I expected to like The Last Jedi, just as I'd liked The Force Awakens. But I wasn't prepared for how much I'd love it and how good it would feel to be surprised.
I first saw Star Wars at the drive-in, marveling at the shiny white Stormtroopers and blazing lightsabers as a four year old, from the back of the family station wagon. I saw the next two installments in the theater, more than once. I had many of the toys.
I went to see Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace seven times in the theater, paying full price each time. Immediately following the conclusion of the first press screening for Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, I pleaded with a Fox publicist to allow my brother and I to stay for the next screening scheduled two hours later (she said yes). I preach the gospel of the excellent Clone Wars series to anyone who will listen.
I commissioned an artist friend to paint Ahsoka Tano's showdown with Darth Vader from Star Wars Rebels, which hangs in my daughter's room. I buy the comics, the toys. I loved Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I was able to see it at the premiere, my first ever Star Wars premiere, and raved about it afterward. Interestingly, I didn't watch it again for an entire year. I liked The Force Awakens. I've only seen it once.
Walking out of the Shrine in downtown Los Angeles after The Last Jedi premiere, I felt a new and different type of excitement about Star Wars than I'd anticipated.
In Jedi like contemplation, I wondered why, given that The Force Awakens is so clearly superior to George Lucas' much maligned prequels by just about every measure imaginable, from the acting to the storytelling to the very "feel" of it all. Sure, the number of years between the close of the first trilogy and the start of the second had been longer than the gap between Revenge of the Sith and the Disney run re-launch. But why didn't I hunger for Force Awakens like I had Phantom Menace?
Then it hit me. I wanted to see the Duel of the Fates over and over. I wanted the fall of the Jedi, Order 66, Anakin's duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi, again. I liked The Force Awakens, I appreciated its reverence for so much of what made the original movies special, but I haven't needed to see any of it again, because nothing really happens.
Yes, Han Solo dies. What could have been more inevitable about a seventh chapter in the Star Wars saga? Harrison Ford has said, for years, that he begged Lucas to kill his character in the original trilogy. He's been famously curmudgeonly about Star Wars (which also dates back a number of years, including the press circuit for The Empire Strikes Back, a movie plenty of fans and critics dismissed, now revered not only as the best Star Wars movie ever, but the gold standard for what a "Part 2" can do).
After Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm, I asked Ford whether it would take the death of Han Solo to bring him back. He wasn't giving anybody more than "no comment" that day at the Four Seasons, but my angle on the question elicited his wry smile. Not only was the death of Han Solo predictable, but the way it happened was almost unforgivably tired, copied as it was from the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi in 1977, right down to the setting, and the latest proto-Jedi prodigy helplessly watching from afar.
I liked Rey (a lot), Kylo Ren, Poe Dameron, Finn. But nothing happens in The Force Awakens. No matter how good it looked, how great it felt, it was all things we'd seen before. Anything "new" was really just the dreaded mystery box that's become something of a JJ Abrams signature. Set up some "mystery" and work backwards from there, rather than prioritizing a satisfying conclusion first, mystique second.
I knew that Disney had put the next installment of the Star Wars saga in capable hands. I've been a Rian Johnson fan ever since I watched Brick, which happened to be the very first movie I ever ordered from Netflix, back in the snail mail DVD days. But I didn't expect to The Last Jedi to do anything more than advance the story in incremental steps, giving us just enough to get us back in our seats for Episode IX.
This is why I was so surprised and so delighted when The Last Jedi took the mystery box and threw it off a fucking cliff, much the way Luke tossed his father's lightsaber.
In an interview posted shortly before the film's release, Mark Hamill answered a fantastic question posed by Slash Film's Peter Sciretta, one I'm surprised I hadn't seen him asked before. What was the direction Abrams gave him for that pivotal closing shot in The Force Awakens, when Rey extends that lightsaber on Ahch-To?
Nothing! "He didn't come to me and say, okay, look, I want you to do X, Y, or Z." So Hamill gave Abrams "a range of reactions" to choose from instead. Luke is full of doubt looking at Rey; Luke is angry; Luke is bewildered; and so forth. This answer says everything I felt in the weeks and months after seeing The Force Awakens: JJ Abrams had no real idea what Luke was doing on that island. Like the "mystery" of Snoke, or Rey's parents, he simply kicked the can down the road to the next director.
This is what made all of the (well-intentioned) obsession and theorizing over these questions mildly infuriating to me. It seemed a waste of effort, to me, to try to parse meaning and sift for "clues" in The Force Awakens because I'm convinced there was no "there" there. It was mystery for its own sake, from Rey to the "Supreme Leader."
While its flaws are exposed even more in the cold light of Ahch-To's twin suns, The Force Awakens is made a better movie by The Last Jedi (as are the prequels in many ways, but that's probably a whole other essay). Johnson takes the new trilogy's new heroes, their strengths roughly sketched by Abrams and his incredible cast, and builds them into true Star Wars icons that elevate the whole saga rather than merely sustain it. The Force Awakens spun its wheels. The Last Jedi is pure Force levitation.
The Last Jedi feels like Star Wars but with freshness I didn't even realize I needed.
The "updates" we got in the last one were cowardly (oh, wow, C3PO has a red arm! I can't wait to chase down the comic where that super cool detail is explained!). I understand why the powers that be were apprehensive. After the reception to the prequels (which, mind you, were all huge commercial smashes, regardless), I get the need to re-center people with something that felt as "Star Wars"-ish as possible. But I'm with Lucas when he says his new trilogy would have been simply "what happens next," as opposed to the reset we got, which improbably put Han Solo right back where he was in Empire Strikes Back and for that matter, reverted the entire galaxy.
JJ Abrams barely wanted to take his Star Wars toys out of the plastic. Rian Johnson gets his Star Wars toys nice and dirty; he even breaks them if it's good for the story.
That toss of the lightsaber elicited an audible "Whoa!" (or something like it) from me at the premiere, followed by a laugh that I realized later was one of pure joyous relief. I wasn't alone in that kind of laugh, either. It was a clear indication that the mystery box, the fan theories, none of it mattered as much as making a great movie. The Last Jedi promised, from that moment forward, to be a true ride and it delivered.
The movie opens with a space battle (no surprise there) but it's shot with the documentary style action flair of the Battlestar Galactica reboot (fair, given the original Battlestar was itself a Star Wars clone; this isn't the first time the favor has been returned, as The Clone Wars series also paid respectful homage to the newer BSG). The fight is hilarious, it's reckless and then suddenly, it's full of actual stakes.
The lightsaber toss; Snoke's dismissal of Kylo Ren as a preening wannabe Vader (and Kylo's fantastic subsequent smashing of his helmet, another welcome surprise); the "revelation" that Rey's parents were nobody; the sudden surprise death of Snoke, which not only silenced the pointless questions about which Star Wars character he may have secretly been, but threw the new trilogy into an exciting chaos where the end goal is no longer winning Ben Solo back from his master. Kylo Ren is now the evil boss and he's shown determination to stay evil!
The throne room scene is my favorite sequence in The Last Jedi. The shock of Snoke's death, the way it's handled, the back and forth between Rey and Ren and the way they team up to defeat a small army of bad guys in a modern, visceral, and heavily anchored-to-some-kind-of-action-reality fight worthy of great martial arts movies, it's all so killer. Only my shock prevented me from standing up to cheer.
Mark Hamill has never been better as Luke Skywalker. The skills he's developed doing other things in other mediums are wielded as weapons in his acting arsenal.
Adam Driver gives Kylo Ren a rich complexity Return of the Jedi spent a long time telling us Darth Vader had but which we really had to fill in with our imaginations. (As I typed that, I realized the even greater genius to the destruction of his mask.)
Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac are as charismatic and watchable as ever. Domhall Gleeson makes something admirable out of what could have been a thankless role as First Order comic relief, foiled continuously whenever we see him. Star Wars newcomers Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, and Benicio del Toro are no less capable, all of them delivering performances that spark without being showy.
No disrespect to Gwendoline Chrisie, but I put "Captain Phasma" in that C3PO's red arm category. Ooh, let's get all excited about this Stormtrooper because she's chrome and she has a name! Nevermind the complete lack of character development or action. (Don't talk to me about Phasma as Boba Fett; we already have a Boba Fett). I absolutely love that The Last Jedi tosses Captain Phasma into a fucking fire.
I didn't realize until The Last Jedi just how much The Force had been neutered. The fans and the material put boundaries on it much the way that a religious organization will eventually codify and contextualize every supernatural moment that inspires any vibrant faith. Ahch-To kicks off some heavy nods to the multitude of worthy philosophies and cinema, to say nothing of the much talked about serials, which first inspired Lucas. There's even some trippy Jodoworsky-style stuff.
The Force is alive, new, and bigger than ever before in The Last Jedi, more like the best of the sincere faith traditions here on Earth, and less like a weapon or a superpower. The updates to Force sensitive abilities, from the brilliant and intimate conversational "Space Skype" used by Rey and Ren, to Luke's climactic astral projection, to Yoda's Force Ghost calling down of thunder, all feel earned. The new things we see for the fist time here work well with the things we've seen before.
Like the director duo behind Captain America: The First Avenger and Civil War, Johnson found a way to put his personal stamp on something while staying mindful of the needs of the multiple moving parts of a franchise (and fandom) this size. It's a style of filmmaking that clearly isn't for everybody, as we've seen with the struggles behind other Star Wars movies (and with Johnson's pal Edgar Wright, who cameos).
I appreciated seeing Jimmy Smits in Rogue One as it felt like a courageous move for the franchise after The Force Awakens all but ignored everything about the prequels. In a similar fashion, I loved hearing Luke Skywalker use the phrase "Darth Sidious" in The Last Jedi. It's the first time we've heard that in a movie outside of the prequels. It also happens to be in the context of a scene where Luke bemoans the foolish arrogance of the Jedi Order, unevenly depicted in the prequels, in service of the larger Star Wars story and in a moment of revelation about Luke's state of mind.
I'm not saying this because I love the prequels; I'm saying this because Star Wars does need to look backward in order to move forward and Johnson understands this in a way that had not been attempted by any film since Return of the Jedi. Like the Bendu of Star Wars Rebels, Johnson understands that both the good and the bad of Star Wars are necessary for the whole picture, just like the Jedi needs the Sith.
By George, it turns out Rian Johnson was the one to bring balance to the Force!
The Last Jedi isn't perfect. I enjoyed the brisk comedic elements but I understand why some fans felt they were too much. I could do without the casino planet, which felt like the worst of the prequels (goofy, weightless; seriously, "parking violations"?!) but I enjoyed all of the characters in that subplot, as well as the overall populist message about the Force and society it broadcasts, that I'm OK with it. No Star Wars movie is perfect. The Force Awakens worked so self-consciously hard at being a perfect Star Wars movie, so enthralled by the magic, that it wasn't magical.
Part of what makes The Last Jedi so great is that it's so messy. Return of the Jedi is messy. The Empire Strikes Back is messy. The movie Star Wars, from 1977, is messy.
Case in point: the scene I call "Avengers Leia" is a tough one. I love Carrie Fisher and General Leia and I'm all about the expansion of what's possible with the Force. I'm conflicted on this one; I think repeat viewings will determine how I really feel here.
Which brings me back to the most important thing about The Last Jedi for me.
I can't wait to see it again.
Follow Ryan J. Downey on Twitter: @ryandowney