I’m often accused of spending too much time thinking about Star Wars. It’s a valid observation, but I think the thing that would surprise most of my friends is that the only times in which Star Wars isn’t fully consuming some part of my waking consciousness is when I’m actually watching one of the films.
That may seem like a contradictory statement, but when I’m watching a Star Wars film, I’m likely taking it at face value. I’m not deconstructing it as a work of cinema, or pop-philosophy, or fable. There are 22 other hours in the day for that sort of thing. When I’m watching a Star Wars film, I’m in it. Wholly consumed. I’m that five-year-old kid again, taking yet another step into a larger world that will forever guide my destiny.
Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is, for now at least, the exception to that rule. For a self-styled Star Wars scholar, the latest film in the saga simply doesn’t allow for that sort of detached viewing experience. At least not yet. For now, after 10 viewings, I still find it nearly impossible to watch this film without deconstructing it.
If I had to boil it down to just one reason why, I’d say that The Last Jedi represents a daring attempt by a single visionary to dig down to the heart of what makes Star Wars tick—mythologically, narratively, and cinematically. It’s a film that has the courage to take all six of George Lucas’s original Star Wars films as gospel, to explore every implication of every line committed to the silver screen between 1977 and 2005 completely and honestly—including the most obscure elements and seemingly throwaway lines—while also managing to work beautifully as a film on its own terms. If anything, The Last Jedi is almost as much a work of theological apologetics as it is a work of cinematic art.
Despite all of that, though, the film does work as art. In fact, I’d say that more so than any Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, this one is more art than product. And that largely has to do with the way writer/director Rian Johnson distills the cinematic and thematic inspiration for the original Star Wars, then finds his own unique way to recombine those ingredients in a personal way.
It’s no secret that the original 1977 film was a pastiche of Kurosawa and John Ford, with a heaping helping of The Dam Busters and old Flash Gordon serials thrown in for good measure. Rather than go back to those original influences—or, as was the case with 2015’s The Force Awakens, mine the original Star Wars trilogy nearly exclusively for inspiration—Johnson goes to his own well here, trading The Hidden Fortress for Rashomon, and The Dam Busters for Twelve O’Clock High, while also sprinkling in a dash of Three Outlaw Samurai and To Catch A Thief and Brazil for a little extra spice.
The result is that, as with Empire, we end up with a film that’s true to the spirit of Star Wars, and that expands the horizons of Star Wars, but still manages to be the unique artistic vision of a single auteur who isn’t George Lucas, despite the fact that the Maker’s fingerprints are all over it.
The Last Jedi also serves as an unintended farewell to Carrie Fisher, not only as the actor who brought our beloved Leia to life, but also as an uncredited writer and script editor. Her work in the film is some of her best—both onscreen and on the page—but it’s a little difficult to watch the film and not get angry at the universe and Carrie’s own personal demons for taking her from us far too soon.
At any rate, the result of all of the above is that The Last Jedi is, for now, a film to be grappled with—a challenging composition that isn’t as easily consumed or processed as most tentpole pictures tend to be. It is, in ways, a cinematic analogue of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, still fresh from its Théâtre des Champs-Élysées debut, with a good bit of extra whimsy and a few adorable critters thrown in.
In other ways, though, The Last Jedi is an unapologetic throwback to a less cynical time, and that does make it a bit of an oddball in our current media landscape. For all the talk of this film as a subversive and at times shocking work in the context of the Star Wars canon, it’s hard not to notice how sincere it is. Even characters whose messages run completely counter to the film’s central themes are treated with a level of earnestness that’s both welcome and a little jarring. In fact, one of my few complaints with the film is the rare instance in which this isn’t the case—in which one of the film’s secondary villains is somewhat mocked in a winking way that’s contrary to the film’s overarching but subtle sentimentality.
But one aspect of The Last Jedi really hits home for me in such a deeply personal way that it manages to tear down those walls and draw me into its tragic magic completely: The journey of Luke Skywalker. Much has been made of Luke’s portrayal in this film, and I won’t dig into the thoughts of others here. Partly because I don’t care, but mostly because my own connection with Luke overshadows all other discussions for me.
The Luke Skywalker we meet in The Last Jedi is a broken man—a once-optimistic do-gooder who has convinced himself that the world is better off without him and the dogma he represents. He’s seen some shit, in the parlance of our times. And without delving too deeply into my own story, it’s a Luke I relate to in a visceral way, because I’ve been there. I’ve struggled with deep, personal losses for which I blamed myself, no matter how far out of my own control they may have been. I’ve been driven to the same level of despair and isolation we see on Luke’s face throughout much of this film.
It’s disturbing to watch at times, true. But it also makes Luke’s triumphant return at the end—in which he does the single most Jedi-like thing ever committed to celluloid or CCD—all the more triumphant. Luke Skywalker was my childhood hero. In The Last Jedi, he’s my adult inspiration, in a way I never would have dreamt possible. He’s a reminder that legends are only human, yes. But just as importantly, he’s a reminder that they’re legends for a reason.
In my 2018 Wishlist published here on the Roundtable, I rather naïvely hoped this beautiful, moving, deeply thoughtful, and paradoxically fun film would receive the home video release it deserved, right out of the gate. Much to my shock and amazement, it has. The Ultra HD disc is a new high bar in terms of audiovisual presentation. This is the disc you’ll want to pull out when some naysayer opines that Blu-ray or streaming is perfectly sufficient. The High Dynamic Range imagery reveals depths of detail in the shadows I struggled to see even in IMAX.
In terms of supplemental material, it seems as if nothing was held back for a more ultimate release down the road. Deleted scenes abound, and in stark contrast with the Blu-ray release of The Force Awakens, the behind-the-scenes features aren’t all back-patting, neck-hugging, Kumbaya marketing fluff. Hell, even the marketing fluff that has leaked out to accompany The Last Jedi’s home video release has been a step up from most everything on the Episode VII disc.
The real star of this collection, though, is the feature-length documentary The Director and the Jedi, in which we get some serious insight into just how much Rian Johnson loves, appreciates, and more importantly understands Star Wars. We also see, through the course of the documentary, Mark Hamill angrily struggle to come to terms with the Luke Skywalker he’s tasked with playing in this film, then slowly come around to fully embrace Johnson’s vision. It’s raw, It’s emotional, it’s genuine in a way we don’t normally see in making-of docs. Simply put, The Director and the Jedi is a film that all cinema fans—even those who aren’t Star Wars obsessives—need to watch.
Johnson’s audio commentary for the film is also a delight, and it’s fortunate it was recorded before the film’s release, since we end up with the filmmaker’s genuine thoughts and reflections, rather than his reactions to the discussion of his work post-release.
But if there’s one bonus feature I’m more excited about than any other, it’s the isolated score track, a feature I’ve been begging for since the DVD days. It’s worth noting that the isolated score (in which you watch the film without dialogue, without sound effects, only John Williams’ brilliant symphonic narrative accompaniment) isn’t actually found anywhere on the discs. To access it, you have to redeem the Movies Anywhere code found in the UHD Blu-ray case and watch the film via your web browser or media streamer.
As with the film itself, though, it’s absolutely worth the effort.
Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.