Star Wars was a gateway to science fiction for me, but the franchise lost its hold shortly after the first trilogy. I wouldn’t exactly say the latest episode in the saga, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), has reclaimed my undying devotion or anything, but it’s easily the strongest, most interesting Star Wars movie in decades, and quite possibly the series’ best.
The Rebel Alliance is on the run, its small fleet jeopardized by the powerful forces of the First Order. It has fallen to General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) to lead the Rebels to safety. When Leia is incapacitated in battle, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) assumes command of the fleet — much to the consternation of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who has different ideas about how to save the day. Counter to Holdo’s orders, he concocts a last-ditch plan with Finn (John Boyega) and a young engineer named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to disable the First Order’s tracking technology so that the fleet can escape. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trying to recruit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) back into the fold, hoping that the legendary powers of the Jedi can be leveraged against the evil plans of the Order. But Luke has no interest in rejoining the fight, and indeed believes the Jedi should become a thing of the past.
I went into Star Wars: The Last Jedi expecting, at best, to be underwhelmed. Much to my surprise, I found myself not only engaged, but emotionally invested. Oh, the plot is the usual frantic clash of cosmic forces, another violent spin on the dance floor for its usual opposing forces. As a work of SF, well, it’s basically a fantastical mess, blending mysticism with occasionally more reasonable science fictional worldbuilding, often maddeningly undercut by almost willful scientific illiteracy. At the end of the day, let’s face it — this is yet another entry in a franchise, a bridge between episodes in a never-ending, money-churning cycle, and as such it’s difficult to take too seriously as a standalone work of art.
But compared to its peers, The Last Jedi is in a class of its own. In terms of the overall shape of the franchise, it takes significant storytelling risks, its plot fundamentally altering the shape of the Star Wars universe. I’m sure the arc of commerce will bend that back into familiar shape eventually, but in the meantime the way is paved for a different paradigm, and the potential for different kinds of stories moving forward. Whereas The Force Awakens was disappointingly safe and calculated in its relaunch of the canon, The Last Jedi takes risks and ventures into new thematic territory. It does something no other Star Wars film has dared to do: it challenges the morally unambiguous light-versus-dark dichotomy essential to the core conflict of the series. This theme plays out in Luke’s inner struggle, as well as in an eloquent subplot involving a distinctive, shifty character named DJ (Benicio Del Toro), whose gruff insights into the military-industrial complex underlying the Rebel-First Order division read powerfully as thinly veiled commentary on contemporary reality. Even more pertinent is the battle of wits waged between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whose ethical debates are well argued and contribute unexpected thematic heft.
For a popcorn blockbuster, The Last Jedi is a surprisingly and refreshingly political movie, both in its identity politics and in its willingness to examine systemic power and its abuse. When the heroes reject leadership and go against orders, it not only isn’t glorified, it reflects badly on them and comes with consequences. As the heroes repeatedly fail, recover, and try again in the face of worsening odds, the film becomes less interested in taking their side, and more interested in examining their behavior — how they are making their decisions, why they are making them, and how they are choosing to fight. This is a lot more ambiguity and nuance than I was expecting, which helps to tether the film to real-world issues in a manner unlike any previous episode. For some people, this may be too thought-provoking a direction for such an escapist franchise to go, but I’m more on board with it than ever. This is the Star Wars film the Trump era absolutely needs.
Because in the end, none of this commentary or subtext gets in the way of the entertainment value. The visuals are spectacular, the action is exciting, and the acting is solid. I was particularly impressed with Mark Hamill, who has never been more effective in the role. Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose is a terrific new character, and Del Toro effortlessly walks away with his scenes. It should serve well enough as a bracing diversion for those inclined to ignore the subtext, but for the rest of us, it’s a refreshing change to have other levels to look at. I must say, I’m impressed.