A long time ago, Luke Skywalker was once the galaxy’s bright, new hope.
“I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father,” he told Obi-Wan Kenobi then, still in the shadow of his burned-out hull of a home on Tatooine.
He was young then—full of energy and optimism that served him well. He became that Jedi and, in the process, a galactic savior. He blew up a Death Star. He helped to literally overthrow the Emperor—and in so doing brought his own, twisted father back into the Light Side, the right side of the Force.
But no victory is final. Not in this temporal universe, anyway. The First Order has picked up the shards of the old Empire and pieced them together to form a misshapen successor, and its leaders are equally scarred. Supreme Leader Snoke looks like someone took a cleaver to his face—his horrifically disfigured visage mirroring the ugliness of his own soul. His young acolyte, Kylo Ren, bears a new scar of his own, earned at the hands of Luke’s spiritual successor, Rey. He’s no Vader, this Kylo. Not yet. But in his own way he’s more frightening. He rages like a forest fire, burning everything in his wake.
Once again, the galaxy’s good is marginalized to a ragtag band of rebels, the Resistance, pushed to the brink of extinction by Snoke’s ruthless march and Kylo’s raging temper. Once again, a few would-be heroes stand in the breach, hoping to return the galaxy to a brighter path of possibility: Poe, the headstrong X-Wing pilot; Finn, the one-time Stormtrooper gone good; Rey, the scrapper who finds the Force is strong with her. So strong that it frightens her.
But this new rebellion is pitifully small, growing smaller with each battle. They need help.
They, along with General Leia Organa, again turn their eyes toward Luke Skywalker, now a galactic recluse. Rey lands near his island home to implore the galactic legend to again join them—to reclaim his birthright as their once-and-future hero. Help us, Luke, they say in so many words. You’re our only hope.
But Luke—once idealistic, impetuous—hesitates. He, like Snoke, like Kylo, like his father before him, has suffered his own wounds. He, too, is scarred. He’s seen the Dark Side of the Force … even in the Light.
“It’s time for the Jedi to end,” he says.
The galaxy’s one-time “new hope” is old now, and he’s lost his. It remains to be seen whether anyone can rekindle it.
The Last Jedi offers us plenty of strong messages—even if those messages seem, at times, to be a bit inconsistent with one another.
For instance: Most everyone we meet on the “good side” of this conflict are inherently ready to sacrifice themselves for their worthy cause, and some indeed pay the ultimate price. But when one character prepares to do the same—charging into a situation that’ll mean certain death—another character rides in to prevent that sacrifice, telling him that that’s what this conflict is about: “Saving what we love.”
Our heroes look to the needs of the oppressed and abused (upending the workings of a posh gaming casino while they’re at it). They hold true to their values, even when some more pragmatic characters consciously weigh the odds. They try to do the right thing, even when sometimes they have very different ideas on what’s right. They remind us that even the most heroic actions aren’t always the best ones—that often, it’s sober strategy that wins the day. They tell us something quite relevant to all of our lives: That failure is sometimes our best instructor.
And though the possibility of redemption is held out to even the worst of miscreants, there’s also this sobering reminder: We are the products of the decisions we make, and they are ultimately our responsibility. Often, it’s not that someone failed our admittedly scarred evildoers, but that they failed themselves.
We’ve come to our dissection of the Force—the spiritual framework on which every Star Wars film is built.
We’ve been over the concept before, of course, but a refresher: The Force is, in the Star Wars universe, an energy that binds all of creation. It’s a mystical (ahem) force that both unites and animates pert near everything. The Force is also predicated on the concept of dualism (that Taoism and other Eastern religions also espouse), that the universe is in a state of perpetual balance between “Light” and “Dark.” Indeed, a small pool on Luke’s island, built apparently by ancient Jedi, sports a pattern a bit reminiscent of Taoism’s yin-yang symbol.
The Force takes perhaps an even more prominent role in The Last Jedi than we’ve seen in a while: Luke refers to it explicitly as a “religion,” and we see a few ancient, “sacred” texts associated with the belief system. Luke painstakingly explains the workings of the Force to Rey, as well, much like Yoda did to him ever so long ago. People use the Force to communicate over long distances, lift rocks and dive into curious dreamlike states in the quest for answers.
But as noted in the introduction, Luke has grown disillusioned with this religion of his: He accuses his own Jedi order of being guilty of pride and hypocrisy; he seems unwilling to tap into the Force much at all these days. And in truth, he’s not the only one who seems ready to scrap the galactic dogma that has framed the Force for so long. To switch things momentarily to a more Christian context, it seems that some are ready to scrap their old wineskins for new wine.
“To say when the Jedi dies, the Light dies is vanity,” Luke says.
Maz Kanata (the large-eyed proprietor of a remote watering hole of sorts in the The Force Awakens) details a particular man’s exploits. Finn says he sounds like the guy can do everything. “Oh, yes he can,” Maz says in a knowing sort of tone—suggesting the two once had some sort of romantic relationship.
When Rey sees a shirtless man, she gets momentarily flustered and asks if he might put a top on or something. We hear a joke about someone being “naked,” though that character is, in fact, almost completely covered. A seemingly female alien at a casino seems to sport several breasts, augmented by her cleavage-baring gown.
Best not to get attached to folks in this war-torn galaxy. Every Star Wars movie has hinted at the deaths of thousands, if not billions, what with all the ships and space stations and planets obliterated therein. The Last Jedi is no exception.
Most of the deaths are, naturally, unseen and thus bloodless. Massive spaceships are torn asunder and/or blown up, but our attentions are obviously riveted to the gee-willickers special effects, not to the horrific potential body count. At other times, though, the story does pair faces with casualties: Several people pilot ships to their doom. (And we sometimes watch them in their last moments before death, before an explosion actually envelops them). Others are killed via blaster battles or lightsaber fights. Smaller, one-man spacecraft of various makes get gunned down, careen into planetary walls or are otherwise blown up. None of these deaths are particularly unexpected, given the movie’s context, but still there.
Some other notable elements to note. One person is sliced in two: We see the two-part lifeless body on the ground. Several horse-like creatures bear wounds from their mistreatment. We see them and their child handlers threatened and beaten with electric-like whips. A casino and some nearby city streets are seriously damaged by rampaging animals. People are blown back by explosions. A massive fish is speared (off camera) for food and carted (on camera) back “home.”
We see rocks fall down on someone. A chunk of rock is sliced elsewhere. Someone is shocked with a Taser-like device. A character is tortured by someone wielding the Force.
Two uses each of “d–n” and “h—“; one use each of “a–,” “b–tard” and the British profanity “bloody.” Also, when R2-D2 makes a bit of a bleeping fuss, and Luke warns the droid to “watch the language.”
Liquor flows freely at a posh casino, wherein people drink what appear to be champagne and other presumably alcoholic beverages.
A major scene takes place in a bustling, high-end casino, and we see many patrons playing various games of chance. Poe Dameron slyly insults the mother of an Imperial general.
Let’s face facts: Most of us give the Star Wars films a pretty long leash, suspending our disbelief for light years, if need be. Even in the dark days of much-denigrated prequels, critics complained about the clunky lines and unconvincing characters, but never blinked an eye at the fact that a ship, no matter how badly damaged, would never, ever lose its gravity field. These films succeed or fail on the basis of two elements: spectacle and heart.
It shouldn’t surprise us that not everything in The Last Jedi holds together. (Unlike, say, the Millennium Falcon.) The movie has so many moving parts that, at times, it can swing a bit off balance. And, naturally, it has the same content problems that almost every Star Wars film has: Its muddy spirituality; its rare-but-still-there language issues; its massive casualty count.
But for fans of the franchise, this film hits home where it matters most.
The Last Jedi is filled with all the special-effects spectacle that have been a part of this franchise from the beginning—images and moments stunning even by modern CGI standards. But far more importantly, The Last Jedi has soul. It feels light and funny at times, which is part of that soul. But it packs a bantha-sized emotional wallop when it needs to.
When I was a kid and walked into a tiny movie theater to watch Star Wars for the first time back in 1977, I didn’t quite know what I was getting into. For those raised in this modern world of movie magic, it’s hard to describe what the original Star Wars was like, but I walked out changed by the experience. I’d never seen anything quite as thrilling—quite as inspiring (remember, I was 7 years old)—like that in my life.
I’m older now. Maybe wiser. Certainly more cynical. Maybe a little like Luke Skywalker, perhaps. I review movies for a living. They can be good. They can be bad. They can be art, even. But magic? Rarely do I feel that.
But there were times here—moments—where I could feel myself turn 7 again: The roar of the Millennium Falcon racing through yet another maze. A thrilling saber-fight. The simple beauty of a sun setting on a planet far, far away.
The Last Jedi isn’t perfect, morally, spiritually or aesthetically. But I think it’s the best Star Wars film since the original trio, far outdistancing the prequels and bettering its more recent peers, too. This chapter of the saga rediscovers something that, if I may say, gives an old reviewer a new hope.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.