Away from Rey’s training quest is the rest of the resistance, fleeing for their lives in spite of their victory in Force Awakens. First Order fighters led by Kylo strike a decapitating blow against the resistance leadership, killing everyone but his mother, General Leia (Carrie Fisher). She survives due to her force powers, but is incapacitated, leaving Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) in charge of the resistance ships as they stay just out of range of First Order guns until they inevitably run out of fuel. Holdo keeps her cards close to her chest, angering impulsive pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Dameron’s eager for a showdown instead of an orderly retreat, and he recruits a small team to help force Holdo’s hand. Former First Order stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), engineer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and spunky droid BB-8 take a small ship away from the gradually diminishing fleet in search of a codebreaker who can help them infiltrate the First Order armada and disable their tracking systems, allowing the resistance to escape.
Star Wars has packed in twists in its past, and The Last Jedi is an active participant in that tradition. Johnson, who received sole writing credit, is not a prolific filmmaker, but his takes on noir, heist, and time travel films all subverted expectations by running perpendicular to genre tropes. In the Last Jedi, he takes a saga that had largely been about the exploits of the Skywalker family and blows out the scope of the galaxy, scolding the viewer for focusing so tightly on such a small unit when the size of the world is named as the ‘galaxy’ in every entry’s prologue. Johnson’s uninterested in who’s related to who, somewhat snarkily dismissing the mysteries of Force Awakens planted by puzzle-box aficionado Abrams. This is a welcome smackdown to Reddit theorizing and clickbait nonsense, but Johnson is pushing his characters into winking derisively at the camera. Looper had a character explicitly and gratifyingly dismiss the mechanics of time travel as needless set dressing, but that was an original property with no extra baggage beyond the existence of other time travel movies. Star Wars is so steeped in the culture that the gleeful strangling of interfilm discussion is distracting, shifting the reaction from one focused on the characters to glee at the collective rage of bloggers who just had their ironclad ‘who is Snoke’ theory roasted on a spit.
Johnson is in a silly conversation with the fans, and he’s in another one with the history of Star Wars itself. The ethos of characters like Han Solo is one in favor of derring-do, a ‘don’t tell me the odds’ certainty of their martial prowess. The equivalent character in The Last Jedi is Isaac’s Poe, introduced in the film by speeding towards a mammoth First Order ship. He leads a successful but costly mission to destroy the ship, but where previous Star Wars films could only offer an aside about all the Bothan spies who died to complete their mission (coming summer 2022), The Last Jedi casts Rose as the sister of one of the dead, personalizing the loss of the mission and making the viewer question if it was worth the sacrifice in the first place. The destroyed ship doesn’t stop the First Order’s pursuit, nor keep the enemy ships from blasting resistance stragglers. This early instance is recreated often in the rest of the film, as courageous efforts are thwarted and glorious final stands are shown to only result in more death amongst dwindling resistance numbers. Dunkirk scooped the Last Jedi by six months, but both films share a theme of survival being its own kind of heroism.
The Last Jedi asserts its themes through action, but it also has a difficult time sustaining thematic consistency. Suicide missions are futile until they aren’t. Hundreds of lives are put at risk in furtherance of the theme, but consequences are in short supply. Johnson wants to both demonstrate that every life onscreen is valuable, as exemplified in a perfect final shot, but he also wants to have big explosions and keep ongoing characters from being irreparably marred in the eyes of the viewer. These goals are at cross purposes. Does a character deserve a hero shot or a fist-bump moment if they just needlessly endangered their allies’ lives? Johnson was only ever going to be able to push the franchise so far, and the half measure here doesn’t cut it.
As an action film, The Last Jedi is no slouch. Its setpieces are suitably operatic for a space opera. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin is gifted some amazing sets to work his magic on. Star Wars has often operated in monochromatic environments, and that’s true in Last Jedi as well. The stark red of Snoke’s throne room is far more striking than the beige of Tatooine, and a climax on a white sand desert pops with the red ore just beneath the surface. Within these environments and others, the characters are having Matrix Reloaded-style fights against goons with unique weaponry or engaging in riotous chases and escapes through a galactic casino. The Last Jedi is the longest of the eight Star Wars saga films, and that length is occasionally felt, but the long lead-ups to the big action scenes just makes the anticipation all the sweeter. The Last Jedi has its issues, but its rewatchability is high thanks to Johnson’s hand in steering the film from peak to peak.
Johnson’s made a daring film, an admirable adjective in a billion-dollar property where nostalgic safety is the norm. The Force Awakens was an undislikable, unchallenging froth, but it’s The Last Jedi that is aspirational, taking chances and daring to be unlikable to the franchise’s most obsessive fans. Yet another of the contradictory messages in the film is that children insist on miracles and adults change course. The latter isn’t really an option, as Disney churns out one annual Star Wars film in perpetuity, but Johnson is doing as much as is possible. He gives his corporate overlords the porgs, puffin-esque creatures on Luke’s island, as merchandise opportunities, but he sticks his finger in the collective eyes of anyone who just wants warming formula fed to them. Schaudenfreude shouldn’t be the feeling one leaves the theater with, especially when it’s as extratextual as it is here, but I can’t help it. The Last Jedi takes me out of the viewing experience, but damn, is it satisfying to not care about fan theories for once. B-