Immediately after I saw Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” at a press screening last week, I knew that I had to see it again before fully collecting my thoughts. It wasn’t a clear slam dunk like J.J. Abrams’ predecessor “The Force Awakens” was in 2015, when it went straight into my Top 10 list for that year. Abrams’ film achieved a feat I had spent my childhood believing to be unthinkable: it recaptured the magic of George Lucas’ original trilogy—the humor, the playfulness, the excitement, the invention and most crucial of all, the endearing characters worthy of our investment. It didn’t break any new ground, but its very existence was its own triumph.
“The Last Jedi” is a messier film, but it’s also a more audacious one. Johnson attempts to build on the structure of the all-time greatest “Star Wars” installment, Irvin Kershner’s 1980 landmark, “The Empire Strikes Back,” which impeccably balanced three plot lines before culminating in a spectacular cliffhanger. I give Johnson credit for attempting to juxtapose four parallel story threads, but it’s at least one too many. Several characters don’t receive sufficient enough screen time, while others simply don’t have enough to do. There are stretches of the film that are busy without being especially compelling. And though those cutesy Porgs aren’t all that annoying, they serve absolutely no purpose other than to sell toys at the Disney Store (at least the Ewoks had a Wookie-esque charm).
“The Last Jedi” is far from flawless, but its best moments rank alongside the most powerful and indelible of any “Star Wars” episode. In many ways, this is the middle chapter in the new trilogy that I was hoping for—an epic that both honors and questions the past while pushing the series into uncharted terrain. It joins 1977’s “A New Hope,” “Empire,” 1983’s “Return of the Jedi” and “Force Awakens” as one of five certifiably great “Star Wars” movies. Rather than pen a standard review, I’d like to dissect my top ten favorite moments from the picture—the ones that filled my heart to the point of bursting. And yes, each one alone is worth the price of admission. This article is, of course, ONLY for people who have already seen “The Last Jedi,” of which I’m sure there are plenty after this past weekend. Just as an extra precaution, I’ve asked Luke Skywalker to guard the following paragraphs from the prying eyes of any spoiler-seekers, or nerf herders, for that matter.
If you wish to have no secrets revealed, do not scroll past this picture. If you do, you’ll be sentenced to a week of manual labor at Tosche Station (and I have no doubt it will involve power converters).
Now that we’ve all seen the film, let’s start at the end, shall we?
10. The very last shot.
The weakest section of the film involves Finn (an underutilized John Boyega) and a maintenance worker, Rose (appealing Kelly Marie Tran), as they prowl around a planet inhabited by snooty elitists who made their fortune from selling weapons to the First Order. Benicio Del Toro enlivens the proceedings as a duplicitous Lando type, and I had to laugh at the fleeting Bogartian cameo by Justin Theroux (Laura Dern’s co-star from “Inland Empire”). Yet what stands out the most in this subplot are the enslaved children who idolize the Resistance with their hand-crafted action figures. Johnson ends the picture on a rousingly affirmative note, as one of the young slaves glances up at a ship leaving a blue streak across the sky—the same color as Luke’s first lightsaber. Then the boy clutches his broom as if it were his own scorching weapon, embodying the beacon of new hope that will carry the franchise into the next generation.
9. Luke tosses away his lightsaber.
For two years, the characters of Luke (Mark Hamill) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) have been frozen in that final pose from “Force Awakens”—him staring reluctantly at her as she hands him his old lightsaber, wordlessly asking him to rejoin the fight against the Dark Side. All that prolonged anticipation has led up to this moment, and it arrives in the form of a disarming punchline, with Luke taking the lightsaber and casually tossing it off the cliff behind him. It’s a funny bit, but also a pointed one, solidifying that this film will not merely be a retread of what had come before (if it was, Luke would’ve simply been rendered a Yoda-like mentor). His many years on the island have lent an uncharacteristic kookiness to his behavior, and Hamill is a constant joy to behold here. If the Oscars ever bothered to look beyond their biases, Hamill would have a Best Supporting Actor nomination this year. But even that accolade would be too small for a Jedi.
8. May the Force be with you, always.
Laura Dern is one of the finest actresses in modern cinema. All you have to do is look at her work over the past year in HBO’s “Big Little Lies” and Showtime’s “Twin Peaks: The Return” to get a sense of her limitless range and magnetic intensity. Her portrayal of the purple-haired Vice Admiral Holdo, Princess Leia’s temporary replacement in “The Last Jedi,” is sure to be a polarizing one. As a skeptical Poe Dameron (the ever-fantastic Oscar Isaac) observes, she’s not what one would expect from a leader. Her soothing assurance sharply contrasts with Poe’s hot-headed demeanor, though her emotions surge to the forefront once she’s in the presence of Leia (the late Carrie Fisher in her final performance). Dern takes Fisher’s hands in her own and says, “May the Force be with you, always,” as tears gleam in her eyes. It’s the most poignant delivery of that iconic line I’ve seen, with Dern speaking for every person (myself included) whose life was enriched by Fisher’s fearlessness.
7. Rey gazes at her reflection.
Rian Johnson is the first filmmaker to receive a sole “written and directed” credit on a “Star Wars” picture since Lucas helmed 2005’s “Revenge of the Sith,” and “The Last Jedi” benefits considerably from his singular vision. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the mesmerizing sequence where Rey tumbles into a cave on Luke’s secluded island. As she stares searchingly at a murky figure materializing before her, we see a multitude of identical Reys standing in a straight line behind her, similar to the infinite number of Charles Foster Kanes walking in isolation at Xanadu. We are made to believe that the widely rumored identity of Rey’s parents will finally be revealed to us, but as she peers closer at the figure, she realizes that she is glancing at her own reflection. This is not a recycling of the similarly hallucinatory scene in “Empire” where Luke sees his own face in Vader’s mask. It is an ingenious example of Lucas’ favored form of “rhyming” in his fables, paying homage to key moments while subverting their meaning. Rather than hint at her place in a grand bloodline, Rey is faced with the fact that she comes from no one—a revelation both terrifying and empowering in its own right.
6. Leia refuses to go gently into that good night.
I stopped watching the trailers for “The Last Jedi” long before the release because they appeared intent on revealing far too much. A key shot of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) considering whether to kill Leia signaled that her fate would likely be sealed in this film. Leia was originally planned to have a major role in the trilogy’s concluding chapter, and this scene seemed to have been added in light of Fisher’s untimely death a year ago. Though Kylo ultimately decides against murdering her, his fellow pilots fire on her ship instead, sending her spiraling into space. The amount of time the camera takes in lingering on what appears to be her corpse is arguably tasteless, but as her body came back to life, I found myself overcome with emotion. Her resurrection via the Force, propelling her to float back to the ship (as Lieutenant Connix, played by Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, looks on), is the film’s biggest surprise, and it has turned out to be a controversial one. I, for one, cannot imagine a more heartrending reflection of Fisher’s own stubborn refusal to go gently into that good night. In a staggering instance of life imitating art, Leia falls into a coma and is placed on life support, though it’s not long before she’s ready to kick ass again. I’m grateful that Fisher’s performance in the film remains preserved, no matter the challenges it will cause for Abrams in the final episode.
5. Holdo goes out in a blaze of glory.
Hearing an audible gasp in a movie theater is a rare experience that I cherish every time it occurs. At both screenings I attended of “The Last Jedi,” I heard murmurs of awe and elation when Holdo committed the ultimate selfless act—flying her ship at light speed through an enemy ship, kamikaze-style. This sacrifice turns Poe’s (and no doubt a large portion of the audience’s) assumptions about her on their head. John Williams’ score here is one of his strongest in years, as it builds to a crescendo just before Holdo makes her defining decision. Then Johnson jarringly cuts to complete silence as we view a wide shot of Holdo’s ship ripping through the First Order’s hulking spacecraft in a sudden flash. The effect is eerie, haunting and altogether amazing. I even found myself whispering, “Holy s—t.”
4. Luke kisses Leia.
Ever since the new trilogy was announced, “Star Wars” devotees have been hoping upon hope for the possibility of a scene between Luke and Leia accompanied by Williams’ beloved theme for the characters. Whereas “The Force Awakens” got us pumped for what was to come, “The Last Jedi” feels like the premature conclusion to the trilogy in some ways. By the end, both Luke and Han are gone, while the woman who brought Leia to life is gone as well. This leaves fans of the characters with considerably less to look forward to, apart from a guaranteed cameo by Hamill in spirit form. Yet Johnson orchestrates the best swan song imaginable for these characters, uniting Leia with her brother as the First Order prepares to destroy their base. Their dialogue here has as many textured layers of meaning as the lines Leia shared with Han in “Force Awakens.” The scene begins with Leia echoing Han’s earlier remarks by quipping, “I know what you’re going to say. I changed my hair.” When she reflects on all the people she has lost in her life, Luke consoles her with the line, “No one is gone forever.” He then proceeds to kiss her on the forehead, while bidding C-3PO adieu with a sly wink. If this moment didn’t make your heart feel as it were about to rip from your chest, race to the front of the theater and splatter itself across the screen, you are most likely a Sith lord.
3. Rey and Kylo team up.
The first major round of applause at both “Last Jedi” screenings arrived when Kylo—ordered by Snoke (Andy Serkis) to kill Rey—decides to off his master instead, igniting a nearby lightsaber that slices the ghoul in half, not unlike Darth Maul. Of course, whereas Darth Maul was a villain of formidable presence, Snoke just looks like—to paraphrase my dear friend, Rob Walker—Hugh Hefner if he were among the Walking Dead. Serkis is a trailblazer with his unmatched motion capture performances, but this is the first character he’s played that doesn’t seem at all enhanced by the technology. He’s a flimsy stand-in for Emperor Palpatine, and I was glad to see him go, especially at the hands of the conflicted Kylo. Many of the meatiest scenes in “Last Jedi” center on the curious bond linking the minds of Rey and Kylo, enabling them to communicate and even touch hands, despite being separated by galaxies. Ridley and Driver are the sort of actors who need no dialogue in order to vividly convey their characters’ inner lives. Real erotic tension hasn’t been detected in a “Star Wars” film since “Empire” (no, Anakin, your line about sand doesn’t count), and it definitely exists between this pair. When they spring into action together, combating Snoke’s blindsided guards with raw ferocity, it is euphoric as hell, ending with the best death by lightsaber we’ve seen thus far.
2. Luke brushes off Kylo.
But nothing—and I mean nothing—brings down the house quite like Luke’s showdown with Kylo. The grand finale of the film is set on a visually dazzling planet in which the red ground is caked entirely with a thin layer of white salt. This provides a striking inverse to “Empire”’s ice planet of Hoth, which also featured an attack on a rebel base involving AT-AT Walkers. Whenever a missile hits the planet’s surface, it erupts in a crimson plume of soil. What makes this sequence so enjoyable, apart from the splendor of its setting, is in how it upends our expectations. Still reeling from the trauma of watching Kylo kill Han in “Force Awakens,” audiences may have turned their backs on the franchise if the impulsive brat had struck down Luke as well. It is a credit to Johnson that the danger of this occurring feels unnervingly real, all the way up until Kylo orders all his men to fire on Luke simultaneously, thus causing them to waste a great deal of ammunition. Driver’s exasperation is as funny as it is frightening in this scene, and he is well-matched all the way through the picture by Domhnall Gleeson, who elevates scenery-chewing to an art form. But everyone is dwarfed by Hamill as he emerges unscathed, waiting a beat before lightly brushing debris off his shoulder. This single motion, executed with impeccable comic timing by Hamill, caused audiences and critics alike to erupt in applause. It’s one of the most crowd-pleasing cinematic moments in recent memory, enabling Luke to bow out peacefully and on his own terms.
1. Return Yoda does.
And now we’ve arrived at the moment in which I literally couldn’t believe my eyes. Yoda has always been my favorite character in the “Star Wars” saga. In “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi,” the creature was performed by Frank Oz, the master Muppeteer who gave life to such timeless characters as Miss Piggy, Grover, Bert and Fozzie Bear. His characters have great humor but also a distinctive pathos that fuels their behavior. With Yoda, Oz was able to delve into the complexity of a Jedi master whose diminutive form carried mammoth power. He dispensed wisdom while maintaining an Einsteinian glint of mischief in his eyes. Yet he could also be scary and deadly serious if the situation called for it. Oz, along with Lucas’ team of effects wizards, brought such rich nuance to the puppet that it became as believable and fully dimensional as any of its human co-stars. Though Oz returned as Yoda in the first chapter of Lucas’ prequel trilogy, 1999’s “The Phantom Menace,” his performance was eventually replaced with a CGI version of the character (leaving the puppeteer’s voice intact). Yoda was fully animated in the next two installments, and like the trilogy itself, the character proved to be a disappointment, never fully convincing us of its existence (especially when Lucas made the silly choice of having him battle foes with a lightsaber, a direct violation of his belief that “Wars not make one great”). Oz’s voice-over work was still superb, but the actor wasn’t allowed to explore different shades of the character apart from somber stoicism. I never thought I would see the version of Yoda that I had grown up loving as a kid emerge in another film again…until “The Last Jedi.”
As Luke hesitates in his plan to burn the sacred Jedi texts, relieving the universe of a legacy he believed had become synonymous with failure, Yoda appears in spirit form to finish the job for him, ushering down a bolt of lightning to set the pages ablaze. Then Yoda does something that I hadn’t seen him do in ages—he chuckles with glee. As the camera closed in on his face, I realized that I wasn’t looking at a character built from computers. This was Yoda in his pure form, a marvel of puppetry baring an uncanny resemblance to the one we last saw in the original trilogy. Not only did Frank Oz’s voice sound as glorious as ever, his performance captured the essence of the character—not from the prequels, but from when we last saw him in that other “Jedi” flick. Watching him act opposite Mark Hamill, I had to restrain myself from jumping for joy at the press screening. Yet this scene is no mere fanboy novelty. It redefines the direction of the series by knocking idols off their pedestal, just as Luke is revealed in this film to be more fallible than we would’ve hoped. When Luke reacts in outrage to the texts going up in flames, Yoda shrugs while delivering the classic reply, “Page turners they were not.” As our own world becomes engulfed in fanaticism, Yoda reminds us that archaic scripture is no match for the spiritual forces that bind all living things. There is no shame in burning the past when it prevents us from embracing the future. Even if Rey secretly salvaged the texts herself, the importance of Yoda’s message remains intact. In the final seconds of this sequence, Williams’ gorgeous theme for Yoda filled the theater, and I felt as if I were hovering above my theater seat. There are few people in entertainment who have enriched my life more profoundly than Frank Oz, and this scene is one I’ve been hungering for ever since I became a “Star Wars” fan two decades ago. How appropriate that I happened to be wearing a shirt—displaying Luke and Vader’s final lightsaber duel—that I had gotten soon after the original trilogy’s 1997 re-release.
In closing, here is a picture taken of me long ago at a “Star Wars” exhibition in Chicago, where I’m standing next to the original Yoda puppet. Be more prophetic that “Hero’s Return” sign in the background could not…