Last night, we finally saw the new Star Wars movie. There was never a possibility of us not seeing it, of course; keeping up with Star Wars is mandated by federal law, and we’re nothing if not law-abiding, but this one struck me as particularly worth catching. FB responses to it were so polarized, it was obviously a must-see.
I’m in the ‘it’s really good’ camp. Although writer/director Rian Johnson didn’t exactly re-invent the wheel, he did toss on some new tires and a realignment. He brought some fascinating nuances to well-worn plot elements that made it seem quite fresh, and even borderline original.
For one thing, it is apparently de rigueur for the top apprentice of Jedi masters to be severely tempted by the dark side of the force. This seems weird to me. It’s as though, if you decided to study meditation with the Dalai Lama, you were told ‘there’s one slight pitfall; this discipline might turn you into Hitler.’ Still, in Star Wars, apprentices regularly become monsters, though they, in turn, become masters to new apprentices who think they can turn them from the dark side. Anniken/Obi Wan, Luke/Vader, Kylo Ren/Luke; the pattern just keeps continuing. So when Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) begins communicating through the force with young Rey (Daisy Ridley), it could have felt really tired and lame. Geez, that again?
But, for me at least, that didn’t happen, and I found the Kylo/Rey scenes completely compelling. Part of that may be because Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley have the acting chops to make those scenes really sizzle. They’re both terrific. But part of is in the writing. Kylo may hero-worship Darth Vader, but he’s not really like Vader at all. Darth Vader was a subordinate to the Emperor, and apparently, a loyal one. Kylo has the same role in relation to Snoke (a marvelous Andy Serkis). But what he wants from Rey is not really that she come over to the dark side, join him as a Sith lord, or anything like that. He wants out of it. He wants to get rid of the emperor, forget being a Jedi or a Sith, have her rule with him. He’s sick of the whole dark side/light side dynamic, sick of what it’s done to him and what he’s done in its service. He murdered his father, for goodness sake. He’s a generational Jedi; inherited the Force from his Mom, studied with his uncle Luke. Rey isn’t. She has the Force in abundance, and the movie (like Empire Strikes Back, which this movie echoes), the issue of her parentage is raised repeatedly. But we learn who her parents really were, and they were nobodies. And that’s okay.
This film, in other words, democratizes the Force, removes it from the preserve of a certain lineage. Anyone can have the Force, anyone can practice it, anyone can develop mad light sabre skills. At the end of the movie, we see a poor kid in a rustic outpost shadowed by it. That’s awesome. The movie is called The Last Jedi, and we assume that means Luke, but Rey emerges as another Jedi over the course of the film, and it rather looks like there will be other, non-Skywalker folks, possibly not Jedi, but certainly Force wielders. I loved all that. I loved the scenes where Luke (Mark Hamill) interacts (I won’t say trains) Rey. Hamill looks ravaged, and we can see what a fine actor he’s always been. And best of all, we get a marvelous explanation for the Force from Luke that never once references midichlorians. If, as I fervently believe, the three prequel films were nothing but huge, expensive mistakes, the reduction of the Force to a virus was as big a mistake as those films ever made.
Of course this movie recycles old Star Wars memes. For example, there are always these big complicated plans the characters make. You guys blow up this, and that will allow us over here to do this super important thing. In Return of the Jedi, for example, Han and Leia are tasked with blowing up a power station or something on one planet, so that a bunch of fighters led by Lando can blow up the Emperor’s ship. (I may have some of those details wrong). Well, in this film, Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) come up with one of those plans. Finn and Rose will blow up a tracking device, so that the Rebel fleet (the good guys, the Republic), can book it at warp speed, and thus evade the First Order (the Empire, basically), which has a honkin’ big fleet they can wipe them out with. So Finn and Rose have to go to this planet, get this guy, DJ (Benicio Del Toro) who can get them to the tracking device, which they will destroy in time for Poe to save the Rebel fleet. Got it? Like Obi-Wan destroying the tractor beam, like Han destroying the power station. We’ve seen this before. And of course, it’s going to work. At the last second, sure, but it will work. These plans always work.
Except, in this film, it doesn’t work at all. It’s a disaster, and it messes with the perfectly good plans developed by Leia (and it was so lovely to see Carrie Fisher for the last time), and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). A complicated Star Wars plan not working? That actually is kind of new, and it was awesome.
Which leads me to what I liked best about this film. It’s tragic. It’s sad. Plans don’t work out very well, and the entire rebellion is nearly wiped out. The triumphant ending of this involves, like, 20 people escaping death in the Millennium Falcon. (I love, btw, that the Millennium Falcon still works, can still outfly any bad guy ship they make, is still really fast and awesome. Forty years have passed, after all; how many battles does our Air Force fight using a WWII era P-51 Mustang? Sure it still uses, like, propellers, but it can still out run a F-16 jet! Not likely. I like to imagine that Chewbacca has been tinkering on it. Upgrading and modifying.
We always want to rank the Star Wars films; I do it too. But mostly just the canonical films, the ones with numbers, from Phantom Menace to, now, Last Jedi. But now there’s a non-canonical Star Wars film, Rogue One. Which is deeply tragic. A film about a bunch of brave rebels who die for the rebel cause (which is, we think, the cause of social justice), who succeed in doing exactly one important thing, but who die in the attempt. I don’t know where it ranks, but I thought it was a powerful and well-made film.
Well, The Last Jedi demonstrated a very similar sensibility. It’s not terribly triumphant. Essentially, it’s about the bad guys’ mopping-up exercise. The rebels have been defeated, and are down to one cruiser, and a few unarmed, unshielded transports. Then the cruiser is lost. And one by one, General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) starts picking off transports. It’s over. The rebellion has lost. But a few do escape. That’s the triumph. My mind went back to 1778. Howe drove Washington out of New York, out of Philadelphia, American defeat after defeat, to retreat to the misery of Valley Force. But still, Washington survived, as did the tattered remnants of his army. That’s where we are in Star Wars.
So: two questions. First, does this cast, Ridley, Isaac, Boyega, Tran, have the charisma to carry the franchise for the next few years? At least through one more film, and possibly four more? Answer: absolutely. They’re terrific. And there’s no way they’re going to let Del Toro disappear. And Adam Driver’s a wonderful, complicated, fascinating villain.
Second question: how does this film rank among all the Star Wars films? I choose to grade them: A New Hope: A. Empire Strikes Back: A. Return of the Jedi: B-minus. Rogue One: A-minus. Last Jedi: B-plus. The Force Awakens: D-plus. The Phantom Menace: F-minus. Attack of the Clones: F. Revenge of the Sith: D-minus. Love to hear what you think.
Anyway, I found Last Jedi very satisfying indeed. It’s a beautiful film. The battle scenes on the mineral planet on which they all take refuge were lovely, taking place on a plain on which a layer of salt covers a fine red clay. The red and white dust of the battle was astonishing; beautiful, unsettling. I loved Kelly Marie Tran, the newest cast addition, with her wonderfully expressive face and complete commitment to every scene. I loved Benicio Del Toro’s stutter. I loved the moment when Chewie roasts, but can’t bring himself to actually eat, a porg. So many details the film got right. Now let’s hope J. J. Abrams doesn’t screw the next one up.