Haven’t seen Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi yet? If not, you can’t entirely be blamed, at least if you live in a city that had a ton of advance theater sell-outs. Still, between the $220 million opening weekend and the number of Star Wars fans who frequent Ars, chances are, you found a way to see Rian Johnson’s rapturous, mostly amazing series debut.
For those who haven’t seen the film and still clicked this article’s very descriptive headline, it’s not too late to remain unspoiled; our positive, light-touch review from last week can be found here. Otherwise, I have taken a full week since seeing last week’s early press screening to mull over the film, not to mention a few very excited weekend chats with friends and colleagues. Like other classic Star Wars entries, this one is built for rewatching and talking about with friends and Rebellion allies, so in that spirit, let’s dive into some incredibly spoilerriffic thoughts on The Last Jedi .
Seriously: It’s all spoilers from here on out. You’ve been very, very warned.
For some actors, the force awakens
Finally, the average moviegoer gets to see what modern video gaming fans have known for years: how great of an actor Mark Hamill can be. We had all seen hints when he voiced the Joker in animated form, but the Batman: Arkham gaming series allowed Hamill to cement his Joker portrayal as something dark, deep, and substantial. This experience was all paid forward in Episode VIII , as Hamill had to convince moviegoers of something pretty bonkers: that Luke Skywalker would ever turn his back on the Force and allow a new evil empire to arise in his absence.
This logical leap may very well be what Hamill meant when he spoke to Vanity Fair earlier this year: “I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character,” he said to the director. Hamill clarified in later interviews that this blunt initial impression softened as he signed on to Johnson’s script and vision, and his Last Jedi performance serves as proof.
Nothing about Hamill’s wizened Skywalker appears phoned-in or throwaway, even though some of his performance’s best moments, from milking a CGI dragon-cow to screwing with Rey’s Force training by tickling her with a feather, shine with a one-take, spur-of-the-moment quality. But Hamill gets a lot of time to build his character’s emotional fortress. While a lot of quiet, brooding, and burdened moments are worth calling out for their subtlety and impact, Johnson and Hamill’s best collaboration comes from the trifecta of flashbacks to the great betrayal between Skywalker and Ben Solo.
There’s no understating how clever this he-said, he-said storytelling trick plays out, as it lets different characters react, wonder, and grow over the span of the film. Luke’s initial story is meant to warn Rey of the dark forces she may soon face, which sets up Ben’s compelling, context-changing stab—sold to incredible effect by a spiteful Hamill performance. Once viewers are clued in to the true series of events, they’ve seen all sides of Skywalker’s sadness and regret that have built over the years. In this third and final flashback, a glow of lightsaber in Hamill’s wide, terrified eyes—that moment in which he realizes that even he, legendary Luke Skywalker, isn’t the universe’s perfect pariah—answers the question of his changed motives in ways that an overwrought script never could.
As a result, seeing the apparent conclusion of Luke Skywalker’s Star Wars life proved more fulfilling and satisfying than I could have ever imagined. His self-sacrifice moved the Resistance’s existence forward, but its temporary levity also allowed Luke to say goodbye as the snarky, likable, love-conquers-hate character we as fans originally fell in love with. Seeing that hopeful light flicker one last time was an amazing show-don’t-tell reminder of how, in Star Wars, hope conquers all.
Perhaps more impressive is Adam Driver’s performance, since he has to follow two trajectories: one as the film’s obvious, highest-ranking villain, and another as a boy taking his final steps toward understanding and embracing his evil destiny. Kylo Ren must act like disciple and master simultaneously, an acting feat that the light-side duo of Luke and Rey split up, and Driver wins out as a result. Kylo is still the tempestuous boy we met in Force Awakens , but this time around, he accepts and leans into that wilder side—and tricks everyone else, from Snoke to Rey, into thinking he’s clueless about his true power and potential.
Daisy Ridley’s Rey, much like Hamill in the original trilogy, is stuck playing a straighter, more one-dimensional foil to these other actors’ delectably dramatic arcs. She’s remarkable in supporting her co-stars, certainly, but she is still given a lot of compelling material to work with—and smolders as she faces a potentially average and ordinary origin story.
Her endless-mirror scene lingers for just long enough to let us appreciate its dismal perspective, but it also offers a nice dramatic irony: the film’s viewers see and understand something about Rey before she necessarily figures it out. Driver nails a compelling excited-yet-confused perspective by the end of that scene, so even though we know she’ll soon have to contend with the difficult balance of light and dark, we as viewers wind up excited to follow her through that obvious plot point.
S.P.Y. and other special effects
Driver and Ridley at least deserve equal credit for one of the film’s most visually striking elements: their no-CGI, cross-galaxy conversations. Actors already struggle when they have to stage scenes in green-screen rooms, with no visual perspective to frame what’s going on. Quadruple that challenge by having those actors exchange a film’s most surprising and revealing conversations all by themselves. But those scenes saw each of these forever-linked Star Wars characters wield equal parts confidence, surprise, doubt, and fear. Masterful stuff.
That’s not to say The Last Jedi slacked off in terms of bombastic visuals; far from it. The opening bomber-run sequence gave Rian Johnson and crew an opportunity to stage a cool, WWI/WWII-styled aerial run, and the Rebellion’s bulky, slow, and intimidating craft ramped the visual and dramatic tension up on all sides. (Should you laugh at the idea of these bombers requiring an “only from above” trajectory in outer space, let’s just remember that Star Wars has been breaking the laws of physics for decades.) There are probably a few articles’ worth of visual analysis to be written about the film’s final, gorgeous ice-desert battle, as well, with its glacial sand burning red on one side—and thus slapping bright-red exclamation points on so many of the battle’s events.
The film’s most obvious visual punch came from Rey and Kylo’s whoa-it’s-really-happening battle. A Force-heavy face-off, a slowly turning lightsaber on a table, a bokeh-smothered slice-and-collapse of Snoke, and black-and-red warriors all succumbing to Rey and Kylo’s weaponry in a red-all-over room: the full scene plays out like staring into the sun. Meaning, when I close my eyes, I can still see the entire fight glowing in my vision, bright with incredible red-on-black contrast.
As a major series fan, however, nothing in this film delighted me more visually than what I call Crappy Puppet Yoda (which I shorten to “S.P.Y.” for what I actually call him). ILM clearly put a lot of effort into making painfully adorable Porgs, hulking dog-storks, and glittering snow-wolves, but the film’s creatures on the practical-effects spectrum just rang truer. The hooded monks who patrolled Luke’s island were a lot more fun to watch get visibly frustrated, compared to the Porgs’ cloyingly precious antics, while the dumpy, can-barely-move Yoda just felt more appropriate for a final Jedi goodbye. Luke never had to contend with CGI Yoda in the original trilogy, and Johnson and co. deserve credit for upholding that streak.
Not sold on other performances
The other leading men from Force Awakens , Poe and Finn, enjoy their share of memorable and enjoyable scenes, particularly Poe’s opening “can you hear me now?” silliness. But in this sequel, those characters’ trajectories hinge on far more predictable and simple “growth” missions. Poe learns, through endless bangs of his head against the figurative door, how to put the full Rebellion ahead of his own grand-standing ambitions, while Finn finally embraces the idea that he can be a hero—and then learns what being a hero actually constitutes. (Rose’s might-be-dead speech about “not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love” is her best moment, and one that her character arc sells quite well.)
You could have summarized both of those characters’ growth concepts in a text crawl, and their Last Jedi plots feel like they’ve been puffed out to move the film’s action sequences forward. This, by the way, is what drags the character of Rose down the most: that she exists mostly to latch onto, and descriptively shout about, whatever “objective” is next. She’s intentionally ordinary, which is refreshing for a Star Wars hero, but the script never gives her room to cash in on this uniqueness. We never truly learn about her origin story, beyond a brief “life sucked” summary about her casino-slave origins, or how she and her sister survived and thrived through such a hard youth. Instead, she reads like a video game character, one who loudly describes an important mission objective whenever you tap the “select” button.
That’s three characters all battling for time, attention, context, and logic. They all feel crowded as a result, and it didn’t have to be that way. What if Poe and Finn had been boiled down to a single, more fleshed-out struggling-with-heroism archetype? Wouldn’t it have been easier for Rian Johnson if JJ Abrams actually killed Poe off like originally planned ?
Instead, we are steered through a pair of could’ve-been-shorter subplots: one with Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo, a confusing “I seem bad but I’ve been good all along” stand-in leader and one plot that takes a striking detour into wildly new Star Wars territory. The casino planet of Canto Bight works to break up Last Jedi’s scenery and pace, and it’s presented in gorgeous, fleshed-out form, but its existence as an arms-dealer, profit-off-war station feels way more like a tantalizing tease of three new Star Wars films to come than as a compelling addition to the stories that Last Jedi needs to tell. (To clarify: Disney has not yet confirmed what Rian Johnson’s Star Wars film trilogy will focus on.)
I am absolutely drooling at the storytelling and world-building potential that this offshoot Star Wars universe offers—especially with easy-to-draw parallels with modern society. Hell yes to those eventual films. (And I hope Benicio Del Toro’s shady character receives screen time in them, as well.) But we’re not watching them yet. In Last Jedi ‘s case, we’re already bursting at the seams at the 2:30 mark. If Disney didn’t have a new offshoot trilogy to tease, this casino world might have made more sense on the cutting room floor.
Holdo’s emergence as a new, stern-faced, female Rebellion leader suffers from an unfortunate but undeniable comparison to real-life events. It’s hard not to see her appear over a comatose Leia for the first time and ask aloud whether this is how Carrie Fisher was written out of the film—and then cringe at Dern’s ho-hum “I’m in charge” speech as a lousy Leia substitute. As we eventually see, that’s not how Leia fades away. But—what did Holdo really contribute to the Rebellion’s effort? Her iciness and lack of communication inspires a somewhat costly mutiny, and its primary payoff is to teach Poe an important lesson of teamwork and temperament as he picks up the Rebellion’s scraps. I can hold my tongue and swallow some serious gaps in physics and logic in a Star Wars film, but a cockamamie internal-struggle plot is a little tougher to fathom as a serious good-guy military strategy.
Leia and other questions for Episode IX
So what’s to come for Princess Leia? Series fans finally see the character’s Force powers emerge—in a tremendous, slow, jaw-keeps-dropping sequence of her finally cashing in her Force chips—and watch her very clearly lead the Rebellion’s thin ranks away as her brother performs the ultimate Jedi sacrifice. Yet her screen time in Last Jedi is a bit too meager—enough to see Fisher flash her knowing smile and enjoy far heartier dialogue than she got in Force Awakens but not enough to count as Leia’s full goodbye to the series’ cinematic universe.
The powers that be at Disney will likely make an announcement at the outset of production on Episode IX about what we should expect for Leia—because no decision will leave all series fans happy, and Disney is probably eager to get the blog-comment rage out of the way before late 2019 rolls around. From the way Last Jedi ends, however, Leia’s story is clearly unfinished, and the only way to complete the new trilogy’s arc of stories—at least in terms of what bricks have already been placed by the first two entries—is to recast Leia.
The idea I’ve been floating with friends, to an admittedly mixed response, is handing the daunting role to an actor like Sigourney Weaver. In terms of age, performance, sci-fi cred, and balance of humor and toughness, Weaver stands out as a very favorable comparison to what Fisher brought to the role of Leia. Barring that, I can’t help but wonder what top-of-Hollywood actor would turn down an opportunity to wrap the original Star Wars trilogy’s characters and finish Leia’s story in a strong-female-role, no-metal-bikini way. Think someone crazy and out-of-nowhere like Meryl Streep. It could happen.
Meanwhile, with Snoke out of the way, Episode IX‘s structure already seems more tantalizing. In the original trilogy, we always knew some version of Darth Vader, with or without the Emperor, would show up and wield a certain, compelling brand of evil. The prequels, meanwhile, did the same with Palpatine. But Kylo Ren’s “me first, at any cost” take on leading the First Order can go in so many directions, which was already proven out by his fruitless, film-closing battle against Skywalker. The stage is thus set for an obvious Kylo versus Hux showdown, but when that will drop in Episode IX , and how it might splinter off to either help or hurt the Rebellion, leaves a lot of sequel possibilities up in the air.
For now, Snoke has thankfully been cast aside. He came with all of the baggage of other Star Wars villains and potential comparisons. Explaining away his origins and purpose would have been a waste of time, if not a copy of prior Star Wars films. Slice him in half—and use his final urging, for Kylo to stab his biggest enemy, to further prop up Kylo’s true rise to power. You couldn’t have asked for a better goodbye to a more boring villain.
Really, Last Jedi stands out by booting so many original-trilogy conventions (other than Benicio del Toro’s DJ pulling a could’a-seen-that-coming Lando Calrissian double-cross). Three narrative choices stand out: the lack of a surprise parent revelation, the drastic reduction of Rebellion ranks, and the little boy revealing his Force powers at the very end. These three things all add up to an Episode IX that will have to ask what it really takes for series heroes to move forward with the Force, midi-chlorians be damned. We may yet receive a true Rey origin story, where we learn her parents really aren’t as ordinary as Kylo Ren warns, but that’s no longer the point.
The stage has been set for a brand-new type of Star Wars heroism, and for all of the series’ new, younger characters, that could put an exclamation point on the book-burning, end-of-the-Jedi farewell between Luke and Yoda.