I really, really, really liked Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Although, the farther away I get from the movie it goes from mere like to outright love. Franchise movies are, by and large, risk-free affairs. Outside of tone and execution most franchise films tend to be following strict marching orders and contain few if any real surprises.
Rian Johnson has made a stunning sci-fi/fantasy epic with real political bite. Unlike most franchise films Johnson allows his film to have varying hues and shades but still adheres to a singular tone. The Last Jedi is a stunningly bleak film but without ever feeling oppressive.
Characters must overcome the most difficult obstacle in the galaxy, themselves. Poe (Oscar Issac) is a brash, talented, and smart tactical fighter pilot. But he hasn’t quite figured out the difference between the battle and the war. He is genuinely saddened by the deaths of his fellow rebel fighters, but in his mind, it is part and parcel of fighting in a resistance.
General Leia (Carrie Fisher) is weary and determined in her own right. Still, every death weighs on her more and more. For her, the battle is a battle. A battle can be won or lost; there will be other battles in the future. The war is the thing, the resistance and the rebellion is what is important.
Johnson allows time and space for Poe and Leia to clash. Ideas are discussed, and consequences weighed. What Poe sees as an unequivocal victory for the Resistance, Leia sees a momentary victory with much too high a cost. The demoting of Poe from Commander to Fighter seems rote. But Johnson allows the demotion, and its consequences to play out. Poe’s own rebellion against the demotion leads to actions and assumptions he never considers because of his impulsiveness.
Fisher turns in what may very well be the performance of her career. This is largely because she rarely ever got roles this meaty for her to sink her teeth into; which is an eternal shame. But she does here, and she delivers big time. Her Leia is exhausted by the rebellion. She has lost a son and a husband to the Empire. The rebellion has been going on, in some form or another, for most of her adult life and war is essentially the only thing she seems to know anymore. Fisher’s Leia is a committed, soul-weary, commander who seems baffled her army isn’t bigger.
The Last Jedi allows us to hate its characters and question their judgment and decisions. Star Wars is built on the notion of Light versus Dark and how we all wrestle with that duality within ourselves. Johnson embraces the notion with a clear-eyed examination. But Johnson also understands sacrifice is about more than accepting losses.
Finn (John Boyega) wakes up in a medical bay and immediately tries and find Rey (Daisy Ridley). He learns that Rey has gone to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and so rushes off to steal an escape pod to find her. He runs from a fight to go after his friend. Finn’s day only gets worse when he runs into a fan and true believer in Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). Finn is forced to reckon with what is more important a loved one or a cause. The answer is there is no easy answer.
The bleakness of The Last Jedi stems from the overwhelming complexity of humanity. Luke may be on a lush and gorgeous island with a stunning view, but he is far from happy or content. Stricken with grief and anguish over his own mistakes and weakness he has chosen to run and hide. A grizzled old man who is wise but wisdom doesn’t come with age; it comes from messing up and knowing you’ve messed up.
Even Rey must overcome her own sense of inadequacy. An orphan from Jakku who suddenly finds herself the focal point of not just an intergalactic civil war but also at the center of a deeply consequential religious debate about their very existence. Her desire to ‘save Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) stems from her desire to save Luke. To Rey, Luke is the savior, the hero, that will bring balance to the force and save them all. Rey though is afforded a quiet and beauteous discovery; she’s the hero.
All of this would be drudgery to sit through if not for a deep sense of humor bubbling beneath the surface. Johnson never lets the humor lessen the seriousness or deflate the mounting tension in a scene though. Its there because people are funny and also, sometimes, so is life. The humor comes from character interactions and personalities clashing against each other.
Johnson wrote and directed The Last Jedi with a devout confidence. As the film opens and for much of the first half there is a less a sense of grandiosity and more a sense of frustration and anger at victory tempered with setbacks. The film slowly builds and builds towards the climatic and epic conclusion, but it does so calmly and deliberately.
The Last Jedi is a sprawling story uniting a little over half a dozen characters with vastly different objectives scattered across the galaxy. Yet, Johnson and his cinematographer Steve Yedlin make the whole enterprise feel distinctly intimate at times. Sweeping establishing shots of the Jedi temple are contrasted with static close-ups. Yedlin’s shot composition contributes to the slow build-up of Johnson’s epic. His shots have a tremendous amount of depth and texture to them that enhances the feeling of intimacy with the characters.
Empire ships are gleaming and pristine while Rebel ships are jagged and dull. This is both a basic exercise in contrast and visual metaphors and cues, but it’s also a sly political subversion. Fascism is dependent on symbols and iconography. It works because it distracts with shiny and beautiful pageantry. This is hardly new, and Star Wars has always done this, but with The Last Jedi, it’s not obvious. Johnson and Yedlin have opted not to have large widescreen shots of Stormtroopers lined perfectly row upon row. Those shots exist but within the context of the film itself without calling attention to it.
Instead, they show us the contrast with interior shots. Compare Supreme Leader Snoke’s headquarters to Leia’s. Snoke’s is an empty sleek throne room surrounded by ornamentation. Leia’s is the bridge of the ship surrounded by people and cluttered with tools.
Yedlin does allow himself to wallow in the spectacle of the action scenes though. But more impressive than the spectacle is the fact the basic geography of the battlefield is never in question. An impressive accomplishment considering most of the action takes place in space where there is no up, down, left, or right. Yedlin and Johnson wisely give us visual cues and focal points to act as directional references without planets looming in the background.
All of this is buoyed by Johnson’s riskiest choice: the dismantlement of the Jedi myth. At the core of The Last Jedi is the notion of how it is foolhardy to never challenge ideas from the past. The Force is changing because our understanding of it changes. A pragmatic and prickly idea when you consider how idealistic and steeped in legend the Jedi are.
Even the notion of self-sacrifice is called into question. Not all sacrifices are noble. Some are quite selfish. How noble is the sacrifice if it merely comes from anger and a desire to see your enemy defeated? What does victory even look like?
Johnson’s The Last Jedi is a powerful fantasy bent on showing us both limits of ourselves as well as the boundless possibilities. It’s refreshingly unpredictable at times as it zigzags through it’s intricate and layered plots and subplots. The Last Jedi is the sci-fi/fantasy movie with as a big of a heart as a brain.