Regardless of how you feel about The Last Jedi, it’s certainly the most enduring Star Wars movie since the Original Trilogy. For good and ill (mostly the latter), nothing has spurred on fans of a galaxy far, far away quite as much as Rian Johnson’s science fiction movie.
The Last Jedi discourse has plagued the franchise from the second the lights came up on midnight screenings for it back in December 2017. To call the middle-child of the Sequel Trilogy divisive would be a massive understatement. Many loved it, many others hated it. Some sat on the fence, just happy to have more grand action movies set a long, long time ago.
Now that we’re coming up on five years since The Last Jedi opened, we can reflect more evenly on what the adventure movie accomplishes, absent all the hot takes and reactionary commentary. Is Johnson’s film all it’s cracked up to be? Are the haters right? I’m saying this like you haven’t read the headline, so I’ll get straight to the point: Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a masterpiece, and still absolutely the best movie in the franchise.
At this point, some of you already have Twitter open ready to yell at me. But hear me out! The Last Jedi is a film that takes Star Wars seriously. Not just as a conduit for whizz-bang thrill-rides where good defeats bad, but as an ongoing multi-generational story about cycles of violence and fear and the need to challenge old ways when it’s clear they don’t serve us any more.
Johnson, in following JJ Abrams’s nostalgia-driven The Force Awakens from 2015, attempted to dig into what Star Wars means in the 21st century. We all love Han Solo and the classic Star Wars characters, and I adored The Force Awakens as a kindling of my favourite memories associated with the franchise, but there needs to be more to these stories than wide-eyed nostalgia.
What’s actually happened since Return of the Jedi? How has another fascist sect managed to become a viable threat like The First Order? In what corners has the Dark Side survived as mould, only ever biding its time. The very idea of another trilogy featuring the Skywalkers begged these questions because they’re intrinsic to each other. Perennial underdogs Han, Luke, and Leia, are thus because of the Sith and the Empire. If that’s not an immediate problem, then we can presume they’re all living pretty regular lives.
Luke Skywalker’s characterisation in The Last Jedi is particularly controversial, not least from Mark Hamill himself, because he seems to betray the one who stood against Vader and Palpatine. This isn’t the good-hearted, slightly naïve hero from the Original Trilogy. He’s not ready with a plan when Rey (Daisy Ridley) arrives to Acht-To, and he’s reluctant to admit why he’s been there all this time.
He’s become a hermit, relegating himself to a remote region so the Rebel Alliance or the Resistance or whomever might leave him in peace. Once Rey gets close, she finds out why: he tried to kill Ben Solo (Adam Driver), causing his nephew to lash out, murder his fellow students of the Force, and become radicalised. Luke created Kylo Ren, driving Han and Leia’s son to the dark side.
This wasn’t completely random: Luke felt the same kind of power in Ben that Anakin succumbed to, and it terrified him. So much so that for a second, it seemed like he might actually drive a lightsaber through Ben’s heart. He panicked and acted on impulse, in the same way he did in The Empire Strikes Back, when Yoda warned him not to take on Vader because he isn’t strong enough yet.
In a cruel twist of fate, Luke caused the one thing he sought to prevent, precipitating great tragedy and heartache. He did something horrendous, and his reaction is to run away from the consequences because he doesn’t believe he can truly help. The ire is rooted in disbelief that Luke isn’t ready to swoop in like back in Return of the Jedi. That guy appears to be gone, in his place a grumpy husk who lives off blue milk on some island.
Yeah, Luke jumping straight in would’ve felt great, and we’d all like to imagine that he became a valiant paragon of the galaxy after everything he went through. But life, and people, rarely turn out how you imagine. Disappointment is a theme of The Last Jedi: great heroes are revealed to be fallible humans full of regret; well laid plans by cocksure renegades don’t pan out; and moments of glory are deflated in an instant.
Take the Canto Bight sequence, where Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) tear through a casino built on the military industrial complex. They and Poe’s (Oscar Isaac) plan gets screwed at the 11th hour, but it’s their dedication that matters, inspiring one young stable boy who now looks at the stars with brighter eyes. It might seem pointless, but just because they didn’t succeed doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth trying. And it lays the groundwork for Finn’s attempted martyrdom on Crait, thwarted by Rose.
There’s an optimism in The Last Jedi, firmly held within its young lead characters. No matter the letdown, they hold onto making change. Even Kylo Ren, a radicalised school shooter, understands and believes in the necessity for growth. He invites Rey to manifest a different philosophy for the Force, even if founded on teachings from the Dark Side.
They’re both alienated from where they come from, now adrift, searching for meaning from the past. Luke, Snoke, Vader, none of it can provide the gratification they’re looking for. They can give it to each other, though, however in Kylo’s mind this means ruling the galaxy.
When Snoke tries to disrupt this companionship, his murder comes swift, because he underestimated them. In doing so, Kylo and Rey deliver one of the most gorgeously shot lightsaber scenes in the entire franchise, a lethal dance in dismantling the king’s guard to make a run at the throne.
The Last Jedi is perhaps the most exquisitely shot Star Wars film. Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin take every opportunity to sweep the landscape and add detail to the universe. Red cutting through salt on Crait, Canto Bight’s extravagance and severe social divide, referencing numerous classic Hollywood films in their techniques and framing. The primary mythology might be the Skywalkers, but studio filmmaking itself is writ large in The Last Jedi’s grandiosity.
Killing Snoke is frequently discussed as an example of a subversion of expectation, and there might be some truth to that. But I never saw it that way, because he always seemed like a facsimile of Vader. Kylo Ren didn’t really care about his approval, he just understood the balance of the Force commands a certain hierarchy. Once Kylo got close to Rey, Snoke stopped mattering.
Luke discarding the lightsaber at the start, Poe getting knocked out when he disobeyed orders are seen similarly, but they’re all about refusing to let anyone define the narrative. Almost everyone’s a hero in The Last Jedi. Rey, Finn, Rose, Poe, Admiral Holdo, Leia, Luke, and yes, even Kylo. They all believe in what they’re doing, but they’re all in the middle of a war that’s about more than just a few people.
Poe’s idea almost worked, until someone got a better offer from the First Order, because it’s all about the highest bidder when there’s a galactic dispute. Holdo had to worry about the crew first and foremost. Johnson and The Last Jedi works against the way we’ve idolised Star Wars, not letting the story be defined by Han or Luke or Leia and our desire to see them succeed, or even back together.
There were impossible expectations on the Sequel Trilogy, insofar as it’s unlikely anything Star Wars does will ever satisfy the entire fandom. That’s too great a task, and with all the toxicity not something Lucasfilm should attempt anyway. But some misgivings about The Last Jedi, such as Luke’s arc and him not meeting Han, are based on what we wanted, rather than the story presented.
A scene that always touches me is Luke’s appearance on Crait, where he winks at C-3PO and meets Leia. It’s so solemn and beautifully performed by Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, who seem so legitimately happy to see each other it doesn’t really feel like they’re acting.
After all this time, they’re still stuck in some bunker, AT-AT looking things outside bearing down. They’re in dire straits, but what else is new? Their conversation is quaint and delicate, full of relief and reassurance. Han was there in spirit, as is so often in case in life after the years have their way,
Friends drift, families change. People move away or pass on. Sometimes it’s gradual, sometimes it’s sudden, sometimes you get to say goodbye, sometimes you’re just left regretting the last chance you had. That forlorn sense of longing is part of why it matters that Han isn’t there, because The Last Jedi is speaking very directly to those of us who’ve lived with Star Wars for years.
I can think of many friendships and bonds that were shaped by the films, videogames, books, comics, and toys, directly or indirectly. Some I still have, some I miss, all sit with me whenever I venture toward a galaxy far, far away. The protagonists of the Original Trilogy continued growing too, and they can’t escape the wiles of time any more than I or you can.
Another reason I love Luke and Leia’s scene is because of what comes after. Luke’s stand-off is great, perfectly handled by Hamill, who settles into his position as the villain in the confrontation. Kylo is the overarching antagonist, but he becomes something more complex when Luke’s around. This is his attempted murderer, a family member that made it impossible for Kylo to ever feel safe as a Skywalker.
You can see it in Kylo’s face, he immediately starts having an anxiety attack upon seeing his uncle. Now with a full arsenal at his disposal, he opens fire, hoping where he is now is enough. It isn’t, and Luke embarrasses Kylo, not unlike what Vader did to him in their first bout. This is the manifest destiny of the Skywalker bloodline, where Light and Dark exist in equal measure.
Luke was the hero of the Original Trilogy, but he’s still the son of Darth Vader, who was tempted to the Dark Side. Kylo Ren was the one who got to see what happens when that fear and temptation takes hold. This will keep happening, because no matter how puritanical they try to be about the ways of the Jedi, that nervousness around the young will persist.
Rey recognises this clearly in her conversations with Kylo, and it’s why her being divorced from the Skywalkers was important. She brings a fresh perspective, and can’t be so easily tempted either way. She, Kylo, Finn, Rose, and Poe are the future, and after his conversation with Yoda, Luke realises he has a chance to redeem himself and get out of their way in one swoop.
A duty we all bear is to do what’s best for the next generation. We have our time, and if we’re lucky, we can exit with grace, leaving behind positive influence. The Last Jedi knows what Star Wars means to people, and it knows the franchise must move on with itself. The paradigms have to shift, no matter how uncomfortable that is.
It’s a film that makes me feel better about the world. The slow chase between the First Order and the Resistance culminating in a close escape captures the urgency and desperation of the present political climate. At the same time, I’m left with a sense that there’s still hope for us yet.
At one point, The Empire Strikes Back did that. Now it’s The Last Jedi. In 20 years time, it might be another renegade sequel. I hope I’m there to see it. For now, this is Star Wars at its peak.