Warning: This post contains any and all spoilers.
It's difficult to remember now, as Star Wars has become a cornerstone of pop culture and beloved all around the world by all kinds of people, but there was a time when people just didn't get it.
It started when George Lucas was first making the first Star Wars movie, now known as A New Hope. That movie took a whole bunch of ideas, from a Vietnam War allegory to ideas about religion and a morality tale for children, and condensed it into a space opera partly inspired by Flash Gordon pulp science fiction. It's not hard to find stories of cast, crew, and executives who simply did not understand what George Lucas was doing. It wouldn't matter though.
The movie was a hit, but when Empire Strikes Back rolled around, many people weren't happy. The movie took a whole bunch of risks, from letting the bad guys come out on top to chopping off the lead character's hand, revealing that he was the son of the bad guy and freezing another fan favorite, Han Solo, and leaving his fate up in the air for the third film.
Writer and director Rian Johnson understands that this - at its core - is what George Lucas has always attempted with Star Wars. To take big ideas and try new things, to experiment and try to warn children about the evils of society. Lucas tried this with the prequel trilogy, which goes hard on politics and - in 2017 - actually starts looking smarter and more relevant than ever.
The Last Jedi understands what makes Star Wars Star Wars, and it understands that it is largely responsible for every major blockbuster that followed it, inspired by its success in both the best and worst ways. The film takes all this knowledge, knowing full well where you expect it to go, and then takes several hard lefts into a completely different direction.
The movie picks up directly after the events of The Force Awakens. Rey has found Luke Skywalker and given him is lightsaber. Meanwhile, the First Order has tracked down the Resistance base and is about to begin pummeling it with fire. The Resistance has to flee to fight another day, but there's a problem: The First Order has figured out how to track ships through lightspeed, which means the Resistance can't run forever, it's only a matter of time until they're caught and killed.
These are the two main events happening in The Last Jedi, but the story is fractured even further from here. Rey and Luke Skywalker are not having the best training sessions together. Johnson rhymes this interaction with Luke and Yoda's relationship in Empire Strikes Back, but he also realizes that these are two different characters that aren't going to react in the same way.
Luke is a shattered man, not the same person he was at the end of Return of the Jedi. He has bought into his own legend, and he thought that Jedi Master Luke Skywalker could do no wrong, could stand in the face of the dark side of the force and defend the light at all cost. He thought he could usher in a new era of the Jedi Order, ready to fully balance out the force.
What he never realized is the force doesn't work like that. The Force has always, and will always, be about balance. Rian Johnson understands that it's not just a cool power, it's a system of yin and yang that constantly teeters between good and evil. The light side of the force prevailed at the end of Return of the Jedi, planting the seeds for the return of the dark side at the beginning of The Force Awakens.
You're our only hope
Specifically for Luke, this was the corruption of Ben Solo, soon to be known as Kylo Ren. The mighty Jedi Master could do nothing to keep his promising apprentice, his own blood, from turning to the dark side - after being so successful turning his own father back from the dark - and this brings about a moment of weakness that forever shatters Luke Skywalker.
Mark Hamill does some of his best ever work bringing out this side of Luke. You could already see it in his brief scene at the end of The Force Awakens, a face full of anguish, that read "you have no clue what you're getting yourself into."
His interactions with Rey, once again played with spunk by Daisy Ridley, are just as quirky and fun as Luke and Yoda's interactions way back in Empire. The two push and pull on each other in fun ways, even though they actually don't train much. The "training" is largely Luke telling Rey why the Jedi Order doesn't make sense anymore, yet Luke can't fully let go of the Jedi Order, he doesn't have any solutions to a very real problem.
Until Force Ghost Yoda comes along and tells him one of the big ideas of The Last Jedi: It's time for the old guard to step aside, and it's time for the young people to take over - they may even have better ideas. For as long as it's been on film, Star Wars has had a sort of reverence for the mentor characters. Yoda, Qui Gon, Obi Wan, these are wise characters who are constantly telling impulsive youngsters how to act and lead.
The Last Jedi questions that, showing that it's probably time to acknowledge that the entire purpose of a mentor is for the the mentee to eventually outgrow them and do their own thing, building on their experiences and teachings to do something new and, hopefully, better.
This is mirrored in the story of Kylo Ren, who quickly becomes one of the greatest villains in movie history thanks to The Last Jedi. In The Force Awakens, we saw an emo youngster trying to live up to the legacy of his grandfather, Darth Vader. The Last Jedi starts with Kylo still attempting to live up to that, but he soon starts to outgrow that idea. He realizes that chasing that ideal is folly, and that if he simply focuses on becoming the best person he can be he can outgrow them all.
Kylo is chastised by Supreme Leader Snoke early in the movie for his failings. Despite killing Han Solo, he lost out to a fledgling Rey in a lightsaber duel and still has a heart and appears to be conflicted. Snoke, for all his master manipulating and smarts, still seems to believe in the old ways of the Sith, in abandoning all heart and turning purely to hatred.
In one of the greatest sequences in the movie, Kylo Ren assassinates Supreme Leader Snoke. This scene, which is an obvious nod to the scene in Return of the Jedi where Luke, Vader and Emperor Palpatine are playing a game of battling for Vader's soul. Except in this case, no one is battling for Kylo's soul. Kylo has already made up his mind, while Rey and Snoke have clung to the past.
He kills Snoke and takes the place of the big bad of this trilogy. There is no person above him, there is only Kylo Ren. That's extremely exciting for a Star Wars movie, which has often put its most compelling villain under the tutelage of a puppet master. Some might wonder what the hell is up with Snoke, what his backstory is and where he comes from, but the film obviously doesn't care.
It doesn't care because that idea feeds into a bigger idea in play during The Last Jedi. That you need to burn down the past so that something great can be born for the future. Nothing against the past, all that stuff is great and fun, but clinging onto it and not allowing yourself to let go - or to properly contextualize and learn from the past - can hold you back. This is one of the big ideas that lines the arc of Kylo, of Rey, of Luke and even of new character Rose Tico.
Give us some hope
The other half of The Last Jedi is focused on that conflict between the Resistance and First Order. It's also fractured into two different stories. On one hand, you have the story of Finn and Rose. Finn sees that there's no hope left for the Resistance, a cause he never really fully cared about. Finn is a guy who can only make connections to people, we saw it in The Force Awakens where he instantly formed bonds with both Rey and Poe. He wouldn't be in The Resistance if not for his bond with Rey, and early on in The Last Jedi he abandons the fight in an effort to save Rey.
On the other hand, Rose Tico is someone who fully understands what the Resistance is fighting for. She's inspired by the events of the first movie, and her and her sister know that when you're fighting against fascism you need to fight to preserve what you love, not fight against what you hate. That doesn't get you anywhere, other than right back where you started.
These two characters are diametric opposites, and their journey to seek out a codebreak in an attempt to break the First Order's tracking so that the Resistance can escape rounds them out a bit more. Rose makes a personal connection with someone, eventually doing a heroic act to save Finn.
Meanwhile, Finn is finally able to see behind the veneer of fascism. He has thus far been blind to the reality of what the First Order means for actual people, and he sees the damage that can be done during a trip to the beautiful casino city of Canto Bight. It's a city built to cater to the ultra rich, who turn out to be war profiteers who sell arms to both the First Order and the Resistance. Benecio Del Toro's delectable DJ tells Finn what he's always wanted to hear: The First Order and Resistance are two sides of the same coin, two halves of the machine of war and the only way to avoid everything is not to get involved.
Finn has believed this from the beginning, which is why his personal connection to Rey has been his reason for joining the fight. While DJ's statement appears to be a nuanced take on the greyness of war, it's also simplistic to assume both sides are completelely the same - they're not, and Finn sees this first hand behind the curtain of Canto Bight.
In the end, Finn finally sees that the Resistance is a cause that he actually believes in. He beleives in it so much that when he's ordered to run away, something he has consistently done early and often, he chooses not to. He dives headlong into the heroic sacrifice, but is stopped by Rose Tico - who knows that sometimes you don't need the heroic sacrifice, as her sister did the heroic sacrifice for little reason.
Finn and Rose's story is interlocked with the story of Poe Dameron, who finally gets some illustrating after being a huge afterthought in The Force Awakens. Seriously, Poe Dameron was supposed to die and never come back in The Force Awakens, but JJ Abrams and crew realized they had something with Oscar Isaac as Poe and decided to not kill him, which leaves him with little to do other than be a slick ace pilot.
Rian Johnson smartly decides to use this archetype as a comment on the Han Solo character. Poe has one mode: Be the hero, do a bunch of cool things and blow things up. He's great, and the movie makes a point to take away his biggest asset - his unique X-Wing, early. He's forced to contend with something he's not comfortable with - biding time and being meticulous.
Poe essentially has to learn that it's perfectly alright not to go out and try to come up with a heroic plan. In fact, he has to learn that the masculine ideal of heroism isn't the only kind. He dismisses Laura Dern's Holdo early on based on her looks, and when she reminds him that he's been demoted for losing the lives of valuable soldiers for little gain, he acts like a big child.
The star of this story is Carrie Fisher as Leia, who brings a wise gravity to the proceedings. She's the only mentor figure in the movie who actually understands how to bring the next generation to the place they need to be, and when Poe is finally ready to take his position she cedes it to him gracefully.
Poe finally realizes his folly when Leia explains to him that Holdo always had a plan, and it's not necessarily his right to have known about the plan. Its a testament to Oscar Isaac's charisma that you want to believe that he's not an impulsive jackass for most of this movie, but he is. Holdo always had a plan, and she executed it.
By the way, she also is the catalyst for what is easily the most awe-inspiring moment in a movie theater this year. When Holdo lightspeeds into Snoke's ship, it's a stunning sequence that oozes cinematic wonder at every angle. It is simply incredible.
I cannot stress this enough: The stories of Poe, Finn and Rose cannot exist without one another. They are interlocked and rely on each other.
A new hope
The wonder of The Last Jedi is that the Resistance fails at nearly every turn in this movie. In the wonderfully amazing opening scene, the Resistance takes out a dangerous dreadnaught, but it also loses its entire squadron of bombers. It fails. Finn, Poe and Rose's plan to deactivate the tracking beacon fails miserably. The Resistance's plan to use the escape pods to escape to the planet of Crait to hide as the First Order floats by also fails. And finally, the plan to hold out and take out the First Order's charge fails too.
The Resistance fails and fails and fails. For a lot of people, this makes some previous plot threads, like Rose and Finn's storyline, feel like they have no purpose. That couldn't be further from the truth, because these stories are all funneling into the big takeaway from The Last Jedi.
This is ultimately a movie about how hope can come from anywhere, how even the smallest silver lining can compel you to keep moving forward and to keep fighting to preserve what's important to you. Hope is a powerful resource, and we've seen Star Wars return to this well over and over and over again. Luke Skywalker was literally a glimmer of hope in the original movie, while just surviving was enough hope in Empire Strikes Back. Maintaining hope was central to Rogue One, too.
The Last Jedi takes that idea of hope further. Star Wars, for most of its cinematic life, has been the story of the Skywalker clan. This family has been central to the Star Wars mythos, which gives the entire idea of hope a kind of boxed in feeling. Sure, you can be hopeful that things will be good, but only if these special people are around to bail you out.
The Last Jedi says "no, screw that" and points out that true hope comes from the oppressed fighting back. It comes from people like Rey, who come from nowhere and are nobody and have no place in this story, yet can rise up and make a difference. It comes from the small stable boy who is abused yet clings onto the hope that one day he can make a difference. It comes from a farm hand on a desert planet who longingly gazes at twin suns in the hope of a better life.
Star Wars is about hope, and The Last Jedi understands that the most powerful rays of hope slithers out of any nook and cranny, and from people of all backgrounds.
The Last Jedi isn't a perfect movie. It's a long, dense movie that can be difficult to parse, which means you need multiple viewings to fully understand the scope of what it's doing. It also takes a lot of big swings that might not work for everybody, including showcasing Leia as a genuinely powerful force wielder and taking a giant shit on two years of fan theories.
But The Last Jedi is a fantastic movie. It understands the beating heart of Star Wars, deconstructs it and builds it back up for 2017. It's not here to comfortably hold you hand and giving you more of the Star Wars you're familiar with, it's here to tell you that it's about time for Star Wars to burn down what it was and rebuild itself for the future. The Last Jedi is a big step forward for Star Wars, and an immense breath of fresh air.