**CAUTION: SPOILERS AHEAD**
Overview: The members of the Resistance struggle to stave off the quickly approaching First Order, and Rey seeks help from Luke Skywalker. Lucasfilm; 2017; Rated PG-13; 152 minutes.
I came to this island to die: The Last Jedi is ambitious thematically, narratively, and visually. Numerous plotlines involving several new characters are explored in various locations, and although some feel vastly less successful than others, the heart of the film, as grounded in Rey, Luke, and Kylo Ren, and their struggles with the burden of the force, carries The Last Jedi to greater heights.
Strongest and most visually remarkable are the sequences between Rey (Daisy Ridley), as lively as stubborn as ever, and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who has forsaken the force. Luke struggles with the guilt and regret of a man who has failed himself and those around him. He is horrified by the power he sees in Rey, and the way in which she is drawn to the dark side and its promise of power and control. Central to this film in particular and the sequel trilogy in general is a criticism of over-simplicity and binary morality; Luke is a man who has been idolized and romanticized but is in fact flawed, and whose religion has been oversimplified and misunderstood. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in a way similar to Luke, is a character who both textually and contextually, is in direct confrontation with legacy, in this case that of Darth Vader. Throughout he struggles to discover the limits of what he is willing to do to reach his own potential.
The Last Jedi has the heavy burden of carrying the weight from the legacy of its own franchise as well; this film takes on the challenge of crafting new characters while wrapping up stories decades in the making, and it is largely successful on this front, with a few missteps. The struggles of the Resistance are less interesting by far, particularly because they feel detached from the larger thematic focus, and lead to an overall feeling of uneven pacing. Poe still feels extraneous, so the presence of new character Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), with whom he has a conflict throughout feels doubly so.
Finn (John Boyega) and his journey with Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to enlist strange but miraculously appropriate codebreaker DJ (Benicio del Toro) is somewhat more successful, as Rose’s sweetness works well with Finn’s heroism throughout. While their journey tries in general to draw itself into the film’s overall commitment to rejecting black and white morality, many of the sequences involving Finn and Rose on Canto Bight stretch on for far too long.
The Star Wars’ sequel trilogy has increasingly involved itself with deconstructing binary conceptions of morality and disrupting our ideas of legendary individuals and heroism. With major characters shown to make nuanced decisions that are in opposition to expectation, The Last Jedi is a mostly successful continuation of this exploration, led by the impressively cohesive creative vision of Rian Johnson.
I am a monster: There is a sense of a singular creative vision that is present most notably in the scenes on Ahch-To. The visuals of the island are unreal, gorgeous, and enhance every scene of Rey’s training and meditation. Also a manifestation of creative direction and clarity of concept are the psychic interactions that occur between Kylo and Rey. With subtlety and beauty, we are shown both characters’ similarities and differences, in succinct and emotional interactions. They are two lonely people, one with the weight of a family’s legacy on his shoulders, the other a nobody, from nowhere, from whom nothing is expected. They are both often alone and feel unfit or unsure of their roles. The grey, liminal space they both inhabit between pure good and pure evil is fascinating and the representations of their conversations that take place using the force are impressionistic and beautiful.
All visual representations of the force and the way it manifests, particularly the scenes on on the island, are stunning. Rian Johnson, in his use of close-ups and montage, particularly during Rey’s meditation, give more variety and visual character to The Last Jedi than any previous Star Wars film.
Unfortunately there are tonal issues throughout, and much of the humor breaks tension and distracts from otherwise serious moments, taking up time rather than adding anything of value. Hux becoming the butt of numerous and sometimes overly-slapstick jokes throughout the film seems like a misstep, as this lessens the threat of the First Order and therefore the stakes overall. As Snoke’s presence is barely felt throughout, there should be an element of fear present in the First Order that is largely missing.
Also somewhat baffling is the pacing. There is far too much time spent on the rebel base, a few too many chase scenes throughout, while the final battle still feels, somehow, rushed. This film is attempting to connect a large amount of subplots, and scrapping one or two side characters may have strengthened the pacing as a whole.
Peace and purpose: Luke’s struggle with failure and the burden of his former potential is a fitting continuation of the various themes of legacy that permeate the trilogy overall. Luke meets death with “peace and purpose,” as he sees his final sunset and fades from life for the sake of the renewed hope he feels for the fighters of the future. This end feels fitting for him, painful as it may be; the movie begins and ends with hopeful self-sacrifice, belief in a better future even without oneself in it.
Kylo and Rey have also become cemented as the emotional center of the trilogy, their struggles similar but manifest differently, their upbringings opposite but complementary. With legacy and potential at the core of the sequel trilogy, the realization that Rey’s parents are in fact no one of note is a fantastic choice – she is a reflection of no one but herself, a clean slate and a new type of Jedi who can make her own path if she chooses. The exploration of her temptation to tap into the power of the dark side continues to escalate, and while this element of her character remains interesting, hopefully in Episode IX we will be given more in terms of the specific reasoning and internal conflict that lies behind her will to power.
Kylo has also become more of an astounding character to watch, as he remains difficult to pin down. He is chaotic with no straightforward path to redemption, and his character defies simple definition. He is self-loathing, childish, insular, hurt, confused, angry, desperate, and alone, and for his character’s eventual fate to feel genuinely unknowable is impressive in its own right. The scenes that take place in Snoke’s throne room, in particular, when Kylo and Rey fight side-by-side against Snoke’s guards, are beautiful, because for those brief moments two lost people are united in their rejection of faction and expectation.
This film criticizes the romanticizing and idolizing of people, religions, and political movements, and commits to this criticism to a refreshing extent. Luke did, in fact, try to kill Kylo because of his own fear of Kylo’s power. He is not a man without flaw, and although in the end he sacrifices himself for the Resistance, he does so for the sake of a new Jedi order, one that is different from the one that has been so corrupted. Luke burns the Jedi texts, and with an albeit gratuitous cameo from Yoda, expresses his hope that a new type of Jedi will rise in the wake of the old traditions. Throughout the film, this new Jedi order has been shown to be a mindset that takes into account the gray area that Rey, and possibly even Kylo, inhabit.
Overall: Some subplots are less successful than others, but the main plot and emotional beats of core characters are strong enough to have significant impact. The Last Jedi is grounded in a largely cohesive exploration of themes as well as the remarkable creative vision of Rian Johnson that shines throughout.