Why “The Last Jedi” is one of the best Star Wars films

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13: Mark Hamill during the 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' photocall at Corinthia Hotel London on December 13, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

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“Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” has been out for less than a week, and has delighted critics and polarized audiences.

I was unable to see it until Saturday, but in the days leading up to it, I gleaned spoiler-free reviews from the words and Facebook posts of friends and strangers. Reactions ranged from “the best Star Wars movie” to “Literally one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. Felt like 1 giant parody movie. Horrendous.”

As someone who enjoyed “The Force Awakens” but was kept from loving it by its awkward humor and excessive retreading of plot points from “A New Hope,” I decided to go into ”The Last Jedi” with my expectations low.

After seeing it, I don’t quite think it’s the best Star Wars film, but I have placed it in the top tier alongside Episodes IV and V.

What makes “The Last Jedi” such a masterwork is the unified vision of Rian Johnson, who with this movie became the only person other than George Lucas to both write and direct a Star Wars film. While Episode VII felt focus-grouped to death by a nervous Disney and executed in uninspired fashion by J.J. Abrams, Episode VIII showed the distinctive touch of a truly brilliant filmmaker.

Instead of repeating Abrams’ mistake by giving us a straight retelling of “The Empire Strikes Back,” Johnson pillaged Episodes V and VI for their most iconic moments, scrambled their order and tone, and fired them back at us in totally unexpected ways, crafting a film that feels like an improvisational jazz rendition of my childhood. Sometimes, a scene that seemed familiar at the outset would play out much as I expected, but with subtle and important differences. Other times, those scenes would take a sharp turn off the beaten hyperspace lane, and as a result, I never knew what to expect and was delighted at each twist.

At points, I even found myself asking whether a self-consciously derivative piece of art could equal or even surpass its source material by ingeniously manipulating both the material and the expectations of an audience familiar with it. As I left the theatre, I knew my answer was yes. Shakespeare did the same thing, after all. Hardly any of his plots were original, and many of them were taken from well-known stories. In “The Comedy of Errors,” the Bard sets up a situation that, in his Greek source, ended in rape, but in his play has an entirely innocuous resolution.

Johnson’s subversions of audience expectations range from major plot points to throwaway lines, such as when a Resistance soldier scrapes his hand across the surface of the white planet seen in the trailers, licks it, spits, and remarks “Salt,” as if to remind us that this planet isn’t quite Hoth, so we shouldn’t expect the same plot points to play out on it.

As Johnson plays riffs and variations on the Star Wars canon, he also deepens it. “Rogue One” delighted me by treating the Force as an object of religious faith instead of a mere source for superpowers like the prequels did. In “The Last Jedi,” Johnson further develops the understanding of the Jedi way as a religion, having a character refer to it as such for the first time since “A New Hope.” Where the previous films seemed content to leave the Force in the background as a static plot element, Johnson delves into the spirituality of the world, producing theologically profound scenes worthy of a mystical Buddhist text and giving us new insights into what the Force is, what it can do, and how it should be served.

The performances were strong, the plot at once complex and elegantly simple, the set-pieces riveting, and the humor spot-on.

Also, the porgs were adorable.

If you’re still on the fence, go see this movie.

What do you think?

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