Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours 32 min.
Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God. They will collapse and fall,
but we shall rise and stand upright.
So we do not lose heart…
2 Corinthians 4:16a
It was the Force that awakened in the last Star Wars film, and now it is Luke, the “Last Jedi,” that needs awakening. Director/writer Rian Johnson picks up the story where The Force Awakens left off, with former scrap collector Rey (Daisy Ridley) catching up with Luke Skywalker ((Mark Hamill) at last. But before we learn what transpires between them we are treated to a spectacular series of space battles between the forces of the New Order and the retreating fleet of the Resistance led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). The New Order has arisen from the ashes of the old Galactic Empire and has gained the upper hand against the Republic.
Leia must evacuate the Resistance’s base before the huge fleet under the command of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Leia and Hans Solo’s son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) can destroy it. Even though they manage to jump into hyperspace, they are unable to escape the New Order’s fleet because of a secret tracking device implanted aboard their ship. During one of their running battles for one moment Kylo Ren has the opportunity to blast her ship, but hesitates when, thanks to his connection with the Force, he senses that his mother is aboard it.
Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron leads a costly counter attack on the New Order fleet, but cannot prevent it from closely pursuing them. The command ship’s force field manages to stave off disaster from the massive guns and rockets of their attackers, but both sides know it is but a matter of time before the Resistance ship’s power is depleted. Leia is unconscious from her injuries, so Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) takes command. Her secret plan of resistance is so dissatisfying to Poe, Finn, and droid BB-8 that they depart on a secret mission to disable the tracking device. A lowly mechanic named Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) joins them, soon proving her resourcefulness, and insight.
Far away on the watery planet of Ahch-To, Luke Skywalker wants nothing to do with Rey or the Resistance. Living like a hermit at the Jedi shrine housing the order’s sacred texts, Luke is in deep depression because of his failure to keep Kylo Ren on the light side of the Force, resulting in the slaughter of all the Jedi apprentices he had been training. He refuses to mentor Rey or to return and join the Resistance in its battle against the New Order. “The Last Jedi” is desperately needed by the embattled Resistance, but can his visitor win him back to its side?
Some have complained that the villains lack the grandeur of Darth Vader, which is probably true—James Earl Jones is a hard act to follow! And yet Andy Serkis’s Supreme Leader Snoke is certainly as slimy an egomaniac as to be found in a thriller, and Adam Driver’s father-killer is an intriguing villain, very much in the mold of the classic fatally divided self popularized by Robert Luis Stevenson.
The Star Wars series came along in 1977 when all five of my children were living at home and I had just begun my auxiliary career of reviewing films (at first for a Catholic family magazine). We saw them together several times, bought into much of the Star Wars printed material, and some of them accompanied me when I lead workshops on the series. I used to say that the three Star Wars films were their Iliad and Odyssey. Thus, I am happy to be able to say that the latest film is almost as good as that first series in terms of excitement and freshness—and far beyond them in technical proficiency.
Here are some of the reasons why I can wax so enthusiastically about the new film:
- I’ve already mentioned the special effects which make almost all the sci-fi films made before 1977 seem like childish home movies. George Lucas’s team pioneered some of these, the director releasing a special edition of his 1977 film in which he had enhanced several scenes. The battle scenes in the new film truly deserve that overworked word “awesome”!
- The valid criticism that the original Star Wars human society was too lily white has long been addressed, with the latest addition of Rose bringing an Asian face to the cast—and a delightful, perky character she turns out to be. Finn’s addition in the first film of the new trilogy was long overdue, and now we have the possibility of his being paired with Rey in a romantic way. This latter would have been impossible in the late 1970s when dying Jim Crow still was a power to contend with—and not just in Southern audiences.
- The mystical power of the Force receives a bit more attention this time. In one scene Luke tells Rey, “Breathe. Just breathe. Now reach out. What do you see?” She replies, “Light. Darkness. A balance.” He adds, “It’s so much bigger.” And so it is. The Force in most of the films seems just a power to be used, but this time, although still far from being a personal God as in the Abrahamic faiths, It does seem to have a will favoring the good, moving its wielders toward a destiny. How else can we explain Leia’s survival when her ship is blasted and thrust into space with no protective suit and yet survives? Or Luke’s eventual standing up to all the firepower his attackers can bring to bear on him?
- The mystic connection between hero Rey and villain Kylo Re is an interesting insight, thus rejecting the practice of the usual adventure genre in which characters are sharply divided into Good and Evil (though this does not include Snoke). Their temptation scene mirrors that in which Darth Vader seeks to win his son Luke over to the dark side of the Force.
- Although human life, other than those of our heroes, still seems cheap—witness the blasting to smithereens of large battle cruisers on both sides and the unlamented deaths of dozens of Storm Troopers in face to face combat—the film does not go along with the vengeance theme of most adventure thrillers. New recruit Rose Tico observes to Finn, “We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!” If only we could learn and apply this to our so-called “War on Terrorism.”
- Yoda’s brief conversation with Luke is also of interest, perhaps hinting at what Christians mean by the Communion of Saints. Certainly, Yoda’s comment is worth discussing: “We are what they grow beyond.”
- I was again struck how the theme of persistence runs throughout the film, one important to people of faith as well. In every film the forces of Darkness seem to be about to overwhelm our heroes, but they do not give up. In real life we see how this is crucial in another current film, The Darkest Hour, in which almost all the British politicians tell the new Prime Minister Winston Churchill that he ought to negotiate a peace settlement with Hitler, whose forces are about to over-run France, but the stubborn old pole says, “No!” I think the old Brit would have loved this series.
- The passing of the torch is beautifully handled in the film. Even if actor Carrie Fisher had not died just after making the film, the scene between her and Luke, and then Luke’s absorption into the Force, would have been deeply moving. And Rey, Poe, and Rose prove they are worthy of taking up the torch in the struggle against tyranny. We will now move on with them to further adventure in their war of survival.
Near the beginning of the tale Luke Skywalker tells Rey, “This is not going to go the way you think!” To the director/writer’s credit, we can say this applies to the audience as well—plenty of twists and turns. And the film’s last enigmatic scene, apparently about an imminent uprising of slave children, makes me look forward with great anticipation to the filmmakers’ next installment of the franchise. May the Force be with them!
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the January 2018 issue of Visual Parables.