Let the past die.
If there was one major criticism I had of The Force Awakens upon its opening two years ago (in a review that was more a reflection on Star Wars fandom and nostalgia than a pure critique) it was that it steered far too close to being a remake of the original A New Hope. However, there was one event which excited me more than any other: the death of Han Solo. While there was a palpable sadness in the theater, I had to fight off an urge to applaud. To me, killing Han meant the end of nostalgia. It meant the end of new Star Wars movies trying to exist solely on love for the old films. It meant the end of structuring new stories to exactly parallel those which came before it. It meant Star Wars would no longer be beholden to the memories of its rabid fanbase. And it meant that for the first time in over thirty years a Star Wars movie could do something unexpected.
Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.
Kylo Ren’s brief monologue, featured in the film’s trailer, is a fitting slogan for Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi. Nearly every minute of Episode VIII‘s considerable length is devoted to escaping what is behind you – whether it be the Star Destroyer following the rebels or Luke Skywalker trying to bury the legacy of the Jedi.
Beginning with the familiar text scroll and opening burst of John Williams’s classic theme (which, admittedly, is a great moment even for anti-nostalgics like me), Episode VIII begins on a surprisingly dire situation considering where Episode VII left off. Rather than the celebratory note we’d previously witnessed, we begin with a rebel evacuation from encroaching First Order ships, along with the startling image of Star Destroyers blinking into orbit. Yet from the this jarring narrative skip arises perhaps the franchise’s best opening sequence offering two elements often in short supply in a Star Wars: humor and emotion. Sure, previous films have had funny exchanges, many of them unintentionally funny, but Episode VIII provides some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments starting with Force Awakens standout Poe Dameron pulling a stunt even Han Solo wouldn’t have tried. And sure, previous films have had emotion, or at least attempts at it, but few scenes in the franchise’s thirty-year history match the emotional impact of watching the First Order fighters take pot shots at agonizingly slow rebel bombers, boiling down the entire galaxy-wide conflict into a single, unnamed pilot in an exchange usually saved for the final act of a last stand. Through this intense focus, writer/director Rian Johnson’s packs more humanity and emotional heft into these opening minutes than the entirety of most Star Wars films, and demonstrates an artistic sensibility that has never before been present in the series. While this opening battle proves tiny in comparison to all which follows, these few minutes make a Star Wars film feel, for the first time ever, like art.
This artistic appeal reappears several times throughout The Last Jedi and creates the most enjoyable and effecting moments of the film by demystifying and then remystifying elements which have become ubiquitous in the galaxy far, far away. By now Star Wars spaceships are taken for granted, yet simple touches like the rattle of a metal bottle as a carrier drops from light speed or a window vibrating from a fighter screaming passed provide a tangible quality which makes us understand what it’s like to actually live with these vehicles. Meanwhile the often nebulous concept of “the force” is finally given the precise explanation, along with sharp visual representation, that we’ve lacked for so very long. Yet, after breaking down the mythology of these elements, Johnson amplifies them to even greater heights in two sequences – one mental and the other physical – which stand as the most intense, most engaging, and boldest visual choices in the whole series. Light speed and force power become routine only to become more beautiful and more terrifying than ever before. Finding something new in the tropes of a series now in the fifth decade of its existence is by itself an achievement. Thankfully, Johnson’s artistic flourishes are only the most obvious of The Last Jedi‘s achievements.
In some ways, The Last Jedi feels similar to Skyfall. Obviously both are entries in long-running, genre-defining film phenomena and both have near-predecessors (The Force Awakens and Casino Royale respectively) which may actually be better films that rejuvenated their series after what many people feel is their franchise low, but both are the first films in their lineage with a clear sense of style. Just as Sam Mendes brought incredible framing to Bond’s fights, Johnson’s sensibilities make The Last Jedi‘s combat feel like more than just extra lightsaber battles. Symmetrical framing, negative space, and, especially, an eye-catching use of the color red stand in stark contrast to the stand-up swinging of the original trilogy and the CGI chaos of the prequels, even making the Force Awakens climax a distant memory. What’s more, while fights in Episode VIII at times feel perfunctory, they’re justified in seeing how characters’ interactions, actions, and reactions. While Poe, Leia, Luke, Finn, and newcomer Rose are all given a chance to shine (although Finn’s lack of development is disappointing), the focus is clearly on Kylo Ren and Rey, and choices they make in Last Jedi will reshape the entire Star Wars landscape, opening far more exciting opportunities for Episode IX than were opened before (for the record, my theory/hope for Rey was spot-on). The narrative of Episode VIII is so packed with big events both climatic and anti-climatic that Star Wars theorists likely won’t have enough time to sift through them all before the trilogy ends. There are also, of course, parallels to previous films, but Last Jedi does so much that is new and exciting that these are acceptable. The past never does die easily.
Sadly however, just as The Last Jedi includes several things which up the standard for Star Wars movies, there are occurrences which match their low. For all the galaxy-shaking events which occur, the primary conflict of the First Order chasing the rebels plods along with as much intensity as the LAPD following OJ Simpson’s white Bronco at the speed limit (and if you’re a Star Wars fan you’re probably old enough to understand that reference). The situation is so desperate in fact that we’re given enough time for a subplot to begin and end offering nothing more than a neat new character and yet another intriguing theme that goes as completely unexplored as Finn’s psychological conditioning prior to becoming a storm trooper. Perhaps these themes will be developed in side movies but for now they’re passing thoughts never even offered the time to become ideas. This subplot then ends in a different chase as engaging as a pod race with effects that look like they’re taken straight from Episode I. It’s hard not to imagine that the producers couldn’t have come up with a better way to get characters where they need to be which wouldn’t break the story’s momentum and could shave twenty minutes from Last Jedi‘s runtime. Not only is Episode VIII the longest Star Wars film yet, it feels like the longest. After a few false finishes, the actual climax is satisfying and necessary to complete the episode, yet the film simply takes too long to get there, making each new rising action exhausting. There are still a few too many cloying and head-scratching moments, most of them featuring “cute” animals or BB-8’s unending array of ridiculous abilities, but the worst part of Last Jedi is a major plothole that for many people may derail the entire story. Usually a film as enjoyable as this one lends itself to justifying away plotholes but this one is so big and so blatant that it alone is enough to decrease enjoyment of the entire film. Whether by carelessness, error, or a lack of effort, it feels like the filmmakers, be it Johnson or someone else, violate the rules of the story they’ve laid out just to force it toward their preferred end. What follows is better than what precedes, but this gaping mistake is likely the most baffling moment in any main Star Wars story, and that’s saying a lot.
Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi includes sequences that rank among the best of any Star Wars film. It’s exciting, intriguing, complex, funny, and, most unexpected of all, artistic. But there are also moments which rivals the series’ absolute worst. At two hours and thirty-two minutes, Last Jedi ranks among the best. At two hours, it wouldn’t merely rank among, it would be the best. An outstanding opening and a tense, satisfying conclusion, highlighted by big events, serve as tremendous bookends, but a long stretch in the middle feels like padding to an already an over-stuffed film and what is supposed to be a chase, a series of characters running from what they’ve left behind, is too often delayed by meaningless detours. Personally, I prefer much of The Last Jedi to The Force Awakens, and hope that future entries build on the auteur feeling, but the boring subplot and planet-sized plothole prevent it from surpassing than its immediate predecessor, like Ren compared to Vader.
Sometimes it isn’t only the past preventing you from becoming what you’re meant to be.