Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Note: this review contains many, many spoilers.

If Star Wars: The Force Awakens was about reigniting love for a familiar story of good versus evil, then Star Wars: The Last Jedi is about tearing down the validity that such stories have at all.

The Last Jedi picks up where The Force Awakens left off, plot-wise: the Resistance continues its battle with the First Order, as Rey (Daisy Ridley) finally comes into contact with the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). For the first half of the film, we get three distinct threads: Luke and Rey on Luke’s reclusive island home; A resistance ship defending itself against a First Order onslaught (and internal strife); and Finn (John Boyega), along with a spunky Resistance technician named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), traveling the galaxy to try and take down the First Order ship. These three storylines eventually coalesce in the latter half of the movie.

Like Rogue One, The Last Jedi takes a while to come into focus. For much of the first half it felt like the film existed more for the forward motion of the franchise than as a story existing on its own terms. But in the second half, the movie’s intentions become clear: the stakes of the plot are less important than The Last Jedi’s attempt to challenge the clear-cut good versus evil framework of Star Wars movies.

Fundamentally, this is still a Star Wars story: There is good and evil in everyone, and the sake of the universe depends on the choices Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) make between the two. But director Rian Johnson makes a compelling departure from the typical narrative by focusing not just on individual choice, but resistance against the restraints of history and pre-existing structures. In other words, there is a choice between good and evil, but that choice isn’t entirely one’s own for the making.

We see how characters’ origins limit their choices in the diverging paths of Rey and Ren. Throughout the film, Rey and Ren find themselves connected, in an abstract way: they can sporadically see and hear each other, seemingly out of nowhere. Increasingly, they come to develop a mutual understanding as outsiders.

By the time they come face-to-face, however, they make vastly different choices. Ren, fully entrenched in the dark side, takes over command of the First Order. When Rey calls him a monster, Ren coolly replies, “Yes, I am.” It’s a gloomy response, though, not a confident one. It’s clear Ren wishes he hadn’t turned out this way, but has little control over who he’s become now: molded by the First Order and rejected by Luke, the dark side is a structure he can’t escape. For Driver’s part, it’s a complicated performance, and one of the best blockbuster villains in recent memory.

Rey chooses to fight against him, enabled by what we discover about her past. Earlier, we learn that Rey’s parents were nobodies: junk farmers who gave her away as a child. As Ren quite literally lays it out to her, “You have no place in this story.” That freedom from the existing narrative is what allows Rey to make her own moral choice, free from restraint.

The point is also reaffirmed by a conniving code-breaker named DJ (Benicio Del Toro), who helps Finn and Rose break onto a First Order ship and, subsequently, turns them in. After Finn questions his moral resolve, DJ explains: “It’s all machine, partner. Live free, don’t join.” By DJ’s code, you are only free to make choices if you escape the system entirely.

So if it’s the institution that’s broken, why not blow it all up? This is what Ren advocates for in his encounter with Rey: “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” And after being admonished by Snoke (Andy Serkis), he destroys his mask and goes without it for the remainder of the film, a symbol of his rejection of the past.

The Last Jedi, though, advocates a delicate balance between rejecting orthodoxy and learning from the past. Yoda (original Yoda!) and Luke incinerate the ancient Jedi texts, but not because they lack wisdom. The Resistance has already internalized their wisdom, and no longer needs to mythologize such antiquated documents. As the books burn, Yoda observes: “The greatest teacher, failure is.” The message of the Resistance is one of rejecting the past by learning from it, not by destroying it entirely.

And by the end, following the incident with DJ, Rose expresses the hope that the intergalactic battle that serves as the backdrop for this entire saga may be misguided, and in need of revision. “That’s how we’re going to win,” she tells Finn. “Not by fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love.” By shifting the concerns of the Star Wars universe to institutional reform, Johnson allows the franchise to expand its moral vision without losing what makes these stories great in the first place.

If that all sounds like a ton of heavy philosophizing, don’t get scared. This movie is still a lot of fun. From an all-time battle scene in Snoke’s blazing red throne room to an exhilarating moment of absolute silence, Johnson is able to bring the fun in a variety of inventive ways. Johnson also takes great care with small details and light comedic touches (for the record, I’m pro-porg).

The Last Jedi manages to introduces a number of exciting new characters as well. Tran is a welcome burst of energy on screen, Del Toro performs his usual mumbly, slimy magic, and Laura Dern is as incredible as always.

Johnson accomplishes a pretty astounding feat with The Last Jedi: maintaining the spirit of Star Wars while inserting a distinct new vision into the franchise. The title is a clever bit of misdirection: Luke Skywalker is technically the last Jedi, but only because the franchise is trading in a reliance on mythology for an investment in generational hope. Jedi-ism (if that’s a word) does not end with Luke; it is itself the struggle against an unjust system.

With Johnson set to take on all three films in the next trilogy, we’ll soon find out if it’s possible to get Star Wars fatigue, a problem I have with the sprawling Marvel universe. But The Last Jedi suggests that the franchise will be in good hands.

3.5/4 stars