Last year, Jyn Erso and her merry band of sacrificial Rogues reminded us that rebellions are built on hope – that tiny spark of belief in a better tomorrow, a future that’s bigger and grander than yourself. Star Wars: The Last Jedi – which left off with natural-born proto-Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) finally locating Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the long-lost, last living Jedi in the galaxy – is keen to explore this concept in greater detail. To slip through its sheen and shielding and really demand an answer to the question that has burned through decades and directors and a trilogy of trilogies. If fear leads to anger leads to hate leads to suffering…if the Light Side begets the Dark Side which brings back the Light Side which resurges the Dark Side… If the war never ends, what is it all for? I credited Rogue One with accomplishing something that eluded The Force Awakens: making the Death Star and associated superweapons actually seem scary. That compliment should rightfully be taken as a criticism of The Force Awakens, and it wasn’t for lack of trying on that film’s part. We saw the awesome power of the biggest, baddest, newest beam of death, wiping out multiple planets from another system that we didn’t know or care about until minutes beforehand. We’re told that these planets make up the new Republic – whatever that is at this point. A few featured extras look scared and dissolve into oblivion, and that’s that. Then the superweapon and a sizable cohort of the First Order are destroyed, and that’s that. And all of the main characters (save Han Solo, who is dramatically murdered by his adult son), escape to fight another day. And as an audience, we’re left to ponder, once again, what is it all for? This level of attrition is unsustainable and pointless. Fear will keep the local systems in line, but what else do they have to live for? What is everyday life for the non-military Star Wars universe apart from combat and desperation, slavery and decay, trading junk for scrap and muddling through for one more day? That’s the life that Rey is living at the outset of this trilogy. When you really consider this universe, it seems terribly bleak, and overdue for an honest look at itself. Which is why I was so excited to see indie and cable drama auteur Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, Breaking Bad) take a steady shot at making sense of it all. The Last Jedi doesn’t present the same shallow hope we’ve seen before – the sort that is easy to cheer for, as long as its sole objective is to hop in an X-Wing and blow something up. It also dares to deconstruct that hope, as it really must exist in such a universe.
It starts with Luke Skywalker, who disappeared to his Jedi Temple island by choice, with no desire to return and face his failure with his nephew Ben Solo, now styled as Sith apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The two tell a similar story of why the latter’s Jedi training went so wrong. Luke founded a new Jedi Temple and began training Ben Solo and other youths who were strong with the Force. Solo turned to the Dark Side, destroying the temple and killing any trainee who wouldn’t leave to follow his path. They agree on that much. But as we hear them recount the story, each of them credibly blames the other for it, and it is to the film’s immense credit that it doesn’t take a firm position on who is correct. Luke may be able to see things through the lens of the Force – the Light Side and the Dark – and so can his student. But Kylo Ren is just like any other well-drawn villain – he sees himself as essentially justified in his actions. Righteous even. Each of these men carries a version of this story, and we will only see its truth revealed through the decisions they make. The Force acts as a bit of a galactic telephone here, bringing Kylo and Rey into shared proximity for a tense conversation while they remain far apart in reality. This forms a tug-of-war for Rey, who never quite feels like a thrall of either would-be teacher. If Luke exemplifies anything by this point, it is fear of the full potential of the Force. He saw it in Kylo Ren, and he sees it in Rey. Meanwhile, she’s happy to receive his corrections about the nature of the Force – but equally ready to ditch him if he should prove unwilling to leave his retreat and render aid. Skywalker’s lessons about the Force play through a lens of bitter cynicism – he castigates the Jedi for their arrogance and hubris – but he also corrects Rey’s amateur assumptions. The Force, he says, is not a tool invented by the Jedi for lifting rocks, nor is it even their exclusive possession. It is an energy that connects all living things, and maintains them in balance. If this sounds a bit familiar, I must emphasize that this is quite a different dynamic from Yoda training Luke on Dagobah. Luke isn’t being coy about any hidden desire to train Rey; he wants her to leave him the hell alone. He’s got a nice life sleeping alone on rocks and subsisting on fish and dinosaur milk. He misses Han and Leia, but has no desire to rejoin their fight. He regrets his failures and wants the Jedi to go extinct.
Here’s another loose Empire comparison for this film: our heroes escape from a Resistance Base under First Order siege at the start of this film – but unlike Hoth, this is primarily a space battle – and an awesome and costly one to boot. This isn’t the best space battle we’ve seen in the new films (that goes to the finale of Rogue One, for much better use of all three dimensions), but for keeping up with the original trilogy’s planar, World War II battleship aesthetic, it is certainly a memorable sequence. It introduces many novel ships (the fleet-killing Dreadnought and the Resistance bombers are both a sight to behold) and has lasting character consequences. First, there are the flawed X-Wing heroics and bravado of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), probably the least-developed new character in The Force Awakens, who is handed the truly precious character gift of being wrong, over and over and over again during this film. He’s quite good at blowing things up for the Resistance, but his instincts prove to be a serious liability, and this movie isn’t afraid to let him fail spectacularly. The opening battle also helps to form the backstory of a new character, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a ship’s mechanic on an ad hoc guard rotation that plunks her directly into the path of the cool kids as the newly revived Finn (John Boyega) tries to sneak off the ship for reasons that he assures her are noble. After he recovers from her stun bolt to the chest, the three form an ad hoc posse who hatch a plot to save the Resistance fleet, which is still being pursued by remnants of the First Order.
That’s essentially the A-plot to the film: the dregs of one space navy chasing the dregs of another. And somehow, in the middle of it all, we find Finn and Rose on a secret mission to Space Vegas (real name: Canto Bight), trying to locate a codebreaker who can help their fleet out of this jam. This planet and town had an actual name, but I’m going to describe it in familiar terms. It’s a huge seaside casino town – Space Monte Carlo is probably a better moniker – filled to the brim with the galactic 1%, drinking and spending and partying. The familiar Cantina steel drums pick up (with yet another new John Williams track), drunken aliens stumble around blowing wads of credits, including a tiny one who tries to insert coins in BB-8. The closest thing we’ve seen to this before is Coruscant, the seat of the Old Republic (and eventually the Empire) – a planet covered with a single massive city that is the center of political and economic power in the galaxy. But this is something different – a luxurious, sparsely-populated planet where the galactic superrich go to party and debauch. In the midst of a planet-killing interstellar war, we could easily blow past the absurdity of such a place existing in relative peace, but the movie immediately calls attention to it. If Coruscant was the seat of the Empire, this is the seat of the military-industrial complex, filled loosely to the brim with the sort of people (and aliens) who could only get this rich by selling weapons to anyone and everyone who will buy them. And it’s all quite lovely at first – this is some of the best production design in a Rian Johnson film since The Brothers Bloom, brought to life by production designer Rick Heinrichs (known for similarly impressive work on the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean films) and veteran sci-fi costumer Michael Kaplan. Finn, a lowborn soldier, is impressed by the grandeur and spectacle, but Rose invites him to look closer, and spot the cruelty hovering just below the surface of the extravagant capitalism on display. Since there is child slavery and animal abuse literally within binocular view at the time, her point is well-made, but the script and actors pull off one of the film’s more subtle tricks in this scene, by giving one possible answer to the question that I posed above: this place is what it’s all for. War has the potential to enrich the lives of a few privileged people, far away from the front lines, and any hope that they may experience is vested in their stock price. Rose spots this cruelty because it is familiar to her – she saw it on her home planet, which the First Order used for mining and target practice – and it is further embodied in an unnamed gangster played by Benicio del Toro. He’s neither to be trusted, nor trifled with, but as he joins their mission to save the Resistance fleet, he utters one of his only honest lines in the film: “They’ll blow you up today, you’ll blow them up tomorrow. It’s just business.”
“You’re wrong,” declares Finn.
“Maybe!” says the gangster, with an unsentimental twitch of the eye, not seeming to care one way or the other. I hope we see more of him.
As conventional villains go, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is a pitiless monster and – par for the course for one of Serkis’ digital costumes – a flawless CGI creation. He dresses down Kylo Ren as a child in a mask, and tosses and Force-shocks him around like a rag doll for good measure. And of course, an epic struggle plays out between the nascent Force-users over which of their destinies Snoke will control this week. But looking back, that all feels like the old, childish Light-and-Dark stuff to me. These people – strong with the Force or otherwise – will chase and blast and slice and blow each other up til the end of the universe, and perhaps the only real villain that the series has left for us to face…is nihilism. Rey tells Luke from the outset that General Leia (Carrie Fisher) sent her to see him for hope. If Leia was wrong, she deserves to know why. “We all do,” says Rey. This poor woman is begging a Jedi Knight for his help, and all he wants to do is stay put and die. Hamill‘s performance is impressive, bringing a gruff intensity that thoroughly spells out what a disappointment Luke Skywalker turned out to be, for us, and for himself. He is the flip side of del Toro’s unnamed gangster, neither losing nor profiting from the endless war – instead, simply bowing out. If the Force is what binds all things together in perfect harmony, then hope is as fine an emotion as any to invest in it. But what’s on the other side? Not darkness or evil – those are forces to be actively fought. This is despair. Nothingness. Abrogating your power and purpose in the universe and declaring that it can do whatever it wants, because it’s not your problem anymore. This is some dark stuff coming from Disney, and frankly, a great deal more moral complexity than I expected from a Star Wars film.
That’s where Skywalker starts as a character in this film, and I won’t say where he goes, nor will I spoil the final battle. I’ll just say that it all feels worth it, and seems to be taking these characters in a worthwhile direction. Carrie Fisher has a worthy send-off, and we could always use more Laura Dern. There is a desperate finality to this entire battle that made me briefly ponder how there could be a third chapter to this story. A single silent shot (matched by silence in my theater) is perhaps one of the most visually stunning moments that has ever appeared in the series. But I’m taking this film’s narrative ambition as a promise to be fulfilled with the next film. If The Last Jedi dares to challenge the duality of the Light/Dark-side narrative by couching it as a matter of perspective; if it dares to ask the question of why we should be invested in the outcome of a struggle between two flagging military superpowers for any reason besides the names and flags they use to denote their respective teams, the next had better answer the question in a satisfying manner. What is it all for? The Resistance, or the Rebellion, fights for what they love (Rose seems to exist solely to spell out this point) – but they’d better have some idea of what the peace will look like. The First Order – or the Empire – fights for blood, vengeance, and the tautological maintenance of its own power, with its association to the Dark Side as barely an afterthought. They fight to control the galaxy, and their resolve is steeled by having a rebellion to crush. Anyone who wants to win this war will need to figure out what winning looks like. What a better tomorrow looks like. What exactly it is that they’re hoping for.
But they’ve got everything they need to sort that out.
FilmWonk rating: 8.5 out of 10