On December 19—opening night—I saw The Last Jedi, Episode VIII of the Star Wars saga. As both a cultural and commercial phenomenon the film has proved, well, pretty epic. By New Year’s Day, less than two weeks into its run, it had hit over a billion dollars at the box office worldwide, already quintupling its $200 million budget. When I sit in a theater on opening night at this kind of blockbuster movie, there’s something almost shiveringly sublime—unnerving, I mean—in the thought of so many millions of Americans doing the same thing at the same moment. Oh well. In our increasingly niched-out entertainment culture we tend to look longingly for culturally unifying events beyond the Super Bowl. So thanks, George Lucas.
There’s also nothing like opening night of a new Star Wars movie to sort the mere film critic from the true fan. In the sold-out theater (I had bought my ticket online, two weeks in advance!), the woman next to me was dressed as Princess Leia, in white gown and the double buns of the iconic original hairdo. Darth Vader sat two rows back. I saw at least five white-plastic-clad clone soldiers. In the lobby afterward, clots of moviegoers avidly debated the film’s merits and the heated question of whether it fulfills or disappoints the legacy of the earlier films.
This robust discourse has continued in a tsunami of commentary online and in social media, where fans engage in Talmudic discussions of the most abstruse and tangential points of Star Warsiana. Disagreement over The Last Jedi has been fierce. (Divided opinion also held sway on the Connecticut public-radio show where I joined a panel discussion of the movie.) An article in the New York Times, titled “For ‘Last Jedi,’ Everyone’s a Critic,” noted the ecstatic review by the paper’s own critic, Manohla Dargis, even as it explored just how far from unanimous the fans themselves are—slugging it out over such issues as whether Luke Skywalker has become insufferably whiny in his dotage (“Luke Cavesulker,” the film critic David Edelstein wittily calls him in his own review), whether the issue of Rey’s parentage is sufficiently delineated, and whether the unceremonious dispensing with the new arch-villain Snoke reveals him as an epic red herring.
The Times invited fans onto a Facebook page, and quoted their responses. There were articulate naysayers: “The script was a hot mess of lazy storytelling, absurd plot holes, recycled ideas, and lifeless characterizations,” said one. Another: “What I watched was a painful two-and-a-half hours of hyper-colloquialism, indecisiveness, and impulsivity.” But there were plenty of passionate yea-sayers as well, including one who recalled being fourteen in 1977 when the first film came out, and watching it twenty-one times (once a day) in its first three weeks. “The Last Jedi made me laugh,” the viewer commented. “It made me cry. It made me thrust my arms up in excitement.” And another (yea-sayer): “It had everything I could’ve wanted and more: A cast full of fleshed-out, kick-ass women; a relatable, tortured and believable villain; cute new aliens; a dash of that classic sci-fi cheese.”
In preparation for the new film, I watched, over the course of one equally dutiful and delightful week, all seven prior ones. I did so not in order of their release, but rather in the order of their place in the overall narrative. Remember, the first Star Wars, in 1977, turned out to be Episode IV, which Lucas followed with two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983). In the late ’90s and early 2000s, he made three prequels, followed by a ten-year hiatus, before picking up two years ago—ceding creative control to other writers and directors after the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney—with Episode VII, The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi is episode VIII, with the final film of this sequel trilogy, still untitled, slated for December 2019.
Each of the three trilogies has its own particular mojo. The original three movies were cuter than I had recalled, and sillier, especially in the humor surrounding those odd-couple droids, C-3PO and R2-D2; and all three were suffused with a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-like jauntiness that in retrospect seems very much a hallmark of a particular moment in American cinema. The subsequent prequel trilogy is a bit of a slog, performing a lot of biographical back-and-fill to tell the story of young Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, even as it offers a primer in the rapidly expanding use of computer-generated images, so that even the slight time gap between The Phantom Menace in 1999, and Revenge of the Sith six years later, make them two entirely different achievements technically.