It may feel difficult to ever feel truly excited about a Star Wars film again. While passions and tensions were high going into The Force Awakens, we now realize what it means to release a new Star Wars-brand film every single year. That sense of magic, rarity, and speciality will never quite be the same. However, while our expectations are now tempered and controlled, this has nothing to do with the final product, and how successful each director is at bringing their vision to life. With Rian Johnson, he had a particularly challenging mission: to create a sequel to the world-conquering Force Awakens that keeps the stakes high, forwards the overall story, and elevates the themes that make him a unique and creative writer/director (the first outside George Lucas for the series). And while there are missteps in The Last Jedi here and there, Johnson has made the first technically perfect Star Wars film, using his cinematic scope and prowess to elevate the swashbuckling series into an all-out war extravaganza.
In the immediate aftermath of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the First Order, led by Admiral Snoke (Andy Serkis), General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), and apprentice Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), launch an all-out assault on the remaining forces of the Resistance. Left in shambles and pursued by the enemy, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and new ally Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) must find a way to hold off the enemy’s forces long enough for a miracle. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) begins her training under the reluctant, retired former Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), all while dealing with an inexplicable connection to Kylo Ren and a desire to discover who her parents are, no matter the cost.
The most fascinating decision that The Last Jedi makes is immediately dispelling with the normal thematic nature of the films to drive to the heart of something deeper. While it has been enjoyable and downright cheer-inspiring to see the general setup of narrow avoidance-heroic victory, narrow avoidance-heroic victory, real life doesn’t work that way. In real life, the hero doesn’t always win. Sometimes, the heroes are utterly decimated, and expectations aren’t met. And sure, we’ve seen shades of this before in The Empire Strikes Back, but even that felt mostly like a string of small victories. The Rebellion mostly escapes, Luke isn’t captured or turned by Darth Vader, and Han and Leia end up in love, even if Han has been captured. Really, the only “defeats” the heroes suffer are the loss of Luke’s hand (instantly replaced) and the fact Han has been captured. There really weren’t any major stakes in the long run. However, we haven’t seen anything like this before, where scores and scores of Rebels are killed, and hope seems truly lost (well, to everyone except Leia, who may have that as her middle name at this point), and just because you are on the side of good does not mean your plan is instantly going to work. It does not guarantee victory. Using the World War II analogy that Star Wars has always utilized (if you haven’t figured out by now that the Empire/First Order are Nazis, Rebels are the Allies, and the space battles are just WWII dogfights, you really need to get with the times), The Last Jedi would best equate itself to Dunkirk in terms of the weight of it all. It’s a shocking contrast to the archetypal series, and honestly, a fairly welcome change. What’s more, the film also raises questions about what the “right” thing is for any given situation, and what happens when the “right” thing blurs with the Dark Side. We get in-depth flashbacks into Kylo Ren’s youth, and we see more from where he’s coming from and what he believes. Meanwhile, we see a flawed, broken Luke Skywalker, who debates what the “right” thing to do is when the Light could be catastrophic and the Dark could save the Universe. This is a film that isn’t afraid to undercut serious moments to turn everything our heroes know on its head, and it isn’t afraid to push people to their limits.
And speaking of pushing things to their limit, Rian Johnson’s direction. Good God, outside of the first Star Wars, this may be the first technically perfect film of the series. Each setting is perfectly framed for maximum beauty, from Luke’s home on Ahch-To, covered in oceans and mountains, to the game-changing design of Crait, a new location covered in salt and red clay, allowing for beautiful and grandiose shots the likes of which I haven’t seen in a science fiction film before. The action is arguably some of the best since the original series, as Johnson has gotten back to the series’ roots and studied the works of great WWII and samurai films. The series almost enters Tarantino-esque homage/plagiarism in how many references he sneaks in to Twelve O’Clock High, Wings, and Three Outlaw Samurai. However, I’ll allow it when it makes the space battles feel more epic (the shots of bombers and fighter cockpits should appease any European Theater buffs) and the lightsaber battles feel more electrifying. Johnson also manages to strike that all-important balance of 80% practical versus 20% visual effects. To say much more would spoil some of the awesome spectacles, but I will say this is the film that definitively settles the debate between puppetry and CGI. But if this film has any unspoken MVP, it’s John Williams. The fact he’s still crafting a score this great this many years in, and this specifically inspired by his own work, is remarkable. Not only does the score build on the new themes he developed previously (including Snoke’s, Kylo Ren’s, and especially Rey’s), but it also officialy declares this new series an heir to Star Wars, as he utilizes the “Trench Run” music to triumphant, tear-inducing effect. Even if this film were as bad as the prequels (which it is not), that score would be enough to convince me that I’m seeing the best of the best. God bless John Williams.
However, I don’t want to make it sound like this film is a complete success, regardless of how great it is technically. At two hours and thirty minutes, the film runs the risk of feeling bloated, with perhaps twenty minutes of that being expendable. What makes this feeling worse are the themes I previously praised as groundbreaking. You see, if your goal is to demonstrate the downplaying and undercutting of good deeds at every turn, as it appears Johnson is attempting, it makes the several plot points that deliver you to this destination feel extraneous. It’s almost like several parts of this film are made unnecessary, and whether they actually are in the long run is still up for debate. However, I’d be willing to overlook all that if it wasn’t for one particular scene that appears around the Act One break. I won’t spoil this scene in this review – if you haven’t seen it, you’ll know what I’m talking about when it happens, and if you have, you’ll know almost immediately – but I do not exaggerate when I say that, in my opinion, this is the second worst scene in the series, just missing out to “I don’t like sand.” I’ve tried every defense possible, and done everything I can to avoid the lapse of logic it features (especially because, thematically, it is perhaps vital to character development), but it was just so poorly executed (a shocking misstep by Johnson), I was afraid the film couldn’t recover. I’m glad I was wrong, but still…Jesus…
As for the acting, I do think this film features some of the best performances not given by Alec Guinness, Harrison Ford, and Ewan McGregor (SAY WHAT YOU WANT BUT HE WAS GOOD!!!!!). Mark Hamill got a lot of flak for his acting in the originals (“But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!”), but there’s a reason that Luke was always our lead. He’s a complicated, wonderful hero, and one that we actively want to succeed. Hamill adds such depth to his character, and does so much acting with his face and now-iconic voice, it both elevates and atones for a character that has always been short-shrifted by the now-deceased Han Solo. Meanwhile, Carrie Fisher proves that it’s best to go out on top if you’re going to go out at all. It’s hard to tell where Leia ends and Fisher begins this time around, as she fully embraces Leia’s ability to crack wise, inspire faith, and just all-around kick ass. And rounding out the older characters, Peter Mayhew and Joonas Suotamo still make Chewbacca as wonderful as ever, and Anthony Daniels brings back the C-3PO we love to hate. As for the newer characters, Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley continue to be incredible characters, this time adding depth to archetypes in a way the original series never did. Driver in particular is exceptional, especially in a brilliantly-edited scene that flawlessly match cuts between Driver and mother Fisher’s faces, drawing out emotional complexity. Meanwhile, Isaac gets more to do as Poe Dameron this time around, and he’s still as wise-cracking as ever, albeit with the added angle of ego this time around, making for an entertaining, interesting character. Domnhall Gleeson isn’t quite good in the role of Hux, but he makes choices in an entertaining, exciting manner. And John Boyega is still the bull-headed, lovable moralist Finn. However, some of the best performances in the film come from the characters designed for this film in particular. The role of Rose could have gone to a major star (and it almost did), but the choice of Kelly Marie Tran is perhaps the best decision the new film makes, as the lack of recognition made me connect to her even more, and I found myself caring about the character in a way I never expected. Benicio del Toro plays Benicio del Toro, and I absolutely loved it, as I nearly always do. And Good God, can we put Laura Dern in everything? I want her passive-aggressive maternal ingenious to be my leader every day. #SpaceDernForPresident. Oh, and there’s an unexpected cameo that steals the movie. You’ll know it when you see it.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi feels a lot less like the swashbuckling days of old that we got in The Force Awakens and more like it’s actually delivering on the “war” part of its title. It’s not quite the rollicking adventure we’ve come to expect, but it’s still a wonderfully crafted, intelligent film, with more than one moment of true applause-worthy excitement (a sequence set in a chamber is perhaps one of my favorites of both any Star Wars film and the year, in terms of editing, action, and execution). And above all, it features a defense of why we love these movies to begin with, particularly through the character of Rose. When we first meet Rose, she is but a lowly janitor for the Rebellion, inspired by the actions of Rey and Finn and wanting to be just like them. This fandom inspires her to throw herself into the action, in an effort to do what’s right and to change the things that have destroyed the universe and her life. A similar message is delivered in the film’s final scene, which is, in my opinion, one of the greatest in the entire Star Wars universe. These messages drive to why we love these films to begin with: because they inspire us to stand up and do what’s right and to fight evil, no matter the personal cost. Rian Johnson has crafted a film about understanding the stakes and doing what’s right anyway, and even if he missteps here and there, the final result is so triumphant, I can’t help but come away from it all inspired. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a great installment in the series, and brings about the moral reckoning these films have needed.