Rian Johnson delivers the strangest movie in the Star Wars franchise.

By Darren Franich
December 16, 2019 at 04:12 PM EST
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Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi

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  • Movie

As we count down to The Rise of Skywalker (Dec. 20), Entertainment Weekly critic Darren Franich is looking back on every film in the Star Wars franchise. Last week: Megadeath Star. This week: The Last Jedi twists and turns. Plus: Skywalker hits in a few days, so check out EW’s new Star Wars podcast!

“It’s time to let old things die,” says Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). “Snoke, Skywalker, the Sith, the Jedi, the Rebels. Let it all die.” Is he right? Hasn’t Star Wars done enough to us?

The Last Jedi is the strangest movie in the franchise, self-critical and self-defeating, a way-too-big action blockbuster preaching against big-money warfare. It’s the first Star Wars to feel bad about itself, and the first to suggest its heroes can inspire cultural revolutions using celebrity powers. There are stunning moments and terrible soliloquies, sexy interludes and romance without chemistry. The story turns courageous and cowardly, sometimes in a single scene.

It also answers a basic question: What if a good director made a modern Star Wars film? Rian Johnson wasn’t some flashy marketing genius snorting nostalgia like crushed Adderall, and he wasn’t the guy who made the first boring Godzilla movie. He’s the only official writer on the Last Jedi screenplay — and his “directed by” credit doesn’t mask a midstream firing or post-production replacement by the guy who directed the first boring Bourne movie.

So Johnson truly authored this unified mess, full of gorgeous sequences and exhausting sincerity. It pinnacles exquisitely in the opening scene. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) launches an attack on the invading First Order. The outmatched Resistance bombers explode into deathspires. We catch sight of one woman (Veronica Ngo) on a suicide run. Johnson builds her micro tragicomic set piece into the macro Good-and-Evil spacefight. She kicks a ladder, and turns a blinking red light green. The bombs drop as her ship explodes. She looks right at us, killing flames above, frozen space underneath.

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A random person can be the most important character in the galaxy for a few perfect seconds: That’s the thesis, I guess, for my own personal Star Wars truth. The brief wondrous screen life of Paige Tico captures that possibility better than anything since the Mos Eisley Cantina. It prepares you for a whole Star Wars movie — yet unmade — full of nobodies who are quite somebody. I’m not talking about, like, “A random soldier who happens to be the daughter of the Death Star designer,” and I’m not talking about “Han Solo, but younger,” and I’m not talking about “A Boba Fett duplicate hangs out with a Yoda duplicate.” (Life’s too short, so I will not be exploring the Star Wars Story spin-offs in this essay series.) I mean regular space people, without a grand space destiny, enjoying a space drink, working themselves toward whatever you call the space version of a watery grave.

Elsewhere, Skywalkers are skywalking. Leia (Carrie Fisher) chastises Poe against cocky cockpitting. Luke (Mark Hamill) lectures Rey (Daisy Ridley) about his refusal to lecture her, until the lecturing begins. Kylo Ren takes off that ridiculous mask after a brutal diatribe from Lord Snoke (Andy Serkis) about the cosmic potential of his bloodline.

One central weirdness of Last Jedi is how the constant takedown of franchise tropes requires building those tropes to stratospheric heights. Luke is not merely an old war hero-turned-revivalist minister, and Leia is not merely a military lifer experienced enough to see fascism rise twice in her lifetime. They are avatars for hope in the galaxy. And the narrative purpose, initially, is to challenge the expectations of day-saving. “You think what?” Luke barks, dismissive. “I’m gonna walk out with a laser sword and face down the whole First Order?”

Honestly: That is not what I thought. In the original trilogy, Luke Skywalker destroyed one Death Star, knocked over an AT-AT mid-retreat, and hung out on another Death Star until the Rebellion blew it up. Last Jedi argues that impressive track record toward fundamentalist worship. Rey spends a quarter of her screen life so far convincing Luke that his mere presence would score a victory for the Resistance. And she is right, it turns out. His image really is what matters.

Hamill returns a mesmerizingly unfussy performer, giving the elder Jedi a wounded charm and savvy sorrow. He’s an anti-prophet, a Jedi who believes “it is time for the Jedi to end.”

There is much analysis about what Luke’s appearance here means, how his simultaneous backward focus plus baby-with-the-bathwater anti-Force nihilism represents aging Star Wars obsessives or George Lucas himself. None of this resolves a central problem: Every scene on Jedi Island is pedantic past absurdity. You have to remember that Jedi Knight-ism could just be, like, a vibe: casual instructions in oversoul awareness taught by smirking senseis on campouts or road trips. “To say that if the Jedi die, the light dies is vanity,” Luke posits. “Can you feel that?” Well, how vain it is to spend half a movie explaining your own subtext?

There is an incredible, perfect shot here. Rey trains with her lightsaber, while Luke watches her. In a tighter movie, that could’ve been it for Ahch-To: Generations turning, youth energized with possibility, age hunched in wisdom and memory. Instead, we keep learning. Even the famously expository prequels didn’t spend so long excavating Force doctrine. It’s like someone built a whole Vatican to prove the Vatican is dumb. I agree, the Jedi are weird as hell. Can’t we do something different?

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I think there was a tougher version of Last Jedi where Luke wasn’t a philosophical hermit living on a private island — where part of the problem becomes that he’s a bitter old war hero with bitter old human problems. His life seems too clean, somehow, so dedicated to broadcasting his ideas. His whole existence has become a think piece, and that on-the-nose quality extends throughout the story tangle. “There are things you cannot solve by jumping in an X-wing and blowing stuff up!” Leia tells a heroic X-wing fighter whose job is blowing stuff up. “Good guys, bad guys, made-up words,” says Benicio Del Toro’s nameless criminal, quoting Baby’s First Moral Ambiguity.

He’s talking to Finn (John Boyega), the sequel trilogy character served worst by Last Jedi’s diffuse plot. The setup has promise, though. The Resistance flies away from the First Order megafleet. This is great fodder for tense space-submarine warfare. Johnson is merciless in his depiction of the steady fuel breakdown. Kylo Ren leads an attack, and almost kills his own mother. Instead, a couple rando TIE fighters explode the command center. Leia survives with Force pulling: a scene of hallucinatory operatic power, because dammit, I cry every time I watch Carrie Fisher conquer death itself.

Meanwhile, Admiral Ackbar (Timothy D. Rose) fades into the void. Good! Toss all the old toys into a funeral pyre! That instinct was already the best thing about the mass-murderous Revenge of the Sith. Instead, our characters spread across the galaxy. Finn and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) are rom-comming on the run to Planet Casino, a potentially fun tangent marred by the movie’s only bad special effects (ride on, you horse-bunnies!). Rey’s on her island, learning a valuable lesson about not learning lessons.

Poe spends Last Jedi in an intriguing mansplaining fable, the loudmouth hotshot who keeps challenging his female commanders. This subplot’s a half-measure, though. “That one’s a troublemaker. I like him,” says Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), after Poe stages an actual mutiny. “Me too,” Leia agrees. Think how much sharper the point would be if one of them said: “Geez, that guy’s an a—hole.” Think how much better Last Jedi would be if — after an entire movie proving Luke Skywalker isn’t some galaxy-saving legend — Luke Skywalker didn’t use his legend to save the galaxy.

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Last Jedi is a paradox, really, which is why it’s the only movie from this early Disney era we’ll still be talking about decades from now. It wants to wipe the slate clean, and then it demonizes slate-wiping. Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) reappears to burn the Jedi scrolls. He has a wonderful line to Luke about growing old while a new generation rises: “We are what they grow beyond.” No small thing, to create the first great Yoda sequence in 37 years. And then those damned Jedi texts reappear on the Millennium Falcon, unscorched!

Credit Johnson, though, for developing the Kylo Ren-Rey relationship. They’re the most idiosyncratic pairing of characters in the saga’s history — and maybe this episode would be better with a narrower focus, without some internal find-room-for-Phasma mandate. Driver shades his patricidal darksider with quivery strength. He is, we discover, a man let down by every mentor he’s ever had. Luke Skywalker thought “for the briefest moment of pure instinct” about killing him. Snoke only values his bloodline. There remains the obvious possibility that his parents were awful. So he has a distinct motto: “Let the past die,” he tells Rey. “Kill it, if you have to.” One possible translation of this anti-nostalgia call to action: okay, boomer.

The Rey-Kylo material brings out something new in Ridley, who had to race breathlessly through The Force Awakens. She becomes the shadowboy’s intrigued confessor — and his curious student, learning that not everything is as simple as Dark and Light. That rhymes, weirdly, with what Luke is telling her. (If anything can happen in Last Jedi, it can happen twice; drink every time someone says “hope.”)

But there’s a personal rush to their intimate conversations, a connection dramatized in a ludirously sensual extreme close-up of their two hands touching. In Johnson’s twisted vision, they’re trying to fix each other. Rey wants to pull Ben Solo out of Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren wants to pull Rey out of this whole paradigm, man. When they fight Snoke’s guardsmen, the choreography tells a story. They’re not just fighting. They’re dancing.

Then, frog nuns help us, someone brings up Rey’s parents. The Last Jedi establishes (maybe not for long) that these mythic somebodies were nobodies junk traders who sold their daughter off for drinking money. “You have no place in this story,” Kylo says. “You come from nothing. You’re nothing. But not to me. Join me. Please.”

This could be a fascinating twist in the Kylo-Rey coupling: She’s the outsider who wants in, and he’s the insider who wants out. That “You have no place in this story” is too much, the kind of dialogue you only get when sagas are old enough for the characters to become self-aware archetypes. But I’m struck by Kylo’s sincere admiration. He likes that Rey comes from nothing. Maybe he wishes he could be Rey: a fresh hero orphaned on a desert planet with no past and only future, not a third-generation superhuman born embalmed into canon.

And then they fight, and then Kylo Ren decides he’d like to be a murderous Supreme Leader. This concludes the part of the movie where his philosophy carries moral weight. Cool AT-AT scene, bro, is about the most you can expect from the Disney era, though the Luke-Kylo showdown is the real letdown. Luke beams his image across the galaxy as a distraction, and it’s possible to read this as a twisted angle on heroism: “Luke Skywalker walking out with a laser sword and facing down the whole First Order” is an illusion everyone believes.

Except, like: It actually is a heroic act of self-sacrifice, and Luke Skywalker does rescue the Resistance. In the shadows of the casino planet, young children are inspired by the stories of the brave Jedi, their rebel spirit forcefully activated. In 1977, Star Wars gave Luke a medal. In 2017, Last Jedi makes him Space Jesus.

So this movie is an act of devotion, whatever its contradictions. In the real world, of course, those cut kids who love Luke Skywalker might grow up to be horrible adults launching verbal assaults on actors or directors who dare to betray their sacred scriptures. “The war is just beginning,” Luke says before he dies. Is he threatening Kylo Ren — or us?

I return, always, to the moment when the Falcon swoops down from space to help the forces of good. “Whooo!” Rey yells in the gunpit. “I like this!” Of course she does. She’s been cooped up all movie, trying to redeem one symbolic Skywalker or another. It’s fun doing a star war! Last Jedi wonders if it should be, and then that mirror-gazing inquisition falls victim to franchise inevitability. Johnson films beautiful spacefights, but he keeps his knives in.

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Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi

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