Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Directed by Ryan Johnson


Star Wars: The Last Jedi has something to say about the past, and apparently this has stirred up some fan backlash.  The film is all about letting go of the past and about the gray area between good and evil.  For a universe of films partially inspired by old pulp stories of good and evil (they’re basically westerns set in space), The Last Jedi stands as a detour into a new age of storytelling.

Where The Force Awakens is known to have mostly repeated the story beats of A New Hope (1977), this film is the true reset button.  The focus transitions to the new characters and away from the aging ones.  At the same time the story is told with the same playful sense of adventure as the rest in this series of films, and you’ll have to excuse certain plot holes and other unexplained but somewhat insignificant details (like all the explosions in space).

So, while the theme digs into the area between good and evil, light and the dark, the film still feels like a Star Wars movie.  It’s fun, has more than a few strong set pieces, and there are the requisite adorable characters which all make their mark, as they should considering a whole team of adorable scientists probably went into their adorable creation.  Studios have got that down pat, man, making adorable creatures for the comic relief within a broader story.  Every Star Wars movie has them, and Star Wars was a series of films based on characters that were made to be sold as toys.  So these are all just play things.

Even the good and bad.  Luke Skywalker has always been comically ‘good,’ just that good ‘ol farm boy who wants to grow up and be a big, strong Jedi (or athlete or astronaut or cowboy or etc.).  Darth Vader is comically bad.  The bad guys in these movies all look like what you’d expect modern day Nazis to look like (other than the lack of tiki torches).  So Star Wars, in an effort to appeal to kids, deals with the broad strokes of good and evil, with little room for anything in the middle.

But again, The Last Jedi tries to move on from this.  While a lot happens, and a couple major characters make their exits, the movie still feels relatively benign.  Many more nameless characters are slaughtered, and a lot happens, but the movie ends like most of them do, with the characters in place for the action of the following film.  It takes skill to make a movie that feels like it matters without playing all of your cards.  So if you can’t build everything all the way up or tear it all the way down, I suppose you just have to work backwards from the movie’s climax and figure out a way to add extra weight to these moments.

The Last Jedi is two and a half hours long and has multiple climaxes, but the ultimate one deals with the inevitable confrontation between master and trainee, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his nephew Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  For this moment to matter it has to go beyond Luke’s presence.  He showed up at the end of The Force Awakens, and like with every Marvel post-credits scene, the ‘presence’ is enough to matter.

But since we’ve already seen Luke, it has to go further.  Since he’s one half of the battle, Kylo has to matter just as much, though without the benefit of years and years of existence within the audience’s mind.  He’s a fairly new character still, so the early portions of the film go into establishing the mythology of his relationship with Luke.  Why does this moment mean anything?

And I think writer/director Ryan Johnson does a pretty good job making him matter.  Star Wars has always been a series of movies with a thick sense of myth and of the past.  The first film, it seems, was simply titled Star Wars but has since been renamed Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, at least according to IMDB.  There is a sense that what matters most has already happened or has yet to come, each film is a link in the longer chain.

What am I saying?  I don’t know, it’s hard to pay off something set up years ago.  As characters gain importance in an audience’s mind simply by how long they’ve been around (40 years now), that presents an incredibly daunting challenge for what to do with them next.  And at the same time, making a character like Kylo matter as much as Luke is a challenge.  I suppose what I’m saying is that I enjoyed it.  I think Johnson handled it all well, made everything feel important and fun and worthwhile.

But, I think, the fan backlash deals with this new mythology while the mythology behind the original trilogy is considered sacred.  But, once more, to make these films matter you need a new mythology, something else to serve as the foundation and keep the movies going forward, particularly since Disney wants to make as many Star Wars movies as possible considering they make so much money.

In this new mythology we learn more about why Kylo broke bad.  Luke was there to train him, and something happened that turned Kylo into little Darth Vader and convinced Luke to go into exile.  Luke says that his nephew was just so full of darkness, and Kylo says his uncle tried to kill him.  The truth is somewhere in the middle, and Rey (Daisy Ridley) eventually learns that Luke’s fear of his nephew had a hand in promoting this evil within him.  It was Luke’s doubt and momentary recklessness (a thought that he might have to kill his nephew) that caused Rylo to go crazy, somewhat understandably.

So is this what everyone’s mad about?  That Luke isn’t so wholly good?  It’s what I imagine frustrates them.  Hamill himself said he disagreed with Rian Johnson’s use of his character, but because this is the director’s (and studio’s) vision, he went along with it anyway.

So, I don’t know, should I recap the movie?  It feels unimportant, a lot happens, and there are a lot of side stories that intersect in the end, kind of like an episode of tv.  The First Order (bad guys) are after the Rebels (good guys), and there are several missions and challenges to authority to do the right thing.  The story that sticks most with me involves Finn (John Boyega) and a new character, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran).  They are in search of a guy who can crack the code which will disable a shield, and you get the picture.

Their story, however, takes them through a land of filthy wealth.  At a casino people mix and mill and gamble on horse races, but the horses are not quite horses, they’re bigger.  They eventually find their man (played by Benicio Del Toro), but this is a given.  What’s more fascinating is the reveal that all of these wealthy figures get their money from dealing weapons to the enemy.  They’re not the ones fighting the rebels, but they are the ones who supply them.

Later Finn discovers that these wealthy people also supply weapons to the rebels.  They’re not taking sides, just making money off of the fighting, and this turns out to be what Del Toro’s character represents.  He, like so many, profits off this constant fighting.  It’s sort of, you know, a gray area.

I really don’t know what to say about the rest of this movie.  So many people have seen it and are still talking about it.  I’m not particularly a strong Star Wars fan, so I didn’t expect to have a strong reaction to it one way or another.  The film is technically well-made, as it should be, and it’s entertaining if still a little long.

What I can talk about is my personal experience watching this movie.  I saw it at an 8:45 am showing on New Year’s Eve at CineArts @ Santana Row (in San Jose, CA).  I didn’t realize movies were offered that early so I went.  The movie began at 9:06 am, after 21 minutes of previews for movies I generally care little about.  Watching so many previews in a row you really become familiar with the trailer tropes.  There’s the supposed ‘hook’ followed by the studio title, and then a few jump scares later you get the picture.  This somehow makes every movie look the same, which I guess they are on some level.

I will probably see the next Star Wars movie and try to stir up fights with people.  Really ending this review with a whimper here.  I actually find that I have the hardest time writing about movies that have either 3 or fewer items of trivia on IMDB or 40 or greater, and Star Wars has a million.

Up Next: Mystic Pizza (1988), Into the Abyss (2011), Ace in the Hole (1951)

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