The Franchise Strikes Back In 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'
By Andrea Thompson
The burden that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” faces is a heavy one indeed. “The Force Awakens” gave the series a much-needed boost, but it did so mostly by banking on nostalgia. Now that intros (reintros?) are over, fans are expecting “The Last Jedi” to not only live up to the hype of its predecessor, but the reputation of one of the greatest sequels in existence, “The Empire Strikes Back.” And it must not only do this in a wholly original way, but in a fashion that does justice to both the new characters and the old, especially since the late great Carrie Fisher has passed. The film is dedicated to her, and indeed, she was such a vital presence that I almost forgot she was longer with us. RIP.
It seems like an impossible task, but shockingly, “Jedi” does do Fisher justice, and it mostly does the same for others in a story bursting at the seams with characters fans have become deeply invested in. Unfortunately for them, things have gotten worse, with the First Order gaining more ground and the leaders of the Republic becoming rebel underdogs once again. But just as evil can be counted on to rise again, our heroes are also back to stop it, with Poe (Oscar Isaac) setting the tone much as he did in “Force Awakens,” as the skillfully reckless fighter pilot gleefully trolls Domhnall Gleeson's General Hux while he almost single-handedly takes down one of his Star Destroyers. Finn (John Boyega) has also regained consciousness and his determination to fight the First Order. He and Rey (Daisy Ridley) may spend most of their time apart here, but their connection remains strong as Finn embarks on his own mission to preserve the resistance so Rey will have something to return to.
Speaking of which, Rey has her hands full trying to convince Luke (Mark Hamill) to grow a pair and not only train her in the ways of the Force, but join the fight against the First Order. He has become a broken, bitter man, so consumed by his failure with his nephew Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) that he's convinced the Jedi need to end. Far from finding another mentor, Rey soon finds herself more isolated than ever, frustrated at the lack of answers about her parentage, the death of the father figure she found in Han, and Luke's disinterest in providing her with any real guidance in developing her burgeoning abilities. This loneliness leads her to form a greater bond with the conflicted Kylo Ren, and Rey becomes so convinced he can be saved that she journeys into enemy territory to try to bring him back to the light.
Rey is warned that this won't turn out the way she thinks, but the surprising thing is how almost nothing in “The Last Jedi” does. Various characters go on missions, and they take turns into unexpected territory more concerned with exploring emotional arcs in action-packed settings rather than fulfilling many of the usual tried-and true genre expectations. The film also gives us an even more diverse cast of characters to bring new life to this story, and long gone are the days when Leia was the only woman in the universe. The women get to kick ass and take names, with Laura Dern in particular not only more than proving she can more than hold her own with Fisher, but also giving us one of the movie's best moments.
However, you can get too much of a good thing. While “The Last Jedi” does blend action with character development well, its breakneck speed leaves little time to really build some of the other components that made “Star Wars” the epic phenomenon it is. The most vital piece is a villain that truly feels dangerous. Darth Vader was a formidable foe whose backstory also made him a genuinely tragic figure who earned our sympathy as much as our fear. Kylo Ren is compelling, but the movie spends so much time building up his emotional conflict it robs him of much of his potential for destruction.
The speed at which the story flows also means it makes little sense that the Republic would be driven to desperation so quickly. It also makes the characterization of Rey more problematic. She is not a Mary Sue as some have insisted, but it does ring somewhat false that she would suddenly have abilities that every other Jedi in the series took years to develop. Nor does the Dark Side present any real temptation for Rey. In his past encounters with Darth Vader, Luke experienced a genuine conflict as he tried to rise above his passions and overcome his anger and fear. But there is little doubt that Rey will always remain on the side of good.
In this case however, it doesn't dampen the joy inherent in watching Ridley bring this character to life. Rey is still a heroine for our times, one who's impossible for us to not get invested in, made all the more delightful by the fact that she's going down a path once only reserved for men. Her journey transcends its flaws, and that means the movie does as well. And in a time when many of our most idealistic franchises are going dark, the fact that “Star Wars” is still able to make a case for optimism and hope feels like a breath of fresh air.