Just like a young padawan learning to make sense of disturbances in the Force, it’s taken me quite a while to sort through my impressions of the Rian Johnson Star Wars milieu and put together a coherent review of The Last Jedi. Anyone who grew up with Star Wars near the center of their childhood cosmology is incapable of being cooly detached when thinking about the new Disney-era Star Wars movies. When a 30+ dude like me considers these new movies, they’re intertwined with a fear of loss and change, and so the dark side of the Force beckons. That’s mostly what’s behind all of the horrible racist and sexist vitriol aimed at the cast of new movies. As a sci-fi fan, it’s painful to see that the Trump zeitgeist is alive and well among my own tribe, but there it is. (Shit, buddy, our tribe helped get the whole thing started. Sad but true. – ed.)
So with some understanding of the emotional peril, I will bravely attempt this dangerous task of reviewing Episode 8, and we’ll see if I come out a Jedi or a Sith at the end.
Quantitatively, Episodes 7 and 8 are good movies. They are. The pacing is just about right, there’s plenty of action, there’s X-wing glamour-shots that make me want to sing for joy. The new characters fill the story with verve. Rey is a perfect force apprentice. The lightsaber battles recall the original trilogy’s style of just swinging an energy-blade like an aluminum baseball bat on your boss’ windshield. (What style would that be? Vapaad? Makashi?)
All of the man-baby criticism seems hollow stacked up against the inarguable merit of these movies. The angry Twitter users who see a social-justice reimagining of their beloved Star Wars must have missed a nap or a recent meal in their lactose-heavy diets, otherwise, they’d remember that science fiction has social justice baked into its very DNA. Star Trek can’t go more than an hour without indicting western capitalism. The original series had the guts to cast the first African-American woman in a non-subjugated role. Even the much-sillier Star Wars makes numerous references to slavery and fascism. As to the complaints about the races and genders of the new characters, all I can say is that behind every racist and sexist tweet there’s a red MAGA cap. May they gather dust.
Episode 8 has the feel of the boxer who’s light on his feet. Poe is the hero in the leather jacket, so of course he knows better than Vice Admiral Holdo, who assumes command of the rebel fleet after Leia is incapacitated. Poe ain’t got the time, and he shoots from the hip. And he FAILS. It turns out that Holdo (Laura Dern, whose performance radiates gravity) really does know what the hell she’s talking about. As do all the women in this movie. Poe’s heroism isn’t a marginal feature by any means, but the traditional man-of-action role has a little bit more to reckon with in this story.
Other unexpected hooks land. The movie surprises us with a discussion of the ambiguity of the relationship between good and evil from none other than Yoda. Even the basic premise of the Rebellion/Resistance is a little nuanced vis-a-vis the wealthy arms-dealers whose pockets our heroes happily line. And who exactly is the villain in the movie after Snoke get killed? Ostensibly, it’s Kylo, although he was already struggling with the light side of the force before he killed the Supreme Leader.
All this is building up to Mark Hamill’s outstanding performance. Luke Skywalker of the original trilogy didn’t have many moments of pure “cool”. They left that to Han Solo. Rian Johnson’s Luke is… cool. He’s seen a thing or two. He’s a little pissed off. He’s not having any of it. When he sees C-3PO after all those years, we only get a wink out of him. It’s one of those times when an actor’s attitude and life experience melds perfectly with a story and a character. Mark Hamill has said that Luke’s washed-up future for him represents the failure of the ’60s to bring about the promised Age-of-Aquarius utopia. As Luke watched his galaxy descend into a fresh dictatorship, we all watched as the Western world began to question the value of democracy and wink at tyrants. Against the backdrop of these Trump years, there was something poignant about the old Jedi hero’s final moments- the double sunset recalling his home on Tatooine, and his robe blowing away in the wind as he vanished into the force.
Now that I’ve given this movie its due credit, I feel the dark side of the force welling up, and I’m going to channel a bit of it.
Taking away all the promise that Luke showed after Return of the Jedi and flushing it down the toilet in Episode 8 is total goddamned bullshit. I understand the necessity of killing Luke off in the new trilogy, and I don’t bemoan the fact that new young characters have to replace the old timers. I don’t even mind Luke’s exile. I think it’s a smart direction to take the character. But I can’t get behind Rian Johnson’s decision to give Luke exactly zero new adventures and then kill him. He has a falling out with Kylo and that’s the end of it? Really? They couldn’t think of something a little more engaging? He barely even got to be a real Jedi, for god’s sake. His battle with Vader was supposed to be his formal entry into knighthood, and we go straight from that to the elder Luke wallowing in the bottom of an alien milk bottle like some kind of sci-fi Margaritaville. What they’ve done to Luke feels like a modern painting at MOMA that you wait in line for hours to see, only to find a big blank canvas with a single black dot in the middle. Oh I get it, it’s very edgy and unexpected. It’s also a giant freaking cop-out.
Even worse, Rian Johnson, Disney, et al. left themselves no opportunity to explore the character in future installments. In contrast, the canon is still wide open for new Obi Wan and Yoda stories. Vader as well. There’s lots of history in those characters that we can only guess at, and lots of creative ways to fill in the blanks. But they’ve essentially wiped Luke right out of the story. And why? To prove that they’re “gutsy”? I suspect that’s part of it. But that begs the question- will Disney show the same “gutsiness” with its own beloved A-team of Rey, Poe and Finn in future movies? Raise your hand if you think there’s the slightest chance Disney will turn Rey into a broken down cynical husk consumed with guilt.
Luke isn’t even my favorite character, but I’m spilling a lot of ink on him because his treatment in Episode 8 exposed a serious flaw in the new trilogy. It’s not that they’re killing the old characters off, but that they’re simply rushing them off stage as fast as they can to connect with the younger demographic. Disney isn’t stupid. They know who will be powering ticket sales for the next 20 years. It sure as hell isn’t me. The irony is that they’re in a bind now because Carrie Fischer’s death took control over Princess Leia’s finale out of their hands. Presumably they were going to kill her off in Episode 9 anyway, but now they’ll have to either weirdly do it in the beginning of the movie with a “her ship blew up” line or they’ll even more weirdly do it by resurrecting her with CGI only to kill her again. And all this would have been fine had Johnson not already killed Luke and Han off leaving himself exactly no breathing room. So the fact that he’s forced to let the triple-homicide fizzle out with Princess Leia is a sort of bitter justice.
Let’s talk about that casino scene. If you’re like me (and because you’ve made it this far through my barely-coherent screed, I’ll assume you are), then you really like the Jabba’s Palace scene in Return of the Jedi. For me, that scene exemplifies one of Star Wars’ strongest qualities- its wholly original imagination. When Star Wars has a gangster-den, there’s no Italian-American tropes. There’s no veiled references to Godfather. When Star Wars has a desert society, there’s no turbans, no references to oil or anything to break that Star Wars spell. Star Wars is completely its own thing. The little nods to the audience are very few and far between. With this in mind, I was disappointed that the casino in Episode 8 looked like the MGM Grand in Vegas, complete with black tuxedos, poker chips and beige. It looked so un-Star Wars that my brain tried to tell me I was watching Ocean’s 11.
Let’s talk about that finale. The finale was pretty cool. I really like how everything in the First Order looks like the Empire on insane meth-steroids. And we finally get to watch Rey use some serious force-power. But to return to my criticism of Luke’s treatment, of course they wouldn’t actually give him a real fight scene. They had to throw us for a loop again. And after learning nothing new about Snoke at all, I was really losing my patience at this point of the movie with Johnson’s whole “let me prove that I can surprise you” schtick. I mean, by Odin’s Beard, they couldn’t actually let Luke Skywalker swing a real lightsaber at least once?
The task now in Episode 9 is to actually do something with Rey and figure out where the Jedi fit into these new movies. With the Jedi, Star Wars really needs to shit or get off the pot. If they’re going to bring the Jedi back, then it’s time to actually bring them back. We’re two movies past Return of the Jedi and still the prospect of having actual, post-Order 66 Jedi Knights back on the field seems as dim as ever. At this point, the most surprising thing Rian Johnson could do is have Rey re-establish a Jedi Order without any serious complications. But I know they’re going to do something funky and high-concept. The larger task will be to forge ahead with the Star Wars mythos completely independent of the old cast (Force-ghosts aside) and the original vision of George Lucas. They’ve done a good job so far with these movies, even if each of them carry a funereal dread for everyone who grew up with the original trilogy. The old have to move out the way for the young. That’s nature’s way. And yet, no matter what grand and vigorous future Disney is germinating for Star Wars, my inner 10-year old will always be saying- “would it have killed them to give Luke Skywalker one real Jedi adventure?”
Lazy Nerd Verdict: This is a good movie. Just remember Luke how he was. And please don’t take your existential hang-ups out on minorities and women.