“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to,” Kylo Ren urges another character with resolve, despite the fact that a deep conflict still roils beneath his brooding umber eyes. “It’s the only way to become who you were meant to be.” The idea of casting off the shackles of what came before is a sentiment echoed and paraphrased to the point of theme in the surprising depths of The Last Jedi’s tale of a galaxy far, far, away engulfed in conflict once again. Though the spectacle of Star Wars films may hang its hat on swashbuckling battles both in the vastness of space and between swords made of light, a film like The Last Jedi somberly reminds us that when the narrative focus narrows from Star Destroyers and Death Stars to the more complicated struggles of life beneath the jackbooted heel of an imperialist oppressor, or the often pain-soaked journey to find one’s purpose in life amidst a war-torn landscape, or that no matter how hard we try, we may find ourselves making the same mistakes as our forebears, Star Wars displays its true heroes and legends.
In the eighth chapter of the rise and fall of the perilous Skywalker family and the vibrant galaxy which surrounds them, legends are finally within the grasp of heroes both new and familiar. Rey, having discovered the hermited and aged Luke Skywalker, seems poised to begin her training as Jedi. Even after a decisive victory over the First Order, the General Leia Organa and her hot-shot pilot Poe Dameron are on the run from its enigmatic Supreme Leader, Snoke. Finn, though recovering from his wounds, might be able to start a life outside of a Stormtrooper helmet. Plucky Resistance engineer Rose Tico gets to fight beside one of her heroes in the cause’s most desperate hour. Scarred inside and out, Kylo Ren questions whether he can live behind his menacing mask any longer just before he plummets into a bout of rabid anger. As our host of heroes--and the audience--soon discover, sometimes the stories we tell ourselves do not unfold quite like we might expect, a complex and honest unpredictability which The Last Jedi wields to create some of the most cinematic moments you may ever find and images which will be canonized within the Star Wars mythology.
When Luke finally speaks to the hopeful Rey, she finds him dismissive and recalcitrant to Leia’s plea for aid. When Kylo kneels before Snoke, he finds himself dressed down by his cruel and hateful master and as undertain of his future as ever, while the master himself wonders if his faith in his chaotic apprentice was misplaced. As Finn tries to strike out on his own, he finds that his charm and wit will not carry him very far alone, while the cynical Rose realizes that even heroes have no idea what they are doing. General Organa and Poe discover that they are only hours from certain destruction at the hands of the full might of the First Order, while their escape options erode. None of The Last Jedi’s heroes or villains are lifted higher by the Resistance’s victory over the First Order in The Force Awakens. If anything, the aftermath of the destruction of Starkiller Base has left many worse for the wear. Such is the second of three acts, but unlike its predecessors, which were mostly content to relegate good and evil and light and dark to their respective camps, Jedi provides genuine twists, subtle subversions, and an emotional core centered around mythologized people coming to grips with their own failures and their consequences, thanks to beautiful and haunted performances from the late Carrie Fisher and the ever-gracious Mark Hamill. Beyond its vividly imagined opening and closing sequences, beyond one of the best lightsaber battles in the entire series (arguably its best in terms of sheer viscerality) and utterly arresting cinematography, one of the strongest elements of The Last Jedi is watching these new characters truly grow in wide, satisfying arcs, on both sides of the deadly conflict which ties them all together.
Though it contains several of the most astounding scenes you will ever see in any of the previous Star Wars films, Jedi like most Star Wars, can be clunky or downright hamfisted in its delivery. In the second act, the slow burn of scenes featuring Kylo Ren and Rey growing within their respective powers are unevenly punctuated by stilted and forced political commentary between the film’s everywoman Rose and the naive Finn. The message expressed is laudable but tonally out of step, juxtaposed by the Light Side and the Dark Side vehemently resurgent in two confused, troubled people on a collision course with one another, with Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley both in genuine command of their characters. There are still bright and humorous and memorable moments within the subplot, but Kylo and Rey discovering themselves, their powers, and their places in the world is where the real strength of the film lies. Discovering the mysteries of the Force and herself with Rey, finding out the reason for Luke’s self-imposed exile, and watching Kylo Ren try to bend without breaking, these are the moments when Jedi gives you that familiar tingle of magic that Star Wars can. A little too often, The Last Jedi undercuts these moments with humor, and while genuinely funny, some jokes detracted from a few key scenes which could have benefitted a little more breathing room. Still, despite its warts and stitching, The Last Jedi was an landmark experience. It is a film built on decades of history and cultural popularity, but it urges you leave legends in the past, and fulfill your own destiny. For some this may be a journey wrought with peril, chaos, and ruin, and for some it may lead to enlightenment and renewed hope, The Last Jedi somberly illustrates that fate comes to us all one day, but when it arrives, it is not always what you pictured, or what you thought you deserved. Sometimes we possess the power to change that, and sometimes we do not, but we are invariably changed by fate: no one and nothing ever remains the same. The Last Jedi is an encounter with that kind of fate, that which helps to forge a new path, forward and onward.