The most startling moment in any mainstream movie of the last year comes toward the end of “The Last Jedi,” an abrupt dramatic crescendo that the director Rian Johnson intensifies in the most unexpected way imaginable: accompanying the image with 10 seconds of silence. I don’t need to give away what happens in order to describe the impact, which, like the sudden shock of certain moments in tragedy, is both crushing and exalting. It’s one of those moments of visual and emotional impact that burns into your brain, and you know you will always remember the first time you saw it.
It is also a radical refusal of the assaultive clutter that has come to dominate mainstream moviemaking. Think of it: A director making the latest installment in the series that was at the forefront of the devolution of American movies into spectacle and juvenilia finds his greatest impact in subtraction. It’s an epic moment winnowed down to its visual essence. To fully follow this aesthetic would, of course, mean giving up making these kinds of movies altogether. “The Last Jedi” never manages the full leap into adult emotion that distinguished “The Empire Strikes Back,” the only great “Star Wars” film. But Johnson knows that the best fantasy always has its emotional roots in the real. And, as he shows in those 10 seconds of silence, he clearly believes that movies still have the potential to be communal experiences on the grand scale, and so he’s made one for a wide audience rather than for the fanboy cult that treats the series as the empire over which it rules. But that’s only part of the commitment to inclusion and connection that makes “The Last Jedi” so heartening.
If we were looking to “The Last Jedi” for a metaphor for our current political reality, then you’d have to acknowledge that it’s not the resistance who are small and beleaguered, but Trump’s supporters, holding onto power through gerrymandering and the Electoral College, outnumbered demographically, desperate to equate being American with being white and Christian and straight.
In “The Last Jedi,” the white majority has already passed. The cast includes, in leading roles, actors of Asian, Puerto Rican, Kenyan, English, Irish, as well as American descent. It also includes the likes of Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac, who, not too long ago, would have been considered too unconventional to be leading men. And it’s not all leading men — Daisy Ridley, Laura Dern, and, my favorite, Kelly Marie Tran, who have some of the strongest moments in the film, are decisive characters and not just sidekicks. And Rian Johnson makes it look easy. The casting doesn’t call attention to itself. There are no brotherhood speeches. We’re just left to enjoy the charm of the cast.
In a movie with a strong undertow of loss in terms of both the original characters and, in the case of Carrie Fisher, the actors who play them, it’s not just the diverse ethnicities or genders of the cast that’s moving, but their youth. I had the sense, watching “The Last Jedi,” that I was seeing the story being taken possession of by the kids who grew up with “Star Wars” as something that had always been there, the ones who first saw the movies on VHS or DVD. Those kids likely knew the characters and what they stood for even before they saw the movies. How many kids have imagined living out a “Star Wars” adventure? Forty years after the first episode, in an America doing its best to make certain people invisible, the adventure is being acted out on screen by actors who, not so long ago, could never imagine that “Star Wars” would include someone who looked like them.Charles Taylor is the author of “Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near Y0u.”