'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'
The new ‘Star Wars’ trilogy has finally found its own voice and identity. After the nostalgia-fueled tears and cheers of J.J. Abrams’ relentlessly crowd-pleasing (and pandering?) ‘The Force Awakens’, oddball genre mashup artist Rian Johnson (‘Brick’, ‘Looper’) cracked the code and found a new direction for those adventures in a galaxy far, far away.
Yes, it’s still fairly similar to the legends that came before it. This is still ‘Star Wars’, after all. But Johnson was lucky enough to find himself in the ‘Empire Strikes Back’ slot of the new trilogy, a place where he gets to complicate, twist and screw with ‘Star Wars’ conventions. ‘The Last Jedi’ is a second act tale that throws wrenches in the formula without being required to clean up the messes. It’s a damn delight of a film, certain to be remembered as one of the strangest and finest entries in this seemingly never-ending franchise.
Since the mandate for this new ‘Star Wars’ trilogy was to create another triplet of films that mirror and rhyme with the original classics (just without the stilted shittiness that spoiled the prequels), ‘The Last Jedi’ feels overtly like ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, and as you might assume, that’s a good thing. Much like how Abrams echoed and emulated all the best pieces of ‘A New Hope’ in his feature-length ‘Star Wars’ pilot, Johnson overtly and subtly pays homage to the darkest and deepest of all ‘Star Wars’ adventures throughout his epic space opera.
Once again, our plucky gang of heroes are separated from each other. Our new hope (Daisy Ridley) is off on a desolate planet convincing an old master (Mark Hamill) to teach her in the ways of the Force. Meanwhile, the rest of the team (John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher and company) find themselves trapped in a movie-long chase with the big scary triangular ships of the bad guys, with a super evil dude dressed all in black (Adam Driver) making increasingly insane demands. Nothing ever quite works out like it’s supposed to. Old assumptions are cast into doubt. There’s no guarantee that the heroes will win. There’s no need for resolution. Johnson’s film is all about screwing with the ‘Star Wars’ system and he does so beautifully.
If there’s an overall theme to ‘The Last Jedi’, it’s about letting go of the past and leaning into the future. That starts when you finally see Luke Skywalker’s response to the cliffhanger of an ending to ‘The Force Awakens’. Throughout it all, Johnson sets up familiar franchise tropes and twists them slightly without ever losing sight of the traditional triumphs and joys of George Lucas’ massive toy box. The film has delightful new characters like Kelly Marie Tran’s almost obscenely lovable and plucky addition to our gang of heroes, Laura Dern’s purpled-haired rebel warrior, or Benicio Del Toro’s stuttering space thief who walks an unpredictable line between hero and villain.
Both Rey and Kylo Ren’s faith in their respective sides of the Force are tested, with Ridley and Driver’s performances hitting new depths and complications. Andy Serkis’ grand villain Snoke finally gets a chance to reveal a character that isn’t quite what you’d imagine. Oscar Isaac and John Boyega grow into the wiseass heroes everyone has been projecting onto them from the first trailer. Carrie Fisher’s final performance as Leia is beautifully measured and reveals new sides and powers. (It’s truly a tragedy that she won’t be able to finish the trilogy.) Mark Hamill’s grizzled Luke is light years away from where his innocent farm boy started and exactly where he should be in this new adventure. (It’s also likely the finest performance of his career, ‘Star Wars’ or otherwise). Johnson’s movie is one of constant action and narrative momentum, but also a multi-layered and multi-pronged character study that transforms Abrams’ amusing ‘Star Wars’-types into people worth following into the third act of a larger story.
And oh, what glorious action is on display here! J.J. Abrams had a blast getting to play with all the old ‘Star Wars’ toys with a few hundred million and change to make them dance, but Rian Johnson finds ways to show us things that we never imagined these toys could do before. There’s a use of light speed that’s as beautiful as it is horrifying, a planet layered with red dust practically designed for poetically gorgeous action, and an opening X-Wing shoot-’em-up that tops any of the space battle in ‘The Force Awakens’ before the new story even gets going. Johnson adores this world and these characters too much to break them. He knows he’s making a ‘Star Wars’ movie. He knows that requires certain expectations to be satisfied. He also knows that the audience for these movies hungers for surprise as much as familiar thrills, and gleefully piles those into the movie one after another. By the end of ‘The Last Jedi’, the new franchise has been propelled into a fresh direction while still staying right on track. Plenty of pleasant surprises from the past return and new pieces upend what came before.
The movie is probably about twenty minutes too long with a few too many reveals and climaxes. However, it’s nice to see a ‘Star Wars’ movie that swells from over-ambition rather than sagging in memory because it didn’t quite succeed in overcoming nostalgia. Much like ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, the film will likely end up being beloved and divisive all at once, unlikely to find its true reputation and space in the saga until years later when the story is complete and locked into legend. That’s fine. For now, it’s a pleasure to simply find surprise and awe in equal measure in a ‘Star Wars’ movie again. No wonder Rian Johnson has already been tapped to make his own entire ‘Star Wars’ trilogy. He plays with ‘Star Wars’ toys better than anyone since the guy who invented them.
[Ed. Note: The Comments section below is already filling with plot spoilers for the movie. We will run a spoiler post about ‘The Last Jedi’ early next week, after more people have had a chance to see it. It’s perhaps best to hold off on further spoiler discussion until then. General thoughts on the movie are of course welcome. -JZ]