Surprise: The Last Jedi!

My wife wanted to go out for dinner and drinks tonight to start her birthday off early. I got off from my day job early, having worked a couple longer days this week, and was happy to oblige. One thing led to another, and in the spirit of drinking and procrastination, we ended up buying last-minute tickets to an evening showing of The Last Jedi.

I just got home from that showing. I really liked the movie, mostly. Let’s put it this way: I’m still really excited to go back and see it again a second time on Sunday in IMAX. And this is maybe the first Star Wars film where I left actually thinking–not just gushing over favorite moments or characters, but thinking about its themes and its structure and what it means for the larger storytelling universe these films inhabit.

I was really on board with so much of this film. New characters and old, plot beats, the jokes, the emotional moments. I was perched on the edge of my seat for most of the film, but I laughed, gasped, shouted in surprise and excitement, and even cried. I cry fairly easily in movies, but I don’t typically cry at a Star Wars film. Yes, the instances involved Leia; no, while Carrie Fisher’s death was of course in the back of my mind, it was not real-world tragedy that primarily motivated my emotional reaction.

This film exhibited excellent storytelling and interesting world-building. What I was surprised by, though, is that this movie was not as weird as the reviews and initial fan reactions had led me to believe. The Brothers Bloom is the only other Rian Johnson film I’ve seen, and that was good, and it was weird. The Last Jedi was weird, but in the way that Star Wars can be weird. I’m not going to broadcast spoilers this early on, but nothing seemed more than a mild evolution of what had come before. Compared to the old Expanded Universe, this new-canon Star Wars still remains fairly tame, especially in regards to the Force and the fundamental mythologies. But the film took risks–and it was unpredictable.

That unpredictability was refreshing. As a young child in the nineties, Star Wars was saturated into my identity from an early age. Those films were not as befuddling or wild or weird or un-guessable as they would have been to the original generation of viewers. And the prequels, as much as they went off on weird tangents and took the Jedi and the nature of the Force (and, for that matter, the boy Anakin) in somewhat unexpected directions, were fundamentally familiar and expected because we knew where they had to end. But I was glued to the screen during The Last Jedi, left grasping at straws, not just because of the zigs and zags of a conventional action thriller but because it made choices–early and constantly–that I would have never expected it to make. Rather permanent choices, choices that made me genuinely concerned for the entire cast in ways I am not normally when viewing this franchise. At the same time, it’s striking in retrospect how many plot beats line up with The Empire Strikes Back, though it feels more than a simple remix.

Star Wars was perhaps revitalized by The Force Awakens, but it has been allowed to grow and evolve thanks to Rian Johnson and The Last Jedi. And I think Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill all turned in performances that topped their other work in the franchise; Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico and Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo were great new additions, as well.

I haven’t said much about the film’s themes, and I might in the future. For now, I’d point out that the importance of hope is at this point old hat for Star Wars, but I appreciated it. It never felt as cheesy as using a literal star’s dying light as an explicit symbol for hope (looking at you, The Force Awakens). More interesting was seeing a Star Wars film that commented on class disparity and that made a point to have a non-Force-user articulate a clear and admirable moral stand: we should fight for something, not just against something (yes, yes, the fact that we aren’t told exactly what we should be fighting for, other than some vague concepts about freedom and equality, means that Star Wars remains open to most political interpretations, at least with some mild stretching and coaxing).

My biggest criticism with this film, after viewing number one, is that the ending felt abrupt. There are cliffhangers, and then there is a sudden ending. Rather than leaving any major dangling plot elements, it sort of felt like the film stopped where there should perhaps have been a final act. It felt incredibly sudden to me (even with the longest run-time of any Star Wars film). Previous middle acts The Empire Strikes Back and Attack of the Clones had more obvious conclusions, at least tonally, even though they left viewers at a low point without a final resolution. And the very final scene in this new film was…weird, obviously meant to suggest an eternally burning and inspirational hope but perversely suggesting a never-ending round of bloody conflicts.

I suppose I should not have been so surprised. The Brothers Bloom wrapped quickly and ended suddenly after an elaborate development over the first two-thirds of the film, too. It’s a jarring experience, and that suddenness invites immediate reflection. I’m thinking a lot about The Last Jedi, and it’s not just warm fuzzies and funny one-liners. I’m reflecting on what Star Wars means and what it actually has to say about the world. I’m thinking about where the story can go next, and not just fantasizing but wondering what those new stories might mean. It’s easy to say that Star Wars is just dumb popcorn entertainment, but The Last Jedi seems to say that it doesn’t have to be. I don’t think The Last Jedi will ever be my favorite Star Wars film, but it will certainly be one of the most significant for me.

I could say more. I probably will say more. But that’s probably all until my second viewing.

P.S. On a final note, it’s weird how much the writers of Eleven-ThirtyEight seemed to get right in musing about the direction of the new film and the franchise as a whole, at least thematically. Those are some smart cookies over there. If you haven’t already, you should check that site out.

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