Star Wars: The Last Jedi ★★★★★

So yes, long-lost Letterboxd friends, as you've correctly guessed, I am indeed on another one of my writing hiatuses these days, this one inspired by the busy holiday season; but I'll be back to the daily updates again come the new year, when I'll not only be quickly getting caught up with the 20 or so outstanding reviews I still need to write, but also finally publishing the 300-page paperback book version of all my 2017 scavenger hunt writeups (but more on that next month). I thought today, though, I would break my writing fast and devote this Sunday morning to a look at the latest Star Wars film, because of seeing it last night and being absolutely blown away by it, and wanting to get my review of it posted here on opening weekend while interest in the film is still high.

As regular readers know, this is an unusual reaction for me to have towards one of the new Star Wars films -- I was ambivalent at best about JJ Abrams' "It's A Remake But Not REALLY A Remake Tee Hee" The Force Awakens, and while I thought Rogue One was a step up from that, it still didn't even begin to capture the excitement I felt as a kid when watching the original trilogy in the late 1970s and early '80s, and I had resigned myself at that point to the idea that the new series was simply not made for me but rather my generation's children, and that as a middle-aged adult it was simply going to be impossible for me to approach these new films without a critical eye towards all the faults I can now clearly see in the writing and characterizations.

And indeed, I'm glad now that I accidentally came across that New York Times interview with writer/director Rian Johnson that got published a few weeks before the movie's premiere, in which he confessed that he had been given the unprecedented freedom to write the entire script from scratch by himself with absolutely no studio notes at all, not even "this and this needs to happen for the sake of the canon" edicts; because when actually watching The Last Jedi, it quickly becomes clear that the greatest thing about it is that Johnson clearly had the same complaints about the new series that I have, and that he was given the power to "course-correct" a lot of it for the better.

There are numerous small examples of this throughout the movie -- just for one great early example, the fact that he gets rid of Kylo Ren's stupid Darth Vader ripoff helmet right in the second scene, and even gives big baddie Snoke a plausible speech for doing so that sounds literally like a fanboy's screed from a Star Wars Reddit board ("Worst! Vader! Impression! Ever!!!"). But perhaps the most profound example of this course-correction is the acknowledgement that lays at the heart of this film's unexpected gravitas, and once again a fact about this franchise that's always bothered me; that for being this kickass, unbeatable, sometimes literally godlike warrior race, it sure is suspicious that the Jedi Order was once beaten back to near-genocide, all from one dude in a black robe with a hair up his ass about wanting to be supreme leader of the entire universe...and then once they finally did defeat him, not even thirty years later they somehow allowed the whole thing to happen all over again in an almost identical fashion.

To have Luke Skywalker just flat-out admit this franchise flaw in the middle of The Last Jedi is an amazing sign of Johnson's genius-like writing skills; because not only does he acknowledge the reboot series' greatest weakness by doing so (basically the film itself acknowledging, "Yep, it's true, JJ Abrams isn't nearly as good a storyteller as we all used to think he was"), he actually uses this weakness as a powerful catalyst for angst and philosophical musings. As I'm sure many will be agreeing with me about over the coming weeks and months, this is where The Last Jedi really shines, with the dark and surprisingly moving black pit of doubt and failure that Skywalker is wallowing in as we enter this film, a sense not only that he has let down the universe but that all the Jedis have, a misguided case of hero worship for a group that collapsed under the weight of its own self-satisfied hubris, and therefore good riddance to bad rubbish.

It's this existential angst that infuses all the other conflicts in this story -- Rey's feelings about her unknown parents, Kylo's sense of betrayal from the Jedi Order, the two's surprise psychic connection and their confusion over what that means, the virtual collapse of the Rebel Alliance at the moment they most needed help from their allies, and on and on and on. And while I'll let the film's eventual resolution to this central "Jedi angst" remain a surprise, certainly one of the greatest things about it is that it provides Johnson with yet another opportunity to course-correct something idiotic that George Lucas did to the franchise in the '90s; namely, after spending the entire first trilogy establishing the Force and the Jedis as this sort of mystical combination of Buddhism and kung-fu that basically anyone can learn if they study hard enough, in the prequels he turns the entire subject into this Calvinist pre-determination bullshit about midichlorians and blood tests and how a person is simply either "born to be a Jedi" or born not to be one.

Like so much else concerning the prequels, that sucked all the fun and wonder out of the entire concept of the Force and Jediism; but Johnson's imaginative re-purposing of the subject inserts all the old wonder back in, recapturing that special magical feeling about the Force that I haven't felt since I was a preteen and watching the original trilogy in the theater for the first time. And this is not to mention Johnson inventing an entirely new Jedi power that none of us had ever realized existed, and presenting it in this believable way that makes it seem that only the most brilliant of veteran Jedi masters can pull it off, thus making it narratively plausible why we've never seen a single Jedi in the entire franchise do it before now. That's impressive, as is a number of other similar examples he pulls off of introducing brand-new elements to this 40-year-old franchise that feel earned instead of forced; and that's why part 8 feels so miles ahead from Abrams' part 7, which with every passing year is more and more clearly looking like he simply took all the details from the original trilogy, shook them up in a bag, then pulled them out randomly one piece at a time and rearranged them in a new order.

And before I wrap up, I think it's important to acknowledge yet another fascinating new thing about this contemporary trilogy, which is that The Last Jedi is the most nakedly blatant example yet of a growing trend not only among Star Wars films but among the creative community in general here in the late 2010s; the growing realization that the great global conflict in our society these days is not Rich versus Poor, or Nation versus Nation, or Liberal versus Conservative, but rather White Males versus Everyone Else On The Planet Who Isn't A White Male. This was something Abrams was already starting to weave into the Star Wars universe with part 7, but Johnson takes the symbolism and pushes it so hard in part 8 that it can no longer be ignored; virtually every single protagonist in The Last Jedi is someone besides a white male (the closest they get, rakish fighter pilot Poe Dameron, is actually played by Guatemalan actor Oscar Isaac, making him technically a light-skinned person of color), while virtually every single villain is a pasty northern-European white male, with it being especially telling that our first non-holographic look here at big baddie Snoke is an exaggerated yet scarily accurate portrayal of one of those nonagenarian white male billionaire corporate executives like Summer Redstone or David Rockfeller. (And this is to say nothing of the entire subplot in The Last Jedi about the Monaco-looking casino for the 1-percenters that is fueled off the blood and sweat of their southeast-Asian slaves; talk about hitting a metaphor smack-dab on the nose.)

Here at the end of this unsettlingly revelatory "All White Males Are Rapist Monsters" 2017, you can expect this "Us vs. Them" symbolism to start creeping into a whole lot more movies and television shows in 2018 and beyond; that's just one of the ways that this newest Star Wars trilogy is both its own contemporary thing while also being a nod to its franchise past, with Johnson doing an especially good job at balancing out these elements into not just a pleasing whole but a thought-provoking, philosophically rich and emotionally moving one. After coming to an inner peace a few years ago with the idea that no Star Wars film will ever again thrill me the way the original trilogy did as a kid, here out of the blue comes The Last Jedi which did exactly that; as a result, it makes it no surprise that people are going even crazier for this one than the previous two they were already going crazy for, and you owe it to yourself if you never have before to go back and look at Johnson's earlier, weirder work like Brick and Looper. For the first time ever as an adult, I can honestly say that I'm looking forward to the next episode of the series; and if the creative team behind this trillion-dollar franchise has any smarts at all, they'll lock in Johnson now for many more sequels to come.

Jason Pettus liked these reviews