Do you have a bad feeling about this? Correct! SPOILERS FOLLOW! Warned you have been!
Forgive me if this sounds way too much like “what a priest watching ‘Star Wars’ would say,” but for me the “Star Wars” films have always ended up being about faith, hope and, down deep undergirding it all, merciful love.
At 2 hours and 33 minutes “The Last Jedi” is the longest in the series and maybe also the densest. I have seen it twice now and my head is still ringing not just with the events (Luke!) but the allusions to other “Star Wars” films and internal-rhyme-like playfulness. (I was amazed to realize, on second viewing, that pretty much everything that Luke ridicules Rey for believing at the start of the film—that using the Force is about moving rocks or extending your hand and thinking real hard; that Luke could somehow go out, face the First Order alone and save the day—comes to pass. This movie loves playing with expectations.)
Some feel writer-director Rian Johnson has, in effect, detonated not only most of the set-up of the last movie (Supreme Commander Snoke, anyone?) but some of the ethos of the entire series. What I see is a film that strips away 40 years of lacquer (“Bye, midi-chlorians!” is the nerd’s “Bye, Felicia!”) to highlight both the inspiration and the challenge at the heart of the “Star Wars” saga. It is a story about having faith, finding hope (in one another) and the force (sorry) of forgiving love.
Having Faith: One of my favorite parts of Episodes I to III of “Star Wars”—and let’s be honest, once you get beyond Darth Maul there are relatively few of those to go around—is its unexpectedly fresh treatment of Obi-Wan Kenobi. The once-wizened retired Jedi is here little more than a kid, with a goofy “trying to sound wise so the older Jedi will respect me” voice and a Buster Keatonesque tendency to find himself in trouble.
And no matter how bad things get for young Master Kenobi, he never seems to lose heart. Whether he’s chained to a pole with a 30-foot reek (think: triceratops) charging at him or throwing himself out a window 4,000 stories up, young Ben always seems to have a sense that something else, something not yet on the scene is going to go his way and all shall be well.
'The Last Jedi' is a film that strips away 40 years of lacquer to highlight both the inspiration and the challenge at the heart of the “Star Wars” saga.
That expansive faith that things will work out has always been the beating heart of the “Star Wars” saga. But no film in the “Star Wars” saga has interrogated the actual challenge of faith like “The Last Jedi.” Its scrawl opens with the ominous “The First Order reigns,” a situation for Princess Leia’s “resistance” that is similar to the that of the rebellion at the beginning of “The Empire Strikes Back.”And right away—as throughout the film—Johnson weaponizes our knowledge, seeming to reenact classic moments from past films only to have the reprises end in disaster.
Every big win in “The Last Jedi” leads to a bigger failure. Heroism and bravado bring about unnecessary deaths; betrayal has impacts far greater than one guy frozen in carbonite; and though time and again the good guys try to warm themselves in the darkness with the wisdom of Leia (Carrie Fisher)—“If you only have hope in the sun, you’ll never sleep through the night”—in the end, even she has to admit: The light has gone out.
“You want to see what faith in things not seen really looks like?” Johnson seems to ask fans. “Here it is.”
And yet, this is still “Star Wars,” a universe marinated in humor, earnest desire and belief in the possibility of a better world. As much as “The Last Jedi” seems to be speaking almost directly to the struggles and fears of the present moment, it does so with a conviction that there is hope to be found even in absolute darkness.
Sometimes you just really have no choice but to trust, wait and look to those around you. “That’s how we win,” newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) tells Finn (John Boyega), “not by fighting what we hate but saving those we love.” (A line more relevant to the present day is hard to imagine.)
Finding Hope: “A New Hope” established Luke Skywalker as a country kid looking for a bigger purpose. The rebellion’s “new hope” was someone just like us. But the films that followed undermined that idea, making Luke and his clan the center of pretty much everything good and bad in the universe.
In “The Last Jedi,” Johnson sets about returning the series to its original idea of hope as found not in a bloodline, techno-bio-jargon or status but in ordinary people. So at the very beginning of “The Last Jedi”we are treated to a fascinating almost beat-by-beat reenactment of the original destruction of the Death Star, that moment when Luke suddenly became “Luke Skywalker, Jedi.” But in place of Luke the hero, here is a random soldier we have never met before (and won’t see again).
With the exception of the way-too-pretty-to-have-just-worn-a-helmet Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the Resistance heroes of “The Last Jedi” are all the past episode’s background characters—a mechanic, a former stormtrooper, one of those admirals who’s usually just standing around looking concerned (Laura Dern), some pilots and an aide (Billie Lourd). And the central story of the film is the “Empire”-reminiscent attempt of the Resistance to escape the First Order. But while “Empire’s” chase involved just Leia, Han, Chewie and 3PO flying through asteroids in the Millennium Falcon, in this episode it is the entire Resistance that is in flight. “The Last Jedi” is the story not of a select few but of all of them.
Even the Force is made more egalitarian, with Old Man Luke (Mark Hamill) dismissing as vanity the Jedi’s notion that the force was somehow their property. And when new Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) finally discovers the identity of her parents, it turns out they were not Kenobis or Skywalkers or Solos. They were garbage people (in both senses), who traded her for money and booze.
“You’re nobody,” Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) tells her. “You have no place in this story.”
But that is exactly the point—this is Rey’s story, as well as Ben’s. It’s also Finn’s and Rose’s and all the rest. Everyone has a place in the “Star Wars”story, not just one family and some highly educated, mostly dude Force-splainers; everyone is the new hope—particularly the outcast and forgotten. (The way this idea plays out at the very end of “The Last Jedi”is masterful, a nod to both the original film and Episode I so satisfying it almost begs the question of whether this iteration of “Star Wars” actually needs an Episode IX.)
Forgiving Love: Past installments of the “Star Wars” series have turned on the question of forgiveness; Luke’s willingness to show mercy to his father despite all advice to the contrary is the choice that saves the universe in the original series. Young Anakin’s refusal to show mercy to his enemies, starting with those who tortured and killed his mother, is what puts him on the path to destroying everything.
Here again Johnson finds in the “Star Wars” saga something that has always been present and yet never explored—the flawed mentor. Old Man Luke is not the earnest kid we met long ago; he is late middle-aged, cynical, has bad hair (never wash your hair for thirty years in salt water) and has seen too much, especially of his own mistakes. His journey in the film is not to once again forgive another but the much harder journey of facing his own past choices and trying to forgive himself. It is a struggle familiar to any who have been parent, teacher, mentor or friend (oh boy is it), and all the more powerful because of that resonance. And the advice of an “old friend” (wink wink) is key: Failure, too, is a lesson to be passed on.
“No one is ever really gone,” Luke tells his sister in their one beautiful scene together. It is an incredibly poignant moment, given Carrie Fisher’s unexpected death after filming. (Her performance is extraordinary; she is quiet grace and wisdom in every scene.)
But it is also the ultimate belief of the series—that no one is ever gone for good or ever definitively lost to us or even us to ourselves.
And faith is never in vain, though often it is so very hard.