#3 in my Ranking of the Star Wars franchise.
This is a direct rebuke to the rank nostalgia of The Force Awakens. There’s even a moment when R2-D2 shows Luke the original Leia message, and Luke calls it a cheap trick. This is a movie about learning from the past and using it to help forge the future. The three main characters all explore this question in really interesting ways. And then there are the two worst characters in Star Wars and a side adventure that ultimately doesn’t matter that much. The parts that work do so at such a marvelous level while the stuff that doesn’t falls flat so fully that it’s an interesting contrast.
With the red herring mystery box game of The Force Awakens out of the way, we know that Rey is our central character and not Finn, and she’s a far more interesting one this time out. Instead of just being able to do everything she comes across, she’s wracked by self-doubt concerning her place in the larger world that she suddenly finds herself in, especially when considering her newfound powers.
The Last Jedi, though, thrusts two other characters much more to the fore than just Rey. There’s Kylo Ren, the antagonist from the previous film, and the mythical Luke Skywalker. Rey is torn between the two, and they’re both consumed with how to deal with failures in their own pasts.
Kylo Ren was defeated by a girl with no training in the Force or a lightsaber at the end of the last movie, and his master, Supreme Leader Snoke, berates him for that failure. In response, Ren destroys the helmet he crafted meant to evoke Dark Vader. He’s rejected all of the past in that moment and dedicated to wiping out the past completely, to replace it with his own vision of the future.
Luke is consumed by his failure to revive the Jedi, manifested so fully by his chief student and nephew, Ben Solo, turning to the Dark Side and destroying the entire new Jedi Temple. He also studied the fall of the Old Republic and discovered that the reason Darth Sidious rose to power and created the Empire was because of the failing of the Jedi. He sees little good coming from them as their history is rife with failures so monumental as to throw the entire galaxy into generations of darkness and tyranny. He wants to burn the past just as Kylo Ren does.
That’s the starting point of the three main characters, and they move on from there. Rey, caught between two people who want to burn the past to the ground for different reasons, knows that there’s something behind her that will help inform her journey. Luke’s brand of defeatist burning of the past without any sense of a future ends up not appealing to Rey and drives her away from him. Kylo Ren, on the other hand, seems to want to build something else in its place. Rey doesn’t know what that is, but she does see that sort of pro-active movement towards something and is drawn to it.
However, Kylo Ren’s insistence on burning the past doesn’t mean that things will change. In fact, he seems determined to not only burn the past but refuse to learn from it. His solution is to kill Snoke and become the new Supreme Leader of the First Order, essentially just repeating the past without learning from it. Rey can’t abide by either solution, and uses what she can gather to try and build a new future. Luke, in turn, gets influenced by Rey and reaches out from beyond his secluded island and takes steps to help forge a new path forward.
The key scene of Luke’s turn is when Force Ghost Yoda shows up and burns the old tree shrine that housed the ancient Jedi texts. There is an implication in the scene that the texts burned with the tree, but that’s what Luke needed to hear. Rey had actually saved the texts (seen in a pair of shots and never directly addressed by any character), meaning that the artifice of the past has been destroyed, but the actual content, the lessons, has been preserved in Rey. Luke has the past within him to draw from and make his next decision, the decision to rejoin the fight, and rejoin he does.
The final confrontation between Kylo Ren and Luke Skywalker is a confrontation between two ideologies. The two characters started in similar places, but they learned different things across the film. Kylo learned that he could exert control over the First Order by burning the past, but Luke learned that he had to embrace the lessons of the past in order to forge a better future. Luke does that by confronting Kylo and giving the future time to escape.
I adore, not just love, adore this bulk of the film. It’s fiercely intelligent and penetrative of the meaning of Star Wars. It’s compellingly packaged in characters and drama. It’s really well acted. It’s some of my favorite Star Wars ever.
The problem is that there’s another side to the film, and that’s what to do with Finn and Poe. There are some similarities in thematic content, especially towards the end, about learning from mistakes and the past, but the thematic connection is thin and actually ends up pursuing another theme entirely. Since this theme doesn’t connect to the main theme very well and the literal action of the subplot ends up making little difference to anything, I can’t help but be disappointed.
With the First Order in a steady chase against the remnants of the Resistance, waiting for the Resistance to run out of fuel in 18 hours (a concept I love, by the way), Finn and Poe need to find a way to help the Resistance escape. The obstacle they have is that Leia gets sent into a coma and replaced by Vice Admiral Holdo, one of the worst characters ever written in Star Wars. She’s arrogant and demanding of respect she doesn’t earn. She develops a plan for escape and apparently tells the entire ship but refuses to allow Poe to find out. Because Poe doesn’t know the plan because Holdo refuses to share it with him (despite the massive effort ship wide it takes to actually implement it), Poe thinks that nothing’s happening and tries to find another solution.
He sends Finn and Rose (a character who starts out pretty good and then ends up as the other worst character in Star Wars) to find a codebreaker so they can sneak onto the lead pursuing Star Destroyer, kill the tracking on the Resistance ships, and escape through hyperspace. This is a long adventure that ends up not mattering because they never accomplish their goal and the Resistance fleet continues on as though there had never been the attempt. You could quite literally hard cut Finn and Rose out of the film for about an hour and just have them suddenly appear in the background of a shot at the base at the end of the film and feel like you haven’t missed anything. It’s not that nothing happens, quite a bit happens, but it all feels out of place. There’s something satisfying about seeing Finn rise up (both literally and figuratively) over a prominent figure from his own past (Captain Phasma) and beat her across the face with a weapon, for instance. There are touches of the central theme, but most of this adventure ends up being about releasing slaves and the meaning of the symbol of the Resistance.
There’s so much of this subplot that feels so out of line with the central conflict between Rey, Kylo, and Luke that I have to come to the conclusion that they are the results of notes from Kathleen Kennedy. And then Rose claims her spot as second worst character ever in Star Wars by preventing Finn from sacrificing himself to save people and then giving a speech about how wars are won with love while a giant explosion happens in the background. In the middle of a high quality ending, that bit is embarrassing.
On top of story and character, the movie is gorgeous. There’s a painterly quality to the images that only occasionally popped up in previous films (like the Binary sunset in Star Wars), and it’s from beginning to end. Subjects in frame and placed wonderfully to imply relationships. There’s a fantastic use of color (especially the use of reds and whites at the climax of the film). The special effects are the best that money can buy, and they’re textured and detailed in fantastic ways. Snoke’s throne room, Luke’s island, the salt planet and its red crystal underground, it’s all just gorgeous to look at.
The movie does have some flaws, but I think they’re so heavily outweighed by some of the smartest thematic and character driven storytelling Star Wars has ever seen.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 3.5/4