(Man that title was a mouthful! Also: spoilers.)
After the shameless remake of Star Wars (1977, aka Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope) that was Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, aka Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens), which came roaring into theaters with a bad aftertaste of manufactured PR, the newest installment offers the world an action-packed, technically excellent, mythically present, humorous, and (never thought I’d say this of a Star Wars film) thematically radical entry in the four-decade-old original space opera saga.
. . . At least, that’s how I thought I’d be starting this review as I was walking out of the cinema. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017, aka Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi) is a great film, but is it a great film? Is that even a fair question to ask of just one-eighth of an epoch-making tour de force of imaginative world-creation and archetype-wielding narration? In other words, how fair can you (or I) consider this review to be, given that merely reading the opening crawl had me in tears, and that I’d been following the YouTube press tour so closely that I kept thinking of the on-screen characters by the name of their actors (Vice Admiral who?)?
Richard Brody, arthouse champion and bugbear of the popular cinema, calls this film “an elaborate feat of fan service,” and he’s not wrong—even the newfound humor just reveals it to have gone all-out Marvel. He’s not alone: Matt Zoller Seitz, in his masterful review at the Roger Ebert website, also mentions fan expectations and makes a Marvel reference. (Editor’s note: So it’s ironic that, apparently, half of fandom hates its guts.) The bigger question, though, is where you would find someone who cares about this eighth out of nine (and possibly twelve) films who isn’t a fan? A similar question hovers over Brody’s conclusion that, in its militaristic upholding of the virtues of hope, freedom, and resistance, the film is formally closer to the fascist New Order. Again, right on the money, but as revolutionary theorists from Lenin to Badiou have pointed out, rebellions against authoritarian (or monarchical) dictators prevail in the face of long odds primarily on the basis of their discipline and conviction. Dunno if that’s a contradiction, but it’s history.
So the film is ineluctably constrained by its genre and universe conventions, and so plot-centric that I kept waiting for the inevitable cliffhanger ending à la The Empire Strikes Back (1980, aka Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back). Also, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) kills Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) using Occlumency (prove me wrong, I dare you). But the film fills up all the available space within these boundaries—and even breaks through a couple times. Brody mentions the mirror scene and Carrie Fisher’s performance (perhaps out of respect for her, he skips over the part where the shot composition of Leia’s return to the carrier first resembles Superman in space absorbing the rays of the sun, before quickly devolving into a 2D platform shooter).
The biggest, bravest, and most radical thing the film does, though, is that it embodies the lesson that Yoda (Frank Oz) imparts to Luke (Mark Hamill): embrace failure. The entire film is premised on a retreat—Dunkirk in space, if you will—and of all the schemes and plans and subplots and side-missions that are played out, the only one that succeeds is Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) bringing Luke back into the fight. Kylo Ren is still on the Dark side, Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) are captured and betrayed by Benicio del Toro (what’s his character’s name again?), no Resistance bases are left standing, the only ship still spaceworthy is the Millennium Falcon, which wasn’t part of the Resistance convoy to begin with, and even Luke enters a higher realm (read: dies) at the end. And we don’t even have Carrie Fisher anymore. All of this just adds ladles of emotion to the final line: Having lost so much, Leia consoles Rey by assuring her, “We have everything we need.” Camera pull upward.
Though, for my money, the absolute hands-down best line in the film is when Luke guides Rey to truly understand the force for the first time, and he asks her, “In between [everything], what do you feel?” and she says, “I feel . . . a force.” It’s A New Hope all over again.