The Last Jedi

I saved you, Dummy. That's how we will win-- not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love.
 Ever since I was six year old, Star Wars has been an escape from real life. I always played with the toys-- Kenner action figures were some of my best friends. I had a recording of The Empire Strikes Back-- not the soundtrack but every word, musical note, and sound-- on a record.

The Last Jedi, in a very real way, is the end of all that escapism. Yes, it still features aliens and space battles, but as a popular meme says, "The struggle is real." Grief. Heartache. Despair. Faithlessness. Even unforgiveness. We must go in a new direction, but clinging to the past feels comfortable and safe. When we are pulled there by force, we fight back.

This is at the heart of much of the criticism of The Last Jedi. Many Star Wars geeks, who grew up with the toys and the merch and everything else, do not want our beloved franchise taken to uncomfortable places. And when one of the main heroes of our childhood is the Moses on this Exodus, leading the way into an uncertain future, it's even harder to take.

The movie has issues and I'll deal with a couple of them in a second, but on a meta level this is the first Star Wars movie since A New Hope to deal with the struggles of everyday life. The reaction to this brilliant movie is very 2017: we lash out at whatever annoys us in order to avoid what really hurts us. Kylo Ren cannot handle his power in The Force Awakens. We're the opposite: We cannot handle our powerlessness. There's a great exchange between Finn and a codebreaker near the end of the movie. Finn asks something like, "Doesn't all this death bother you?" And the guy says,

"Maybe" isn't okay. The movie argues it's even better to choose evil than to shrug one's shoulders and keep living. It's an argument against nihilism. To ignore suffering, to turn away from human need, is worst choice we can make.

Episode Eight was directed by Rian Johnson, who was recently given the keys to three new Star Wars movies that will not be centered in the Skywalker universe. I believe the themes and questions of The Last Jedi will be further explored in the new trilogy. For the Star Wars traditionalists, Disney gave us The Force Awakens, Rogue One, next May's Solo, directed by Ron Howard of all people, and 2019's Episode Nine, directed once again by JJ Abrams, director of Episode Seven.

The Last Jedi isn't for nostalgia nuts. Spoilers from now on, so come back later if you haven't seen it yet.

OK, let's start with a couple of issues:

  1. I liked the relationship between Finn and Rose. I loved Rose. Her emotion over the death of her sister in the opening battle of the movie was powerful. And I love her heart for justice and duty. She and Finn are wasted on their side journey to the casino. It's twenty extra minutes that were not necessary. The casino felt like an upscale, Las Vegas version of the Mos Eisley cantina. Taking Finn away from the action felt like the seventh episode of Stranger Things 2 when Eleven goes to Chicago to find a sister. Maybe it's a launching point for season three, but she belongs with Mike and everyone else.
  2. Leia's death and resurrection?? I've heard it compared to both Superman and Mary Poppins. I didn't get that at all. I wonder if this was inserted after Carrie Fisher's death last December? I know the scenes following her outer space excursion are central to the movie and I loved all of them. But I can't figure out why her death and resuscitation are necessary.
Some things I loved:
  1. The Porgs. I was worried about them, and our James even asked how I could like them but hate the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi. The Ewoks were too central to the plot. These teddy bears are the key to defeating the empire? Nope. The Porgs are good comic relief. The scene when Chewbacca has barbecued one and is ready to feast is hilarious.
  2. Kylo Ren. I liked Kylo in The Force Awakens. I loved him here. His immaturity and adolescence must have been disruptive by themselves-- but throw in temptation from the light side of the Force, plus conflicted feelings for his parents-- he can't shoot Leia's ship in this movie. I killed the boys with this theory I contrived after seeing The Last Jedi a second time: Kylo is more powerful than Darth Vader was. He cannot control his power, but he has risen to a level Vader never did: killing his master (Snoke is no Palpatine) and leading an empire by himself. Solo. Ha!
  3. Rey's cave scene. She is longing to see her parents; she only sees herself. She says to Luke, pleading with him to mentor her in the Force: "Something inside me has always been there, but now it's awake and I'm afraid."
  4. The battle scene at the end. Yes, it evokes Hoth from Episode Five. But the red salt just under the surface shows the audience how powerful and haunting the forces at work here are. The red is continued in Snoke's chamber.
  5. Poe Dameron's failure and learning. We think he's a Han Solo wanna-be; but he's irresponsible. He overrules Leia in the opening scene, and they lose their bombers. He sends Finn and Rose on their useless, time absorbing mission. Many escape pods are lost because of his impulsiveness. At the end, we see him becoming more mature and thoughtful, much to Leia's approval.
  6. The hyperspace jump by Laura Dern's character. This is the pivotal scene, happening at the exact moment Rey and Kylo break Luke's old lightsaber.
  7. Luke vs Kylo. Hilarious and powerful. Evoking Obi Wan Kenobi: "Strike me down in anger and I will always be with you, just like your father." Wow. We'll see Luke in ghost form in Episode Nine.
  8. Luke and Leia. She's glad to see him "at the end." She says, "No one's ever really gone." I was weeping,
  9. The Force connections between Rey and Kylo. Something new. 
Luke's reluctance to the whole movie is the real sticking point, but for me it's the movie's strength. The Jedi Master, the hero of my childhood, is afraid of the power of Kylo Ren and Rey. They are both equally matched with the Force, just like the mosaic found on the floor of one of the island's cave. Luke has witnessed much death and suffering in his life, and he's done with it all. He's disillusioned with the Jedi. He's opted out of the Force. He says to Rey,
I came to this island to die.
He doesn't want to go back and face all that death again. Determined not to go back, he encounters R2D2 on the Millenium Falcon. R2 hears the speech about not going back, but then plays Leia's message from the original Star Wars. Oh boy. "You're our only hope." He says to R2, "That was a cheap trick."

Luke knows he must let his own past go. He talks a good game, but he will not burn down the Jedi tree, the symbol of the Jedi mythos. So Yoda shows up, brings down lightning from the sky, and does it for him. It's brilliant, and in its own way, liberating for Luke. In the end he helps the rebels, though it literally kills him. Love is like that.

Luke and Kylo both invite Rey and everyone else to embrace a new future: without Jedi and Sith, without rebels and the First Order. Kylo invites Rey to join him, much as Vader does to Luke in Empire-- but he knows it's a relationship between equals. He can't defeat her, so he implores her to team up. She won't. Luke was the hero of my youth, but The Last Jedi says there are no heroes, just people who must take a stand. "Always in motion is the future," Yoda says in Empire, and Episode Eight's future in motion is troubling to some.

Even with its issues, The Last Jedi is brilliant-- I loved it. It's near the top of my Star Wars list, although the Leia Superman/Mary Poppins scene keeps it from uprooting The Empire Strikes Back from its #1 slot.