Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
It has now been two years since Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released. True to current fandom, about a month or so was spent praising it for bringing back the feel of the Star Wars franchise after the lackluster prequels. The rest of the time? Complaining that it was a rehash of the original movie, while speculating on Rey's parents and who this Snoke guy was. While some explanations fit in with the new canon, much of what could explain the rise of the First Order was wiped out when years of world building was relegated to "Legends" status.
I will give some credit where it is due. While expanding the Star Wars universe and adding some interesting new characters, while dispatching an old favorite, The Force Awakens felt like it had to in some ways incorporate elements of Star Wars in order to put things back on track. What was truly unexpected would be that Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the first entry in the standalone series of movies, would go a completely different route. It led up to the events in the original movie, but felt more like a classic war movie than a Star Wars one, while further developing the world in which the events take place.
Going in a different direction with the Star Wars franchise is tricky at best. Even the best of the original books, Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire series, carried on many of the same themes from the first trilogy. I think that may be why it is hard in some ways for some to accept the way things have gone with the current trilogy. Zahn's books largely stood in for the fact that most likely the 9 movies Lucas started talking about in the early '80s probably weren't going to happen. Now they are (and many, many more), and not only did Rian Johnson steer the entire series in a new direction, but also decided to steer away from much of what J. J. Abrams had set up with the previous film.
The Resistance is in bad shape. Though they managed to destroy the Starkiller, it really did not do much to erase the military might of the First Order, who has been swiftly taking over Republic territory now that the central government has been obliterated. While General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is successful in evacuating the base, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leads a group of small fighters against a First Order Dreadnaught. Not satisfied with just taking out the guns to facilitate the Resistance ships' escape, he decides to lead the entirety of their bomber fleet to take it out. The move is successful, but at the cost of the entire fleet. Leia, enraged, demotes Dameron.
Unfortunately there are bigger problems. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) has developed a way to track the Resistance fleet through hyperspace, much to the delight of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who is becoming more and more displeased with the progress of his apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). With the Resistance fleet only having enough fuel for one more jump and the realization that this will only leave them vulnerable, Leia decides to take Dameron's advice and continue on at sublight speed, as they have a lead on the First Order Star Destroyers and a slight speed advantage. However, the advantage will only last as long as their fuel does.
Disaster strikes again as the Resistance command ship is destroyed and most of the top command, including Leia, is ejected into space. Leia barely survives, leaving Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) in charge, much to Dameron's displeasure, as he is upset about sitting around doing nothing. While former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) attempts to flee the ship with the droid BB-8 in order to find Rey (Daisy Ridley) and warn her about what has happened, he is confronted by technician Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), who has been tasked with preventing desertion. She does agree, however, to accompany Finn and BB-8 after Dameron hatches a plan for Finn to get on board the Star Destroyer with the hyperspace tracking device. Problem is, they need someone to hack their way in once they get on board, and through a communication with Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong'o) they learn of such a person who happens to be on the planet Canto Bight, home to the Galaxy's most exclusive casinos.
Rey, meanwhile, is dealing with a reluctant Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the planet Ahch-To. While Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) guards the Millenium Falcon and comes to regret trying to eat some of the semi-sentient local wildlife, Rey tries to convince Luke to train her and to help with the Resistance. Instead, he would prefer that the Jedi order fade out of existence, as he feels that his actions toward Ben Solo did nothing but create Kylo Ren and push him toward Snoke's influence.
While on Ahch-To, Ren and Rey start to have their minds connect, and both start to develop, if not romantic feelings, then at least a mutual respect. Rey believes that she can turn Ren back to the right path, and after not finding the answers she wants on Ahch-To, leaves to visit him in person. Luke on his end is comforted by the Force ghost of Yoda (Frank Oz), who agrees that at this point Luke is largely on the right path and that Rey already has everything she needs to fulfill her destiny.
She goes to Ren, only to be captured and brought before Snoke, who tortures her. Realizing that she is the real threat as Skywalker has decided to remove himself from the conflict, he encourages Ren to kill her. Ren, however, has other ambitions and, after a strenuous fight where the two briefly allie, Ren encourages Rey to join him in ruling the Galaxy. Rey refuses, and steals Snoke's personal shuttle to rejoin the Resistance.
Meanwhile, Finn, Rose and BB-8 get in a bit of trouble on Canto Bight. Unable to recruit the hacker that was recommended, they end up working with DJ (Benicio Del Toro), who is able to do what they want, but ultimately obeys his own financial desires. Tired of doing what he perceives as nothing, Dameron leads a mutiny against Holdo, only to be put back in his place when Leia recovers. It turns out the true plan is to reach an abandoned rebel base on the planet Crait, using the command ship as a decoy while cloaked escape pods head down to the planet. Hux and Ren learn of the plan, and plan an assault against the base in order to destroy the Resistance forever. Much to Ren's dismay, Luke Skywalker may not be as out of the game as was claimed.
It is really hard to get through this without too many spoilers, but be assured there is much more to The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson, who also directed Looper, one of my favorite science fiction movies of the last decade, didn't hesitate to steer the series in his own direction. While many independent directors working on big franchise movies have stumbled, it seems like so far between Gareth Edwards and Johnson we have back-to-back success in this area. What is truly surprising is this is with Lucasfilm now being owned by Disney, which is known for bland, lowest-common-denominator films, like most of the Marvel releases. It's not like them to take a risk, but it is something the Star Wars franchise desperately needed.
Predictably, after all the hand-wringing over the fact that The Force Awakens resembled the 1977 movie too closely, this change in tone has not been greeted as warmly by fans. Instead, it seems like they would like their favorite characters to keep repeating the same actions again and again, just in grander or slightly different terms - like in the original books. I would compare some of what happens in The Last Jedi to classical heroes like Beowulf who, rising from humble beginnings to go on amazing adventures and become somewhat more than human, ultimately become achingly human in the end. Luke Skywalker was never the perfect Jedi in the first place, and his realization that he never will be another Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda weighs heavy on him - although he is largely without knowledge of their similar failures.
Mark Hamill, except for some brief scenes with Carrie Fisher and the climactic battle, is largely separate from the rest of the events. He and Daisy Ridley work well together, and some of the Mary Sue accusations go to the wayside as it becomes apparent that the Jedi Order seemed more involved with trying to control Force sensitives, and it's less parentage or training and more just something that is naturally occurring, to various degrees, in the Galaxy these characters inhabit. While some of Rey's naivete does pop up in her willingness to try to rescue Ren, it mirrors Luke's attempts to save his father. On his part, Hamill has become a truly good actor over the years, largely from doing constant voiceover work and bit characters.
Carrie Fisher actually gets to act like a General in this rather than just a fan service cameo, which is nice. I don't know how J. J. Abrams will handle her sudden absence in the next film, but thankfully they have said they won't use any more CGI to bring her back again. Unfortunately, while she has one of the best scenes in the movie when she gets to speak with Luke once again, she also has one of the worst as she flies through the vacuum of space and saves herself at the last moment. While it may have looked good on paper, the scene brings some unintentional humor to what is supposed to be a major dramatic moment, as a good part of the Resistance's command structure has just been wiped out.
That brings me to Oscar Isaac and his character, Poe Dameron. While the regular fans are complaining about the way some of their favorite characters were portrayed, once again the MRA crowd is complaining about strong female characters versus male characters. Many have said that the entire side plot involving Finn, Rose Tico and BB-8, and thus DJ betraying everyone, could have been avoided by Holdo telling Dameron what her plans were. In reality, I could not imagine a Vice Admiral telling someone so far down in rank, even if they are somewhat close friends with their CO, letting anyone at Dameron's level know any more than they needed to. Keep in mind Dameron severely cripples the Resistance fleet because he wants to be a hero, and gets demoted for it. While Isaac is great as the character, and he makes a good stand-in for Han Solo without being a copy, he is still a low-level officer.
While ultimately amounting to not much, we get to appreciate Finn more as he and Rose head to Canto Bight, and BB-8 gets used to great effect. John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran work great together, and hopefully we'll get to see more side adventures with them in the future - in print if not in the movies themselves.
On the First Order side, Adam Driver gets to do more than pout and throw temper tantrums, although he does his fair share of both. Despite the number of characters, this trilogy is ultimately, coming to be about him and Rey, and what their opposing dynamic will mean for the fate of the Galaxy. There is much more to Ren than just being an emo version of Darth Vader. Unfortunately, he is still a hothead and driven by emotions rather than logic and strategy.
That falls to General Hux, and Domhnall Gleeson presents a great polar opposite to Ren. He is a brilliant strategist and is probably the most dangerous in a high command position since Grand Moff Tarkin. He just has the problem of not being Force sensitive, and thus not being able to ascend to his rightful place that he would if Ren was just your usual failed leader. Despite being pushed around and physically abused, Hux is both the obvious favorite of Snoke and of the men under him, while Ren is given deference simply because being choked to death seems to be a constant hazard in the First Order.
There are some disappointments beyond the "Space Leia" scene. Given the amount of characters thrown in, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), who could have been one of the more interesting villains, is again given little to do. C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) are again mere cameos, and don't contribute much, other than some motivation for Luke to maybe reconsider his isolation. Chewbacca gets to fly around in the Millenium Falcon and get involved in the final battles, he largely just deals with porgs, who themselves are unfortunately not included more. They are one of the first cute things introduced in the Star Wars universe that were not merely annoying.
If you are looking for the answers to Snoke's origin, the rise of the First Order, what's in those ancient Jedi texts or who Rey's parents were - well, forget it. A running theme throughout The Last Jedi is letting go of the past, and in the grand scheme of things most of the answers to those questions don't matter. I'm sure they will be explored in books and comics and such to various levels of success. I hope J. J. Abrams takes that message to heart as he prepares for the final episode of this trilogy, and wisely focuses on what will ultimately happen between Kylo Ren and Rey. I am also hoping fans of this series can also eventually take off their blinders and realize that, for anything Star Wars related to remain fresh, they also have to accept that they also must move forward as the franchise itself matures.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Time: 152 minutes
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis
Director: Rian Johnson