraggly Luke “Young Skywalker” and winds him up some, pointing out that he’s being a jerk and that the truth is, failure is the greatest teacher of all, and the burden of being a teacher is that your students outgrow you and you have to let go. It’s the most perfectly Yoda thing, and I was smiling from ear to ear and my eyes were leaking or something, and “The Last Jedi” won my heart.
I had also been worried about Rey. I didn’t want her to be a Skywalker or a Solo or a Kenobi or any of the other silly fan theories. Why? Because there’s no version of that that doesn’t turn a character I like into a monster. After all, who abandons their kid on a desert world with no guardian? Not Han and Leia. Not Luke, or Kenobi. Even Emperor Palpatine personally went and picked up Anakin when Kenobi left him looking like an exploded hot dog on Mustafar. You can’t make Luke or Han or somebody into a bigger dick than Palpatine. And here comes Rian Johnson, explaining that Rey’s parents are nobodies, that they were junkers who sold their child for booze. If JJ Abrams retcons that in Episode 9, I’ll probably drive to his house and knock him out.
Like “The Empire Strikes Back,” this is a story where the Force-using hero leaves to go on a journey of self-discovery while the other heroes run for their lives and embark on a side quest. In that sense it’s familiar. But it’s handled differently, and structured differently, and the choices Rian Johnson makes in the storytelling are consistently surprising, and surprising is exactly what Star Wars needs right now. So why are “Star Wars Fans” angry? I put that in quotes because I’ve been a Star Wars fan all my life and I’m not angry. Maybe it’s the theories. If you’ve spent the last couple of years theorizing whether Supreme Leader Snoke is anyone important, this movie might piss you off when Kylo Ren cuts him in half and assumes his role as Supreme Leader. The audience I saw it with cheered, though. Snoke sucked, let him go. The Star Wars guy, I mean, not your pet badger. Although if you have a pet badger, what the hell is wrong with you? Let him go, too.
If you’ve been married to the idea that Rey’s parentage has to be a surprise because Luke’s was a surprise, well… yeah this movie probably made you want to go stand on a cliff and cry for thirty years. Because that’s just the kind of thing you’re into. But not me. This movie hit all the notes I needed it to hit, to keep me interested in Star Wars at a time when I was prepared to walk away. Well-played, Rian Johnson.