The controversial, new Star Wars movie is something different for the beloved franchise. Newcomers and fans who saw the original trilogies in theaters alike may struggle with whether to approve of the shift or not. The film is a mix of strong and weak points, and, far more than The Force Awakens, represents the torch being handed off to the next generation of characters. This is not another movie where new protagonists drove the plot alongside characters from the original trilogy.
This is where they take over, and the Star Wars universe will never be the same. In some ways, this is a coming of age story, with the mistakes and flaws of the previous generation on display, beloved characters viewed without reverence, sometimes harshly, by a new, rising generation. It is also a coming of age story in that many of our characters are charged with growing up, considering the long-term consequences of their actions, especially their actions as people who hope to change the world in which they live. While the plot has its flaws, and some fans think the writers went too far in humanizing beloved characters through mistakes, that alone makes the film worth watching for anyone who has grappled with choosing tactics to make change.
The original trilogy and the prequels are full of moments where a lone wolf leadership style and a tendency to disregard authority pay off. The Last Jedi is different. Poe Dameron repeatedly tries to singlehandedly save the Resistance, much like scores of other characters have in earlier films. As some critics have pointed out, this is typically a highly-effective strategy for Star Wars characters. The young upstart with an innovative plan is nearly always right. Here, however, his challenges to authority don’t save the day. They fail repeatedly, and other characters die as a result. Rey, too, disregards a mentor’s advice and finds that things don’t work out as she had hoped.
This isn’t a film where the older authority figure is always right. Rey reaches the first Jedi temple to find a rundown, moping Luke hiding from the Force and everyone he loves, refusing to step up and do what everyone desperately needs. She struggles to reach him and convince him to do his duty. It also isn’t cynical. An amoral character who switches sides at the drop of a hat and can’t morally distinguish the First Order from the Resistance gets the chance to make his point but isn’t portrayed as right in the end. What it is is a pragmatic Star Wars movie, one which acknowledges that collaboration, taking experienced people’s advice into consideration, and picking the tactic which will get the best results under the present circumstances the way forward for those who want to accomplish lasting, meaningful change instead of making a fleeting statement.
This is a film where at least two protagonists try to ram vehicles into enemy weaponry, planning to destroy a threat to the Resistance and expecting to die in the process. The first time, the writers present it as the right choice, the only one which will let the Resistance escape the First Order and survive. When a different character tries the same thing under different circumstances, it’s a mistake, and a friend, maybe even a romantic interest, is seriously injured in the course of saving him from himself.
This is closer to last year’s gritty Rogue One than the lighter spirit of the original trilogy in its realistic take on making change, sometimes almost overbearingly so. Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa, depicted worn gentle by time and grief but still as tough and brave as ever, explicitly discusses the difference between getting the job done and looking heroic. Not every life-long fan will enjoy a Star Wars franchise in which lone wolf leadership doesn’t always pay off, practical considerations often outweigh optics, and the rebels have to count their losses careful and consider ends and means. This is far less escapist and more practical than Star Wars has traditionally been.
Those who are willing to stick out a fairly major change of direction will be rewarded, especially if the writers get at least a slightly better handle on the plot going into the last installment of this trilogy, by a Star Wars universe in which ordinary people matter more, the insurgents derive their legitimacy more from popular support than ties to a long-defunct government, and a strand of scrappy optimism doesn’t want to hear about the odds. For all this film’s flaws, this is still fun, lively Star Wars well worth watching and a surprisingly relatable story for anyone doing the hard, unglamorous work of making change in the real world.