“Let the past die,” says Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to Rey (Daisy Ridley) at a pivotal moment in The Last Jedi. It’s a surprising line to hear in the eighth episode of a 40-year-old saga. It also perfectly captures writer-director Rian Johnson’s approach to Star Wars. Unlike J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, a showcase for new characters that nonetheless retreads A New Hope, the middle chapter of the Disney-bankrolled sequel trilogy takes exciting creative liberties to a galaxy far, far away.
It’s not an association I would’ve anticipated making, but The Last Jedi bears a few similarities to Twin Peaks: The Return. Sure, key scenes in each of the two projects unfold in a bold red room, and both the FBI of The Return and the Resistance of Star Wars earn the aid of Laura Dern as a mysterious supporting character with a fashionable dye job. But the most important connection between Johnson’s film and David Lynch’s long anticipated limited series is how they challenge (and often dismiss) the audience’s nostalgia for these beloved worlds.
This is the movie I hoped Johnson would make. While the central vocabulary of this universe — dogfights, duels and droids — remains the same, the movie seems to speak that language in a new dialect. Johnson blurs the lines between light side and dark without simply equating them, eschewing a previously ambivalent moral binary while clearly declaring the rebels as anti-capitalist and anti-fascist. And even when the plot veers into Empire Strikes Back territory, he subverts expectations and pushes the narrative to genuinely unfamiliar places.
Picking up in the immediate aftermath of Episode VII, The Last Jedi splits its newly assembled heroes into a handful of parallel missions that unfold over a matter of days. Rey attempts to coax a grizzled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) out of self-imposed exile to instruct her in the ways of the Force. Poe (Oscar Isaac) butts heads with Admiral Holdo (Dern) as the Resistance flees the First Order battalion in a desperate crawl, their outnumbered ships slowly running out of fuel and risking total annihilation. Meanwhile, Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) abscond to the opulent planet Canto Bight to track down a codebreaker who could help save the rebels.
The Last Jedi furthers the transition between old and new Star Wars characters, and includes strong performances from actors in both generations. Three decades of elapsed time have turned Luke from a youthful idealist into a bitter pragmatist who thinks the best way to achieve balance is to end the Jedi order altogether. Hamill excels in delivering this revelation by grounding his gruff behavior in world-weariness.
Carrie Fisher’s final performance as General Leia Organa (which she finished filming before her death) made me ache to remember her inimitable dignified wit won’t grace the screen again. Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy noted Episode IX would’ve been Fisher’s movie — following Harrison Ford’s spotlight in VII and Hamill’s in VIII — but in Johnson’s film she nonetheless receives a bittersweet and fitting signoff. She’s a prominent, unshakeable presence, her character’s fortitude and heart strikingly lived in. That Fisher wrote some of Leia’s best lines underscores the indelible mark she’s made on this saga.
The new women in Star Wars shine as they carry the baton forward. Kelly Marie Tran exudes earnestness and spunk as Rose. Her casting marks another long overdue step forward for representation (she’s the first Asian-American woman with a major role in the series), while her empathy and charisma makes the new character an effective voice for the inclusive, class-conscious spirit of the rebellion. Ridley develops the push-pull of Rey’s anger and ethics while exploring the pain of not knowing her roots to a depth she wasn’t afforded in The Force Awakens. As these women, particularly Holdo, attempt to save the Resistance, Oscar Isaac’s Poe becomes a fuller, more flawed character whose hotshot attitude threatens to derail their effort.
Yet for all the talent of the younger cast, Driver is still the center of gravity as Kylo Ren. He’s a sleazy, self-designated monster, a walking implosion cloaked in Driver’s quivering voice and violent outbursts. Johnson evidently realizes Kylo is a far more captivating villain than Snoke (Andy Serkis motion captured into oblivion) and handles the Supreme Leader with an irreverence I appreciated.
Johnson and editor Bob Ducsay pace the longest Star Wars movie so well that every scene (barring few exceptions) feels essential to the narrative. It helps that this is easily the funniest of the series. Luke’s wry approach to training Rey and the manchildren antics of Kylo and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) earn some of the bigger laughs, while the new porgs — pouty, big-eyed creatures somewhere between alien CGI puffins and Rankin/Bass puppets — improve the film just by showing up and being adorable. Johnson understands how to deploy humor to keep the audience engaged while balancing necessarily serious moments.
Most impressive is the filmmaker’s confidence in shoving a lightsaber through Star Wars traditions. He jettisons many of the more conventional arcs that Abrams set up in The Force Awakens while re-affirming that prior entry’s theme of self-determination, a terrific step forward for a story long-shackled to legacy. He also stretches our notion of what the Force can do (sometimes pulling from Expanded Universe mythos), most notably in a series of “Force Skype” conversations across the galaxy between Kylo and Rey. These tonally complex interactions manage to provoke morality questions (will one of them change sides?) while evoking the prickly repartee of a romantic comedy: a bizarre and amusing feat.
More broadly, Johnson experiments with the series’ typical narrative structure. He places a lightsaber brawl similar to the climax of Return of the Jedi around two thirds of the way through this film, and his other narrative threads converge in an inspiring and emotionally overwhelming final act. His emphasis on unique imagery over clockwork plotting has resulted in the first unpredictable Star Wars movie since the original trilogy. I gasped in awe as Johnson muted all sound for 10 seconds to emphasize a character’s sacrifice, and at another thrillingly experimental scene later in which exposed red ore beneath a salt planet’s surface creates the illusion of a bleeding battlefield.
David Lynch easily comes to mind when I think of the prickly ways that Johnson rejects the chance to merely play the hits. This year’s Twin Peaks: The Return strips away the soap opera mawkishness of the original 1990s television series to concentrate on the existential dread that always burned underneath it, and suggests holding onto the past too tightly can tear a hole straight through the fabric of reality. The Last Jedi isn’t as aggressive, although it does argue the best way to grow is to let go of everything that came before; Luke and Kylo may have different motivations, but they share the goal of a clean slate for the galaxy.
2017 firmly rebuked the mythical notion of the “good ol’ days,” and its larger cultural confrontation with atrocities of yesteryear resonates with my experience. A complicated situation motivated me to move out of my childhood home after graduating from college this spring. Over the last seven months, I’ve seen gentrification sink its teeth into my college town and hometown, watched the journalism industry hemorrhage and struggled to stay hopeful as the country descends into a fascistic nightmare. Disney’s recent purchase of 20th Century Fox, especially amid the uncertain future of Net Neutrality, adds a troubling asterisk to this particular review. A few weeks ago, I found out the locks to my old house had been changed.
The lesson in all this seems to be that you can’t go home again. You have to reckon with the horror of your history, move forward and find a way to build anew. That’s a tough message to heed, but at this turbulent moment in the world and in my own life, it’s one that feels necessary. And after The Last Jedi, it’s one I’m beginning to accept.
Verdict: Movie Win