It’s hard to believe: Star Wars has been a part of American mythology for more than forty years. Each movie in the series, from 1977’s A New Hope to 2017’s The Last Jedi, succeeds or fails on how well it holds up against the established Star Wars mythology. Each new “episode” becomes a part of that mythology, but does it improve upon or weaken the mythology? For better or worse, this is the measure by which one must judge each new movie, especially in this era where Star Wars is owned by Disney, the largest and most powerful media concern in the world.
Therefore, Star Wars movies succeed or fail based on how well they continue the Star Wars mythology. How well does the story hold up? Does it function within the parameters set by George Lucas, or does it do something totally out of the ordinary?
Last Jedi does a little of both. It works within the confines of the
universe galaxy George Lucas established, but it also takes the story in new directions and offers a twist or two. Defying expectations is never a bad thing.
Here’s the good news: The Last Jedi is a worthy successor to the original trilogy. It’s deeper and more involving than The Force Awakens, and it sends the characters (old and new) in interesting directions. Its sword fights are big and showy, without overstaying their welcome or looking like video game cut scenes (see any of the Star Wars prequels).
The Last Jedi is better than 2015’s The Force Awakens. If it’s not quite as creative, original or revelatory as 2016’s one-off Rogue One, that’s to be expected of a movie that’s the eighth “episode” in an ongoing series.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
The bad news: Strange things happen. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, returning to the role he originated in 1977) dies because he overextended(?) himself in a Force hologram/astral-projection kind of thing. Sure, he’s old and cynical, and a hermit, and yes, the character had to go at some point. But wouldn’t it have been better to see him go out in the blaze of glory (or lightsabers) — rather than wither away on some rock in a faraway place? Skywalker now becomes a Force ghost, joining Yoda and Obi-Wan. (How come we never see Palpatine as a Force ghost? Or General Grievous? Or… I dunno, Count Dooku? Do only the good guys get to become Force ghosts?)
And Snoke, the new Emperor, dies too. Where did he come from? How did he assume power? Is he connected to the Skywalkers?
At least those Internet rumors speaking of Rey being Palpatine’s granddaughter didn’t turn out to be true — but, never say never: 2019’s Episode IX could rewrite the story, and perhaps invalidate Kylo’s claims that Rey came from ordinary parents.
We begin to understand how different characters have different signature Jedi skills, which is fascinating. Rey is clearly a great sword fighter, and she can really move rocks. Snoke has some kind of ability to levitate people and move them around. And Leia has Superman powers, to keep herself alive in outer space.
Sometimes I wish death in Star Wars was final — the use of “force ghosts” as a plot device to resurrect old/dead characters (Yoda, etc.) is getting tiresome.
End of spoilers.
By this point in time, we’re two installments into the corporate overlords’ three-film arc, and we can see where Disney is taking the franchise. They’re playing it safe, at least with these “episode” entries. For the most part, nothing happens to a character that can’t be undone by the time the credits roll. Some characters die, but of course those characters probably weren’t that important in the first place (or they were holding other characters, like Junior Darth Vader-in-training Kylo Ren, back).
So what else did I like about The Last Jedi? It kept me awake for 2.5 hours. It’s the longest Star Wars movie, but it doesn’t feel like it. Paraphrasing Roger Ebert: A movie is good when you 1) don’t want it to end; and 2) when it does end, it seemed too short.
Last Jedi showcases some very good acting from Hamill and (the late) Carrie Fisher — these are two of the best performances in their long careers. The returning, younger characters, like Kylo Ren and Rey, a Jedi-in-training who was the protagonist of The Force Awakens, are fleshed out and have plausible, personal ticks that make them seem less like cardboard cut outs.
The music, the eighth Star Wars score by John “85 years young” Williams, is a standout, and contains a distint cue from each of the preceding seven Star Wars “episode” movies (perhaps to memorialize the series’ fortieth anniversary).
BB-8, this trilogy’s R2-D2, steals the show: he devises a solution to everything and, most of the time, can out-think and out-perform the humans.
Some critics have complained that The Last Jedi doesn’t take these beloved characters in the directions (these critics) think they should go. Humbug. Let the filmmakers do what they want. The audience can still write its fanfic and do whatever it wants.
I applaud Rian Johnson, the new writer-director, for not copying scenes and setups out of the older movies, in the way certain Star Wars TV shows (ahem, Rebels) have been known to do. Mr. Johnson is a capable director, a better-than-average writer, and he brings an auteur sensibility to his work. (And unlike The Force Awakens, there are no Rathtars or stupid, pointless time-wasting, filler scenes.)
It will be interesting to see where 2019’s Episode IX takes the story and these characters. Will Rey become a Jedi knight? Will Kylo Ren finally become a legitimate neo-Vader? The filmmakers have done a great job of cleansing the palate of the forgettable prequels*, and giving the old characters their due. The Last Jedi strikes back in compellingly original directions and takes chances. I’m looking forward to discovering where Star Wars goes from here.
My rating: out of
*Revenge of the Sith excepted, of course.