In the 20th episode of That 70s Show, the gang go to see Star Wars. They all love it, but Kelso (Ashton Kutcher) is instantly obsessed. Like a lot of people in the summer of ’77, he wants to see it repeatedly, makes constant references to it, and even turns down sex with Jackie (Mila Kunis) for just one more viewing. I was only 8 at the time and still a few years away from even imagining a choice like that! I can relate, though. I didn’t even want to see that film but my brother struck a deal with my parents to take me in exchange for a ride and ticket money. And after about 45 minutes of shenanigans that involved spilled popcorn and one of my famous uninvited tours of the projection room and janitor’s closet, I settled down in my seat. MIND. BLOWN. I became an instant evangelist for all things Skywalker. The excitement and simplicity of the film was a gateway drug into geekdom, opening up universes I could have only dreamed of. The next year brought me Superman. In ’79 I went to see Star Trek: The Motion Picture and LOVED it. The next six years was a cinematic smorgasbord of nerdgasms. But Star Wars! Man, I might have turned down the 80s equivalent of Mila Kunis just to have that exuberant feeling of seeing it for the first or tenth time!
Though the sequels were hits and misses, there was something redeemable in all of them. But don’t assume I think they were all great films. The prequel trilogy is garbage. Return of the Jedi devolved into a silly Muppet movie. The Force Awakens caused a wave of nostalgia that made us forget it was essentially a remake of the original. The Empire Strikes Back stands alone as a film that best portrays what the mood would really be like if an evil empire ran things (kinda like in America now!) The Last Jedi, though, falls short of Episodes 4, 5, 6, and 7. It contains a lot of things to cheer about but, overall, it has succumbed to the dreaded Marvel Cinematic Universe formula: It tries to be too damn funny.
It’s hard to review a beloved franchise fairly. Right now, The Last Jedi sits at 93% fresh on the much-maligned Rotten tomatoes. It’s undeserving of such a high rating and it appears some critics are giving it a pass based on their passion for George Lucas’s universe (yes, movie critics have biases like the rest of us, as evidenced by their adoration anything Marvel). The user rating, from armchair critics who may not be so invested in it or may be incredibly passionate about it as well, tells another tale. It currently rests at 58%. A rating that low isn’t quite fair, either, in my opinion. The truth, as some might say, lies in between.
So, once again the rebellion is in disarray. As the first quarter of the movie progresses, you might say the remnants of the old Republic are in their death throes. Still being lead by General Leia Organa, they’re evacuating their main base as a First Order fleet arrives. Poe Dameron undertakes a daring and effective counterattack that proves to be quite costly to the resistance fighters. In an attempt to escape, the Resistance vessels leap into hyperspace, but Supreme Leader Snoke and the First Order pursue them using a tracking device and unleash a deadly attack. TIE fighters destroy the bridge of the lead Resistance ship, killing most there. Leia, in what is easily one of the stupidest moments in the nine Star Wars movies, saves herself using the Force but becomes incapacitated. Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) takes command. Poe, Finn, BB-8, and mechanic Rose Tico, disapproving of Holdo’s passive strategy, hatch secret plan to disable the tracking device which eventually leads to mutiny.
Holdo seems to be an unnecessary addition to the cast, perhaps being added after the untimely death of Carrie Fisher. Some of her lines seem to have been written for Leia, and the whole sequence of Leia’s injuries, Holo’s ascendence, and Leia’s return just seem disjointed.
Meanwhile Rey, Chewbacca, and R2D2 have arrived on Ahch-To convince Luke Skywalker to rejoin the resistance and teach Rey the ways of the force. Luke has become a bitter old man and refuses to have much to do with Rey until he realizes how powerful she is. Luke finally agrees to teach Rey after confronting his demons in regards to Kylo Ren.
Much of the movie deals with the relationship Rey and Ren have (sounds like twins, huh?) Each try desperately to win the other over to their side of the Force. Once scene that stands out is the two taking out Snoke’s henchmen in a lightsabre battle that rivals the finest performances on Dancing with the Stars. In victory, they both arrive at different conclusions about their actions. She believes she’s turned him to the light. He believes she’s joined him in overthrowing Snoke so that they can rule together. Kylo, of course, has not turned.
With the rebels in an abandoned base on some far flung planet and the Fist Order in pursuit, Luke finally appears to give the audience what we’ve been demanding – a lightsabre duel. This set up a sequence I’m conflicted about. While Skywalker’s strategy is brilliant, the eventuality of it isn’t very satisfying
As is expected, The Last Jedi has top notch special effects, but the amazing action scenes shouldn’t fool anyone into believing the work as a whole is very compelling. The pod race in The Phantom Menace was stressed back in ’99 to get butts in seats but it didn’t save that film. Here, though, director Rian Johnson doesn’t rely on just one thrilling scene, but rather, a host of them to them to liven up the film.
Overall, the film’s saving grace is t’s treatment of women characters. Ironically, this might make it a harder sell in the male-dominated geek community, if some of their reactions to Wonder Woman are any indication. While Princess Leia may have been the first strong female character most of us saw in a genre movie (and she doesn’t disappoint here), the Last Jedi takes a full-throated approach to feminism with characters that are well developed and redefining. Rey, our hero, is a complicated woman with an internal struggle over her place in all the chaos. She’s drawn to the Dark side, actually sympathizing with Kylo Ren, but retains her optimism, setting up a internal good girl/bad girl struggle. She’s the epitome of the wild woman archetype Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote about in her 1992 book Women Who Run With The Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype, having a dual nature, the feminine and the wild side. And, unfortunately, we’re no closer to finding out who her parents really are. Sure, we’re given a totally unbelievable answer in her confrontation with Kylo Ren but don’t believe it for a second.
Even though she feels shoehorned into the movie, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo is another strong and complicated female character. She has a plan to ensure victory for the resistance even though her male underlings have little faith in it. This sets up a timely dynamic, wrought with gender and office politics. The one scene where she dresses down Poe might be particularly uncomfortable to men who’ve never had a female boss. Most of us watching realizes he deserves it, though.
Then, of course, there’s Leia. Thank Darwin Carrie Fisher shot these scenes before her untimely death because her performance (aside from that really stupid scene I mentioned earlier) is the glue that holds this film together. It may sound cliche to say she refuses to let any man define her, but that description is spot on. She’s a leader and a mother and a badass and we’re fortunate to be in an age of film where at least an effort is being made to finally put women on equal footing with men.
Sorry, true believers. As much as I love Star Wars, I can’t give it a better than an average review. I think the cast and crew probably agrees. Daisy Ridley has revealed cried when she found out J.J. Abrams was returning to the Star Wars director’s chair. After the fine job he did with both the Star Wars and Star Trek reboots, I must admit I became emotional at the news, too.