Star Wars: The Force Awakens was comfort food. It repeated the basic premise of the original trilogy of a band of rebels fighting against an oppressive powerhouse hellbent on dominating the entire galaxy. New characters stepped in to take over, but they were guided by returning favorites in a deliberate attempt to pull old fans in. This familiarity doesn’t stick around for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Episode VIII is a drastic contrast to its predecessor: a contested – almost dubiously so – introspective piece that completely flips whatever happened during The Force Awakens over its head. And that is absolutely a compliment.
After the destruction of the Starkiller Base, the First Order has made it their mission to take down the last remaining members of the Resistance. Desperate, our heroes separate in an effort to prolong their survivability. While Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) remains within the Resistance in an effort to curtail its leader for the greater good, Finn (John Boyega) and Resistance tech Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), leave to seek out a master codebreaker to infiltrate and disable a key component of the First Order’s main flagship. Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last Jedi, and intends to bring him back to restore balance and begin her own training in the Force.
The Last Jedi is about inner conflicts and how the paths the characters take don’t end the way they expected or wanted. Rey’s journey is crucial to this philosophy. She finally meets the legendary Jedi master Luke Skywalker, but instead of being greeted by a wise mentor determined to take her under his wings, she gets a grizzled, gross mess who has cut himself off from the Force. He’s the biggest representation of the unexpected in this film, standing in direct contrast to the familiarity of the roguish Han Solo from the previous movie and the fiery General Leia (Carrie Fisher). Luke, once an optimistic boy who defeated the Empire through the Power of Love, is a tired, bitter man who cannot and will not be the inspiring teacher Rey wants him to be. It’s a controversial decision that undermines everything Luke was in the first trilogy, but it’s consistent with The Last Jedi’s themes.
Rey continuously hits a roadblock with her quest, leading to an awkward, yet intimate Force Bond with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). A great deal of their connection centers on their legacy or lack thereof. Kylo’s entire life was shaped by his grandfather, Darth Vader, and his parents, but if anything killing Han Solo has only exacerbated his doubts. Now he has to come to grips on just what legacy means to him and how it affects him as an individual. This is in stark contrast to Rey, who knows nothing about her parents and desperately bonds with older figures to fill that void. Rey’s parentage has been a teasing factor among viewers for years, with numerous assumptions that she’s related to someone important to the plot. The Last Jedi handles this by foregoing an easy answer, opting instead to focus on what she did for herself that makes her worthwhile. Without spoilers, it feels like a deliberate backlash to Anakin’s “Chosen One” role in the prequel films and is certainly a contrast to Kylo Ren’s grand heritage story arc. The Last Jedi paints a close comparison between the two, each representing the duality of the Force’s Light and Dark Side, yet the line is muddled by the suggestion that what the Jedi Order had shaped and molded as their chief religion may be exactly what caused them to fall. All this installs a fascinating dynamic where the frustrated Rey, desperate for answers, dabbles with the idea of the Dark Side to get what she wants while Kylo is shown a rare moment of quiet reflection hidden under that rage.
The movie’s themes are expanded further with the conflict between Poe Dameron and his Resistance superior, Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), with their head-butting examining the well-worn conflict between the Loose Cannon and the Straitlaced Leader. A standard narrative would have sided with Poe as a man who gets the job done even at the cost of many and justify his testosterone-filled nonsense as courage, but in the end he’s portrayed as nothing but risky and aggressive. He has strong conviction, but he can’t sit still long enough to see the consequences of his dumb, aggressive actions. It’s small wonder that Holdo is a woman who’s seen her share of cocky flyboys in her days. She’s not completely free from criticism because her decision to keep quiet about her plans only complicates the situation unnecessarily. A failure of communication divides the both of them, but they’re equally treated as flawed, sympathetic characters who have the Resistance’s best interest at heart.
Finn returns to largely repeat the same lesson as the first, but with arguably greater necessity. The Force Awakens cast him as a stressed runaway who couldn’t stomach the skeletons in his closet accumulated during his time as a stormtrooper. He’s learned to care about Rey, but simultaneously uses that as an excuse to avoid the war. His guilt is constantly challenged by Rose. Her motives stay the same throughout the movie because she knows exactly what she wants and why she’s fighting. She drives the film’s heart, but though she carries her emotions on her sleeves, I’m glad she has enough pragmatism to keep it in control when the stakes matter instead of letting it fall under idiotic plot contrivances. I’m still surprised whenever media cast people of color in leading roles, showing we’ve still got a way to go, but I appreciate the recent batch of Star Wars films for being on top of this. With Poe (whose is of Guatemalan and Cuban descent), Finn (who is Nigerian British), and Rose (who is Vietnamese), The Last Jedi presents three actors of color in prominent roles in one of the biggest movie franchises in existence.
The only noticeable flaw I had with The Last Jedi is its slow pacing. Episode VIII suffers the dreaded Middle Movie Syndrome where the plot stalls out during its two-and-a-half hour running time, repeatedly alternating between the Resistance’s interminable escape from the First Order, Rey loitering around Luke’s secret hidey-hole, and the Finn/Rose codebreaker C-plot. It concludes with an ending battle that lasts far longer than I thought it would, making me wonder if the film is just twiddling its thumbs before the big blowout in the upcoming Episode IX.
Extras in the Blu-ray include the documentary The Director and the Jedi, a lengthy hour-and-a-half feature detailing the making of the film. Of note is Mark Hamill’s polite, but constant disapproval of Luke’s character in The Last Jedi. The fact that they didn’t sugarcoat this for the documentary is a pleasant surprise. I also find it interesting that Rian Johnson kept General Leia’s scenes intact in spite of Carrie Fisher’s sudden and unfortunate passing. There’s a point in the movie where it would have been easy to write out her character, but he opts not to. Carrie Fisher was known to be equally stubborn and no-nonsense as her character in the Star Wars movies, so avoiding this convenient choice feels highly symbolic whether it was intended to be or not. Leia lives on because you can’t keep a good General down, and as the General goes, so does Carrie Fisher’s spirit.
Balance of the Force is a ten-minute feature on Rian Johnson’s view of the Force and why he wanted to treat it as an intimate presence instead of a raw superpower. Scene Breakdown is comprised of three shorts detailing specific sequences in the movie: Lighting the Spark: Creating the Space Battle goes over the technical aspects of the numerous dogfights during the film, Snoke and Mirrors talks about the motion-capture and CGI work that went into the character of Snoke, and Showdown on Crait elaborates on the visual design of the planet Crait and the battle sequence that takes place there. I’ll always be impressed with how much the crew went above and beyond to use as many technical special effects, sets, and puppetry over CGI whenever possible. Andy Serkis Live! (One Night Only) is a small bonus showing the entirety of Snoke’s scenes, pre-CGI, meaning we’re privvy to Andy Serkis in his mocap suit while he gestures like an animated character. His movements are memorizing and it’s clear he’s having a blast hamming up the set. Deleted Scenes is exactly what it sounds like and comes with bonus director’s commentary explaining why they were cut. Lastly, there is a Director’s Commentary for the entire movie.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a slow cutting knife: the deeper it slices, the more twisted the narrative gets. It always plays with our assumptions, often ending anti-climatically. Viewers will debate on whether certain plot points and character choices were necessary or even appropriate, but never let it be said that isn’t interesting. It leaves one begging to know what Episode IX will do from here, but I’m more than ready for the answers.The thread view count is