So, before we talk about The Last Jedi, let’s talk about The Empire Strikes Back for just a moment. Have you ever tried to describe the plot of The Empire Strikes Back to anyone? Using just a couple of sentences, it always sounds like a terrible movie. Now, the original Star Wars sounds fun: “A small group of freedom fighters comes together to destroy the evil Empire’s ultimate weapon.” But The Empire Strikes Back sounds more like this: “The evil Empire discovers where the Rebels are hiding, the Rebels all fly away in different directions.” The Empire Strikes Back doesn’t have a traditional plot, which is why it earned the most tepid reviews of the original three movies upon its initial release in 1980. Of course, time has been kind to The Empire Strikes Back, often now considered the best Star Wars movie made, even surpassing the original. It’s a movie that focuses on character development instead of plot. It’s the movie where we really get to know what drives Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo and Darth Vader.
Considering his past work, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise to learn that director Rian Johnson uses the Empire template for The Last Jedi. The nice thing that comes with using The Empire Strikes Back as a starting point is that a movie can basically do anything. This isn’t like The Force Awakens, which uses a lot of the same plot points from the original Star Wars. Instead, it puts our heroes in jeopardy the whole movie – a relentless two and a half hours of tension – separates them, and explores who they are and what they’re fighting for. Like Empire, our big three – now Rey, Finn and Poe – do not spend a lot of time together on screen, which of course just makes us want to see them all somehow reunite.
There were events in The Force Awakens that would be considered massive spoilers, most notably the fate of Han Solo. J.J. Abrams is notorious for keeping secrets, to a fault. But it’s kind of telling for a couple of reasons that the plot of The Force Awakens was pretty much everywhere months before the movie came out, yet now we have the comparative openness of Rian Johnson’s movie – I mean, the guy is always on Twitter answering questions – and yet few plot details leaked in advance. Princess Leia in the first Star Wars was right, “The more you tighten your grip, the more spoilers will slip through your fingers.” (That might not be a 100 percent accurate quote.) But the other thing is, there are just not a lot of things to spoil in The Last Jedi. I mean, yes, there are a couple, but there are no big, capital P, plot points to even relay. The Last Jedi is a character study.
The Last Jedi picks up mere moments after the events of The Force Awakens. Emboldened by the destruction of the Republic’s home planet in the prior film, the First Order – led by Snoke (Andy Serkis), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleason, hamming it up even more than he did in the last movie) – mounts an all-out attack on the Resistance’s secret base as the Resistance – led by Leia (Carrie Fisher, in her last performance, and it’s a great one) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) – tries to evacuate. Finn (John Boyega) teams up with Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance maintenance worker, on a mission that takes them to a beautiful casino planet where they meet a code breaker played by Benicio del Toro (basically the Lando of this movie). Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is still on the remote planet of Ahch-To, trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) that she’s worthy to be trained in the ways of the force. (See, I told you an Empire template is being used here.) This is literally almost the entire plot of The Last Jedi. But, again, “plot” is not what The Last Jedi is going for. What’s important in The Last Jedi is what happens to, and what we find out about, all of these characters along the way. In retrospect, The Force Awakens feels like a short introduction to these characters. After The Last Jedi, I feel like I’ve gone on a week-long road trip with them all.
I suspect, once the dust settles, The Last Jedi might be divisive – at least in the way that Empire was in that it doesn’t follow the traditional structure of a Star Wars movie. Where The Force Awakens felt like a movie by committee, The Last Jedi really does feel like one person’s vision of what a Star Wars movie should be. It doesn’t tick off the corporate studio boxes that are surefire, go to “crowd pleasers” (even though there are many crowd-pleasing moments). In a lot of ways, The Last Jedi is a weird movie. And I’m sure the word “dark” will be thrown around, but it’s not “dark.” Just like The Empire Strikes Back isn’t “dark.” Now, A Serbian Film, that’s a dark movie. The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi are both well-made Star Wars movies with a lot of humor, where also some bad things happen to characters we like. In fact, The Last Jedi is so funny at times, I could also see that element being divisive. But people forget how funny the original trilogy actually is. In Empire, Han Solo and C-3PO are basically doing a vaudeville routine.
(This is a complaint for another time, but The Last Jedi continues the trend of not knowing what to do with C-3PO and R2-D2. Even back in the ‘80s, George Lucas said that the two droids would be the through-line of all the different movies – the only characters to appear in them all. And technically that’s true, but they are such an integral part of the original trilogy – they actually contributed to the plot – yet ever since The Phantom Menace, their presence feels more like extended cameos.)
In The Last Jedi, there’s a continuing theme of destroying what came before to make room for something new. This could be taken a lot of ways, especially since Kylo Ren is the one in favor of this idea. It’s a movie about change and regret and getting older, but also about hope for what’s to come. (Though, part of me likes to think that destroying what came before is in direct reference to the aspects of The Force Awakens that Johnson didn’t like, because there are a few key aspects of that movie that Johnson smashes into oblivion. I look forward to Abrams trying to bring them all back in the next movie anyway.)
I’ll keep this short, but, personally, this has literally been the shittiest time of my life. After losing my father, suddenly, a little over three weeks ago, it’s been a pretty much non-stop barrage of hurt. My father took me to see The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, my first movie. He took me to the Star Wars re-release in 1981. It was surprisingly tough to watch a new Star Wars movie this soon after, at least a lot harder than I thought it would be. But something else happened: I felt emotions that weren’t “absolute shit” for the first time in three weeks. For two and a half hours, I really did feel like I got to visit that galaxy far, far away – and good God I needed to go there. That’s the magic these movies can have. I am not someone who cries during new Star Wars movies because a character I like shows up, or whatever, but I sure did during this one. And for the first time since this all happened, that cry felt good.
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