Movie Theory: Return to The Last Jedi

This weekend I watched The Last Jedi for only the second time – and the first since I originally saw it opening weekend in theaters. I’d stayed away from it because, well let’s face it, Star Wars discourse has gotten heavy over the last two years. I’d enjoyed the movie and for a bit was a hell-or-high water defender against the trolls. But eventually it wears you down and my enthusiasm for everything Star Wars diminished. I wrote posts on my initial feelings on The Last Jedi and about some of the harassment that Kelly Marie Tran faced last year.

But between The Mandalorian and Jedi: Fallen Order this year I’ve gotten the Star Wars bug again. So going into episode 9 I thought I’d refresh myself and rewatch The Last Jedi to see how I felt about it two years later. And I’m pleased to report that it’s still a good movie. In fact, it’s a great movie.

Let’s dig in, shall we? (Spoilers for The Last Jedi, obviously.)

So first things first: Paige Tico is the best character of The Last Jedi. Not to take anything away from Finn, Rey, Poe, Holdo, Rose, Leia, Kylo, Luke, and everyone else but the minute scene that Paige is in at the beginning is the most compelling part of the entire movie. Pilot of the last bomber left in the fleet, she sacrifices herself to make sure the bombs are dropped and the First Order’s Dreadnought is destroyed. Every second she is on screen she has determination, knows exactly what she has to do, and doesn’t waver at all.

It’s a fantastic way to start a movie that is about how the only heroes are dead ones, how sacrifices are meaningless if they’re done out of anger instead of love, and how everyone can screw up even if they mean well.

I hated Poe’s character arc the first time around, but on this watch I found it a perfect parallel to Finn’s arc. In Poe’s very first exchange with Leia he exclaims, “There were HEROES on that mission!” And then Leia replies: “Dead heroes.” Poe sees value in sacrifice; in fact, he feels sacrifice is necessary and thinks running away is a show of cowardice. A very macho, headstrong mentality that is befitting of a rock star pilot. He considers people who die for the cause heroes while Leia is there to point out to him that they’re only heroes because they’re dead.

On the opposite side, Finn is only concerned with saving himself (and Rey) from getting obliterated by the First Order. He doesn’t think he’s a hero but more importantly he doesn’t want to be a hero: especially Poe’s kind of hero. Rose sees him the same way Poe does: a coward and a traitor. But given an opportunity to help the Resistance, Finn ends up stepping up and going on the mission to Canto Bight (which I’ll get to in a minute) and learning something about himself along the way.

Finn and Poe start on opposite ends of the spectrum, and as they learn their respective lessons (Poe by seeing Holdo’s true plan, Finn by seeing the logical conclusion of never taking a side in DJ) they end up swapping extremes. In the climactic battle, Poe prioritizes keeping everyone safe over an all-out attack while Finn ignores orders and decides to be a Resistance “hero” and sacrifice himself to stop the battering ram.

Rose coming in and saving him is a pitch-perfect note to bring Finn back to a more sensible ground, and her message is actually great: fight not to destroy what you hate, but to save what you love. The kiss, though, is still out of nowhere and is still dumb.

Then in the ultimate denouement, Poe leads everyone into running away to make sure what’s left of the Resistance survives – the same act he was derisive towards earlier when Holdo was calling the shots. Both character’s arcs are quite perfect within the movie and explore two different sides of the masculinity coin.

Now let’s quickly talk about Canto Bight – it’s not that bad y’all. Everyone constantly brings up Canto Bight like it’s a Canto Blight on the movie. It’s always referenced as “not needed” and “filler.” But the sequence takes up something like ten minutes of the movie’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime. There’s three scenes: Rose and Finn looking for the man with the red flower. Rose and Finn meeting DJ in jail, and then the prison break. It’s not a drag on rewatch and goes by fairly quickly.

DJ’s character is very important for Finn’s learning that you can’t just stay neutral or fight for yourself. And while I still believe it would have been easier for them to have been searching for him in the first place (instead of some random high class dude), the fact is Canto Bight is not nearly as bad a sequence as people (including myself) have made it out to be in the years since.

Some of the random comedy did stick out to me though as it felt out-of-place. Some parts made it feel like Rian Johnson was going for a Marvel movie vibe with quips and visual gags. The iron gag in the First Order locker room felt like it was straight out of Spaceballs. The “put on hold” gag to open the movie makes Hux look like an idiot but feels really out of place still. And then there’s this rapid-fire conversation that Luke has with Rey (paraphrased):

Rey: I’m from nowhere.

Luke: Nobody’s from nowhere:

Rey: I’m from Jakku.

Luke: Okay, that’s pretty much nowhere.

All of these moments are funny – but it doesn’t feel right tonally. It’s like somebody took jokes from Thor: Ragnarok and tried to splice them into Captain America: Winter Soldier. Much like the alien escape sequence in The Force Awakens felt like a Men In Black skit, these moments of humor stood out as very Rian Johnson-esque humor (Knives Out was fantastic, by the way) but didn’t quite belong in the rest of the movie.

I love the little touches to the direction in Luke’s final showdown with Kylo: how the camera keeps panning to Kylo’s feet and showing how he’s making red footprints in the salt, but if you look closely Luke never makes any prints. And how his beard is clearly filled with less grey from the moment he steps into the base. It’s an absolutely baller heroic moment that Luke (and Mark Hamill) deserved, and I’m still upset they undercut it with Luke dying immediately afterwards.

But Luke’s death does fit in with the overlying theme of ‘heroes’ having to sacrifice themselves to become heroes, as well as the parallels of Light Side vs. Dark. Luke didn’t go out in anger or hatred; he didn’t go out fighting Kylo. He went out at peace, giving those people he cared about a chance to escape and live. He fought for who he loved, not against who he hated.

And that’s what the Force is about, right? Not giving into anger, hatred, fear. How anybody thinks that the messaging of The Last Jedi ruins Star Wars is beyond me.

Kylo Ren is still a fantastic asshole of a villain. Rey is still a bit of an overtuned D&D character and suffers from having the worst arc of the main characters because so much of her story this time revolves around things that end up being pointless: Kylo Ren’s redemption and her parents’ heritage. She goes from thinking Kylo can’t be saved to thinking he can be saved, only to realize okay, yeah, he can’t be saved. She learns a little bit about the Force from Luke but in general doesn’t really exit the movie in any place different than where she started.

While I’m sure what J.J. Abrams has in store for us with The Rise of Skywalker will be better than any trash Colin Trevorrow could make (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was trash don’t @ me) I’m still worried because my feelings towards Force Awakens still stand. I’m afraid Abrams will try to retread ground and give us Return of the Jedi Part 2 instead of a conclusion to THIS trilogy. There’s a lot he could do with where the story ended up after The Last Jedi. I’m hoping he chooses to go somewhere unique with it.

We’ll see I guess. But in the end, remember this: The Last Jedi is a great movie and probably my favorite movie of the series next to Return of the Jedi.