I’ve just watched “The Last Jedi” at a theater in France, where new movies are released a day early. What follows is a spoiler-filled review. So if you don’t want to know what happens, avert your eyes and come back after you’ve seen the film.
I walked into a theater to see Episode VIII this morning with low expectations. While last year’s Rogue One was fantastic, that was a prequel. The previous chapter, directed by nostalgia merchant J.J. Abrams, was a creative catastrophe. And in my mind, Episode VIII was likely doomed to repeat the same problems as The Force Awakens.
After all, we left new hero Rey visiting a watery planet to find a cranky old Jedi master to train her in the ways of the Force. The rest of the Rebellion is scattered, with the bad guys having found their base and forced them to flee. Surely, just as TFA was a ripoff of nearly every Star Wars plot point, The Last Jedi was going to regurgitate The Empire Strikes Back.
The Last Jedi is brilliant. I’m not ready to say it’s the best Star Wars movie ever. But the fact that I need to see it again to judge whether it tops Rogue One and Empire is an indication that director Rian Johnson has done something wholly unexpected and amazing. In fact, there are many moments when his movie feels like a rebuke to Abrams’ film. “Let the past die,” Kylo Ren says. “Kill it.”
And that seems like what Johnson set out to do with this movie.
Each time it starts to follow a predictable path, it yanks you to the side and turns things upside down. Renegade pilot Poe Dameron is the perfect example. He’s set up to be the fiesty pilot who knows better than his bosses. He hatches wild plots to fight the First Order and keeps his superiors in the dark. But his two major plans completely backfire, killing scores of Rebels and threatening to bring the entire Rebellion down.
It is only after profound tragedies, and an unexpected sacrifice, that he learns a bit of wisdom at the end.
Likewise, the storyline with Luke Skywalker and Rey turns delightfully nuanced and complex. Luke’s reasons for believing the Jedi should end are believable. Trying to get at the story of what happened between him and Ben Solo ends with each offering legitimate versions of what turned Ben into Kylo Ren.
And in terms of integrating the Force into the story, this film takes some wonderful leaps forward to make you forget you ever heard anyone utter the word “Midi-chlorian.” Luke offers an explanation of the Force that is simple and profound. Kylo and Rey develop some Force-enabled telepathic connection that leads to long, emotional conversations. And the tone is hard to figure as they move past pure hatred into something else. Are they brother and sister somehow? Is there a romance blossoming? Is he going to turn her to the Dark Side?
The film offers its biggest shocker when Kylo Ren kills Snoke. What follows is an epic dueling scene, in which you’re not sure who is on which side but watch as Kylo and Rey fight side by side to escape. But though Rey believes she has successfully turned Kylo, the opposite turns out to be true.
Even at the climax, when it seems all is doomed, Johnson manages to throw us for one last loop. Luke emerges from hiding to ride to the Rebels’ rescue. We get a deeply satisfying last scene with him and Leia. “I changed my hair,” she jokes, on the precipice of doom. A joke like that carries so much weight for long-time fans. A joke like that reveals huge emotions and offers a nod to Leia’s most famous original feature without weighing us down in the past.
Unfortunately, the two remaining bad guys are still dumb as paste. General Hux and Kylo are easily duped by just about every Rebel ploy, allowing them a last-minute escape to avoid total doom. These two are all we have left, so hopefully next time they can be made into slightly more fearsome baddies. But the way Kylo is tricked by Luke is so good, and ultimately heartbreaking, that I won’t even divulge it here.
Rest assured, this movie has moved the franchise into a new era of possibility by subverting just about every storyline — even the one about who Rey’s parents might be. At one point, Supreme Leader Snoke tells Kylo Ren to take off his ridiculous helmet, saying what we all thought the first time we saw Kylo in TFA. At another moment, Yoda makes a guest appearance to help Luke destroy the last remnants of the Jedi order. It is time for new people to define the future, Yoda seems to be saying.
Johnson has opened wide this story. The nostalgic nods, when they happen, are light and serve the plot in important ways. Try not to shed a tear when R2-D2 plays that original hologram of Leia for Luke. And don’t be fooled by the Rotten Tomatoes ratings. Too many critics were suckered by The Force Awakens and it got a 93 Fresh Rating. The Last Jedi also has a 93 Fresh Rating.
In reality, the new episode is superior to the last by many light years. Fortunately for us, in terms of quality, The Last Jedi exists in a galaxy far, far away from The Force Awakens. All we now have to fear is Abrams directing Episode IX.