After an opening space battle sequence, The Last Jedi begins where The Force Awakens concluded on the planet of Ahch-To with Rey holding out Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber to a ragged, world-weary Luke Skywalker. So much anticipation, speculation, and rumors both in and outside the galaxy, far, far away surrounded this final moment and we’ve finally returned. Would we get the answers to all our burning questions? Who is Rey? Will Luke come back to fight? It all led up to this moment for diehard geeks to the most casual of fans.
The very next beat sets a tone that comes to define the remaining two-plus hours of Rian Johnson’s movie. I won’t tell you what is, because of spoilers, but suffice to say it is a delightful departure and unexpectedly funny. This defining moment etches a major narrative element on this episode of the saga: building our expectations only to subvert them. Sometimes these cinematic feints counteract our normal assumptions for a Star Wars movie and surprise us. Other times they slice like a meta-lightsaber through the right hands of fan theories and hyped speculation. To build us up only to knock us down is such an abrupt about-face in comparison to The Force Awakens it is no wonder the whiplash is causing a divide among fans. This particular fan was not surprised, given the direction much of the supplemental material like TV, books, and comics, and it brought me great joy.
It was a delight to see Mark Hammil on-screen again as Luke Skywalker. The Jedi Master, long lauded as the savior of the Resistance and the scourge of the First Order, embodies Johnson’s audacious upheaval amidst the chaos of the galaxy post-TFA. His failure to revitalize the Jedi Order and the betrayal of Ben Solo leaves Luke a shell of the idealistic farmboy turned legendary hero we came to love. Rey’s arrival is far from a wake-up call but an opportunity to reinforce what he now believes. And Hammil nails it. His chemistry with Daisy Ridley is outstanding and their interactions are some of the best stuff in the movie. Ridley, as always, is magical. While her bright edge has been replaced by a little more experience, she’s still optimistic, hopeful, and a counter to Hammil’s Luke. He is gruff, a little crazy, and committed to his new place in the galaxy regardless of the tumult created by the First Order’s decimation of the New Republic.
While Rey and Luke wrestle with the future of the Force, General Leia, Poe, Finn, and newly introduced Rose stare down the encroaching First Order under the command of General Hux and overseen by the looming shadow of Supreme Leader Snoke, no longer an oversized hologram but a real, sinister threat. As the Resistance vies to stave off eradication, Kylo Ren struggles to still prove himself to his master after his failure to capture Rey in TFA or find Luke Skywalker. In an added wrinkle, Ren is as much in inner-turmoil as Rey and Luke. Despite proving himself by murdering his own father, he has yet to secure a place. When Rey and Kylo inevitably interact in the film, their connection to Luke and the wider galaxy becomes clearer while setting them on a path of confrontation with shocking results.
In addition to the gutsy choices made in the movie, above all the film is dazzlingly beautiful. The final thirty minutes of the movie on the planet of Crait is the most beautiful I have seen in Star Wars. It absolutely still maintains the lived-in quality of Tatooine or Hoth, but the explosive, glittering reds of Crait’s mineral-rich environment provide a poetic and sparkling background to the final, jaw-dropping action sequences of the movie. Likewise, some of the decisions made in this movie feel like the kind of decisions George Lucas would make as a young film student if he existed today. Johnson is well known for his Sci-Fi film Looper and the neo-noir Brick, and the choices he makes for the artistic compositions and set design feel like Lucas’ THX-1138 or another Sci-Fi debut feature, Ridley Scott’s Alien. There is even a dash of Blade Runner and/or Brazil in Snoke’s throne room. Johnson has managed to channel the aesthetic of natural, tactile beauty Gareth Edwards went for in Rogue One and sharpened the artistic edge.
The best way to describe the overall feel of The Last Jedi is best summed up in Seattle-based musician John Roderick’s song “(It’s A) Departure”: “It’s familiar/but not too familiar/but not to not familiar.” The Last Jedi takes the things we love about Star Wars and incinerates (literally and figuratively) our expectations to set a bold, new direction for future movies. I loved it and I think you will, too.
You can also listen to a much longer, less structured, spoiler-filled reaction to The Last Jedi by listening to myself and Blaine Grimes give our first reactions on Home One Radio: