Let me begin with bit of sacrilege: “The Last Jedi” is so marvelous and fascinating that I would not be surprised if it becomes “The Empire Strikes Back” for the new generation of “Star Wars” fans — the film they will tell their grandchildren was the best of the bunch. The movie fully deserves its rave reviews, and I’d urge you to go, except that there’s a good chance you’ve already seen it. Although it clocks in at 2½ hours, the middle film of the new trilogy never feels long; writer and director Rian Johnson keeps things moving along, and even throws in some nice twists that this card-carrying “Star Wars” nerd didn’t see coming.
But this isn’t a review. I want to say a brief word not about what makes “The Last Jedi” so good but about what makes it so fascinating. Because the film actually puts forth some pertinent ideas worth discussing. From a long list scribbled in my notebook, let me cull four. One of them requires a minuscule spoiler that will — I promise! — give away not the smallest iota of plot. I’ll save that one until the end. Here are the ideas:
1. Philosophy of victory.
What does it mean to win? Or even to fight? During the film’s climactic battle scene, the delightful newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) announces that victory comes not by fighting what we hate but by “saving what we love.” Unlike so much blockbuster dialogue, this is no trivial proposition. True, the notion isn’t the same as turning the other cheek or loving our enemies, but it’s a nice step along the road away from the necessity to wipe out the vicious, wicked, implacable “other” that’s so common to today’s fantasy and sci-fi universes. Rose’s words propose a vision of those on the other side as people of moral complexity, as indeed does the entire film. At a moment of such sharp and nasty partisan divisions, the idea that saving and protecting is ethically superior to hating is more than a little audacious, and gives us all something to think about. Bravo.
2. Teachers’ responsibility for what their students become.
The question commands our attention throughout the film, as Luke Skywalker reproves himself for his role in creating Kylo Ren. But this isn’t mopery. There’s a mute self-horror Mark Hamill acts so wonderfully that we quite readily believe this despair is the reason Luke has exiled himself to a far corner of the galaxy.
This debate was largely missing from “The Revenge of the Sith” (a much better film than its reputation), where a furious Obi-Wan Kenobi seemed to take Anakin Skywalker’s turn to the Dark Side as a personal affront. But for those of us who teach, the question matters, even if the answer is ultimately imponderable. I know professors who are unhappy when their students develop politics different from their own. For myself, I have zero interest in my students’ politics, but I do hope that they will be people who are able to see the other side of the issues that move them. No, this isn’t a criticism of the film, because you can’t really put that point of view in a sci-fi movie. But you can certainly put it in a sci-fi novel — for example, the Handdara religion in Ursula K. Le Guin’s brilliant “The Left Hand of Darkness.”
3. The wealthy elite.
We are told at one point that the only way to get really rich in this galaxy far, far away is to sell arms to the First Order. But this is not entirely persuasive. For one thing, there’s the tricky question of what the First Order pays for the arms with, if arms are the only thing of value. Money’s coming in somewhere. Besides, surely there must be those in the galaxy who have succeeded in, say, entertainment (no films? no video games?) or, for that matter, in digital technology apart from weaponry (all those computers and monitors we see on both sides).
But that’s a quibble, and a question few sci-fi series are really set up to answer. Here’s the good part: I have lately criticized the “Star Wars” films for a seeming indifference to the existence of slavery, but “The Last Jedi” hints strongly that a slave uprising might be on the horizon. One has to look forward to that.
4. The Jedi books.
In the trailer, we see Rey fingering a set of rare old books. In the film, she does the same thing. Luke tells her that these are the original texts on which the Jedi “religion” is based. Given that the entire “Star Wars” mythos pivots on the legends of the Jedi, we have the sense that we are about to be initiated into a deep and vital mystery. But we don’t find out what’s inside the dusty volumes. Books are in enough trouble already, and their fragile status is bad for our democracy. So I’m happy to report — here’s the teensy-weensy spoiler that doesn’t give away any of the plot — that we get a clear signal later in the story that those Jedi volumes will be back, perhaps even in some pivotal role, in the new trilogy’s final installment.
The film raises other important questions, too, and I don’t have space to get into them here. Suffice to say that “The Last Jedi” is an awful lot of fun, and it’s that rare blockbuster that makes you think.
Stephen L. Carter is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”