The Last Jedi has something unusual for a Star Wars movie: Nuance

Enlarge/ Watch out for giant faces and TIE fighters!Disney

Spoiler-free assessment

There are a lot of good things I expected from Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but nuance wasn’t one of them. You can usually depend on this franchise to deliver zoomy action steered by easily recognizable good guys and bad guys, their motivations untainted by complexity. The possible exception would be The Empire Strikes Back, and The Last Jedi Writer/Director Rian Johnson is obviously trying to evoke that film here.

Luckily, The Last Jedi is not a reboot or recreation of The Empire Strikes Back, the way The Force Awakens was of A New Hope. Jedi turns our characters into multi-faceted people and takes the series in new and unexpected directions.

Without giving away any of the plot, I can say that The Last Jedi’s greatest strength comes from its characters—and of course the actors who play them. Instead of giving us legendary heroes whose main job is to propel the plot, The Last Jedi focuses on our protagonists’ struggles with the same everyday problems that all sentient creatures face. They are conflicted, disappointed, and unsure what to do. They go on wild goose chases. They do the wrong thing, or the right thing for the wrong reasons. In other words, they feel realistically ordinary. Luke actually makes fun of his mythical reputation when the wide-eyed Rey (Daisy Ridley) begs for his help (Mark Hamill is in fine form here as a sarcastic old dude).

The grand arc of the Star Wars series is about how the scrappy Rebels fight the yoke of Imperial oppression. But at the same time, the movies have always revolved around aristocratic families and their precious dynastic bloodlines. What sets The Last Jedi apart, ultimately, is that we've finally got a team of Rebels who feel like members of a nascent democracy. They're mostly Plebeians, not Patricians, regular people who rely on each other to rise up and challenge an authoritarian military power that’s galactic in scope.

At a time when the rebellion is on the brink of annihilation, it's refreshing to see the franchise abandon its fixation on princesses and Skywalkers. Sure, they're around—both Carrie Fisher as Leia and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren are standouts—but increasingly our attention is on the gleefully self-identified "Rebel scum" like Finn (John Boyega) and engineer Rose (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran). Sometimes this makes it feel like we're trying to follow too many characters, especially in the middle of the film.

But The Last Jedi delivers enough desperate action and saber-smashing to make us feel like there's always something bigger at stake. Our rebels are battling for a true Republic, where ex-janitors can stand on equal footing with generals.

As the action unfolds, there are plot twists you might not expect. And when the camera looks deep into Kylo Ren's eyes… let's just say it's actually creepy in a way that goes beyond the usual "guy in a black cape" theatrics. Long after you're done with your popcorn, you'll find yourself wondering what the real difference is between the Light Side and the Dark Side. Despite a few meandering scenes, The Last Jedi is successful both as an edge-of-your-seat adventure and as a political fable that feels almost timeless.

And now… a little more analysis with light spoilers

There are some very minor spoilers after the gallery.

  • Use the Force, Rey! Disney
  • Porg is my co-pilot.
  • Rose is a new character in The Last Jedi, a scrappy engineer who quickly becomes one of the best parts of this movie. Disney
  • Love this new filter that makes your face look like it has a weird metal scar thing! Disney
  • Canto Bight is the casino city where everyone's loyalty is to profit, and they could care less who wins the war. Disney
  • Eat my voltage, Phasma! Disney

The Last Jedi continues The Force Awakens' preoccupation with passing the torch, as Luke and Leia must learn to take a back seat to Finn, Rey, Poe, and the brave engineer Rose. As I said earlier, this film is as much about character as it is about plot—some early reviews have accused it of being aimless because the action mostly focuses on a couple of harebrained Rebel schemes.

The Last Jedi is, in fact, a very dark film. It's reminiscent in some ways of the 2003 Battlestar Galactica miniseries where humanity is being rapidly blown to bits by cylons who can track them anywhere. As the action begins, we discover that the First Order has figured out a way to engineer the Rebels' certain defeat—unless Rose and Finn can pull off a desperate trick. Meanwhile, Rey is with Luke, trying to learn as much as she can from the Jedi Master as he decides whether to rejoin Leia and the rest of the resistance.

Light and dark

It's all relatively straightforward until the film starts building on the twisted connection between Rey and Kylo Ren that we saw in The Force Awakens. Kylo Ren is what Anakin should have been in episodes 1-3. He's magnetic and repulsive, and Driver skillfully plays him as balanced between infantile rage and nihilistic calm. Rey is a perfect foil for him, with her gravitas and clear sense of justice.

We've seen good characters struggle before with temptation by the Dark Side. But I don't recall ever seeing an evil character struggle with temptation by the Light the way Kylo Ren does. Sure, there was the turning of Darth Vader—but that felt like a deathbed confession. We never got to see what Darth Vader would do after turning back to the Light. The Last Jedi teases us with this possibility for Kylo Ren, just as it teases us with Rey's inner darkness.

Rey and Kylo Ren's evolving relationship raises intriguing philosophical questions that lurk beneath the surface of the action. Are we witnessing a transformation of the Force itself? What if Light and Dark need each other to survive? What if the Dark Side actually has something to offer that isn't just evil and horror?

New layers to the worldbuilding

These questions remain subtext, and indeed it's possible to enjoy The Last Jedi without mulling over any spiritual conundrums at all. There's plenty to enjoy just in the movie's epic worldbuilding. We get a closer look at the power structure of the First Order, but we also get to goof around on Luke's Jedi retreat island with its stunning vistas and weird wildlife. There are ocean cows, milked by Luke in one of the film's many comic moments; and of course there are the delightful porgs, already a fan favorite, who look like a cross between guinea pigs and penguins run through a Meitu filter.

Some of this worldbuilding has an edge to it. When Finn and Rose go to the luxurious casino city Canto Bight, frequented by the galaxy's wealthiest arms dealers, we get to see another side of the war. Here, guests with no loyalty to Leia or Snoke dine in gilded rooms while slaves live in the stables. Their only ruler is profit. It feels like Director Johnson is taking us on a frenetic cruise through his vision of the Star Wars universe, which makes sense when you consider that he recently signed a deal with Disney to create his own, original Star Wars trilogy unconnected to the main storyline.

While some viewers will delight in the new worlds we see in The Last Jedi, others may find these plotlines boring or pointless. We learn a lot about Finn and Rose's back stories and see why Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, camping it up) is pissed at Kylo, but these bits are admittedly less vital to the plot of Kylo Ren's true relationship to Luke—and the real story about Rey's parents. Plus, what about the freaking resistance? There are definitely moments when we simply lose sight of what's going on in the war because we're watching BB-8 deal with a drunk alien who thinks the little droid is a slot machine.

That said, The Last Jedi is a challenging and satisfying movie on many levels. It's fluffy and diverting at times but ultimately delivers a much-needed message about how hope will always reignite the resistance against political failure and galactic chaos.

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