Major spoilers ahead
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the 4th best entry in the franchise. The top three of course being 1. Star Wars 2. Rogue One and 3. The Empire Strikes Back. This isn’t the time or place to get into why Empire is overrated, but quite simply it is highly overrated. It’s a great film but deserves to be ranked 3rd not first. In any case the Last Jedi fits in very comfortably at 4th. This film succeeds on every level as a film. But most importantly as a film in this most complicated and beloved of franchises because it accomplishes the tasks set out before it in the last two entries.
The Force Awakens set forth the task of actually advancing the SW universe for the first time in almost 4 decades. This task is very important because Force Awakens was clearly a remake of Star Wars. That was the right and necessary thing to do at the time. As excellent as the original Star Wars is it simply doesn’t speak to the youth of today in the same way. They needed their own Star Wars, and long time fans needed some fan service. And that’s exactly what we got. It was a fun reboot to the franchise.
In terms of moving the story forward though it didn’t do much. The main thing it did very well was to remove the horrendous block Return of the Jedi had placed on the franchise. Lawrence Kasdan cleverly put back together the most important elements that should have prevented that block in the first place.
1. Han Solo was supposed to tragically die as a lovable rogue not the tamed boyfriend of a princess
2. Luke was supposed to go into exile having lost faith due to his encounter with the dark side
3. The franchise was supposed to be unresolved because SW is a movie serial, it should never be resolved but go from cliff hanger to cliff hanger
Lucas removed these 3 elements from Return of the Jedi in order to essentially end the franchise on a happy note. Their re inclusion gave new life to a franchise in desperate need. And for that reason I will always defend The Force Awakens against her critics. But aside from those story elements not much else was accomplished.
The Last Jedi takes up this renewed story and goes into hyperspace with it. When the credits role the audience knows they have truly entered a new era for Star Wars. The rules have changed, the roads are gone, there are no more remakes here. The franchise is free to move and breathe again for the first time since 1980.
The Story Problem
The story problem for the series was that Lucas tried to end it with Return of the Jedi. Every single film released since Empire has either been a prequel or remake of the original Star Wars. Both Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens are obvious remakes. Both have their first acts dominated by desert planets where our heroes get their legs. Both have second acts dominated by Han Solo’s swashbuckling presence. Both have explosive third acts that are based around a bomber run assault on something virtually identical to the original Death Star. Also both third acts include the heroic death of a principle character as well as a key lightsaber duel.
So to clearly restate, before The Last Jedi came out, the Star Wars series included 4 prequels, 3 versions of the same film, and one true sequel. This is one of the main reasons that The Empire Strikes Back occupies such sacred space for so many. The franchise desperately needed to gain new territory and it did with The Last Jedi. This is the first true step forward into a truly larger world. Despite what some people feared would happen The Last Jedi only has a few similarities to The Empire Strikes Back and they are mostly superficial. But their differences are very striking. For Last Jedi is a deeply hopeful story, despite whittling the Resistance down to a force that fits into the Millennium Falcon. This film is just not that dark. Almost Everything in it speaks to purification rather than failure. This is highlighted most poignantly by Yoda’s brief spectral appearance where he actually tells Luke that failure itself is a good thing because it is our strongest teacher.
Luke is the Film
Luke is the real substance of this story and what ultimately makes it work. The Last Jedi is about him. That shouldn’t have surprised anyone, it is called the Last Jedi after all. And the Force Awakens clearly told us the next film had to be about Luke. After all Kasdan turned Luke Skywalker into one of the great “Star parts” of all time by making him into what we filmy types call a macguffin. A Star part is basically a character that is talked up for an entire film or stage play but only shows up in the third act. Orson Welles attributed the seeming brilliance of his performance in The Third Man to it being one of the great Star Parts ever written. And similarly to The Last Jedi the title The Third Man refers to Welles’ Harry Lime.
So The Force Awakens created a fever pitch of anticipation over what Luke was going to do next because Abrams cleverly built his “puzzle box” around Luke as a macguffin. This is a term for the device that drives a film’s plot. The greatest examples being the letters of transit in Casablanca and the Maltese Falcon in of course The Maltese Falcon. The term was popularized by Hitchcock. It is usually whatever everyone is after. And when Rey finally finds the exiled Luke and then her macguffin is completely silent the anticipatory stage was perfectly set. Johnson and Hamill ably carried that massive baton across their epic finish line. For the first time in the entire series Hamill really gets to show his total dynamic range as an actor. His scenery chewing is delicious. But more than that Johnson wrote the perfect arc for Luke’s final reckoning. And when his binary sunset finally arrived during the second viewing my eyes were not dry. It was the perfect way for him to embrace his destiny. The awkward farm boy had become Buddha.
New Vision for the Force
Rogue One also set a new task for Rian Johnson to accomplish, the further development of the religion of the force. Rogue One was the first Star Wars film to treat the force as if it were actually the force and not just the super powers of elite Jedi and Sith. In Rogue One we see not the Jedi religion but the religion of the force put forward for the first time. This is exemplified in the incomparable Donnie Yen’s blind Chirrut. His Jesus prayer like utterances of “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me” pervade a film bereft of Jedi. St. Chirrut’s prayer seems to have died with him on Scariff. But the spirit lives on in this sense: one does not need to be a Jedi to be an agent of the force. This is the essence of Luke’s ominous phrase about the Jedi needing to end. Because the force doesn’t belong to the Jedi. It never did. The Jedi were a product of the force. And as Rey’s mysterious origin is revealed we see that bloodlines don’t matter either.
There is quite a bit of art and Life imitating each other here. Because George Lucas had become like the Jedi Order in the prequels. He had lost the ability to listen to and trust the mythic power of story that is so clear in the original Star Wars. The dark side was clouding his judgement and he increasingly made the Wars about him instead of the mono myth that gives shape and life to all the other myths. And that is why Star Wars was and will always be such a powerful and enduring franchise. It is a myth woven from the threads of all the other myths. It is the Hero’s journey. It is the longing of every small town boy watching the sunset wondering if this is really all there is to life. It is good and evil. And it never really belonged to George. He was the conduit through which our universal human muse sang, and in the beginning the song was so beautiful. But over time he tried to own it and a myth as big as Star Wars could never belong to anyone in particular. And so the symphony became a din. A din with some wonderful moments to be sure. Episodes 2 and 3 do some pretty awesome stuff. But they lack the soul of Star Wars. They lack the fun.
Why We Love Star Wars
People LIKE Star Wars because it is exciting and funny. But they LOVE Star Wars because of its mythic qualities. And what maybe the greatest strength of The Last Jedi is how it perfectly balances these elements. It is very funny and irreverent but also epic and moving. For a film that is almost 3 hours long it simply breezes by. There are no dull moments. The new characters slip right in as if they had always been there. I never thought I needed Porg but now I can’t imagine Star Wars without those little pig. puffin things. Whimsical touches like them are what make Star Wars different from other Sci Fi and Fantasy. They are completely unnecessary to the film and yet you’d be crazy to get rid of them. Porg and their ilk are the essence of what makes Star Wars tick. Star Wars is the baby boops that R2 and BB8 make just as much as the “I know” and “I am your father” moments. It’s this juxtaposing the silly with the epic that makes it so endearing. And if The Last Jedi is a real indication of where the franchise is going then the force has truly awakened to give us a new hope. I give it a very solid 9/10.