Movie Review: ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” has finally hit theaters, having the second highest opening weekend of all time, just behind 2015’s “The Force Awakens”. Despite such huge box-office numbers, the movie appears to be quite divisive among many “Star Wars” fans. Such strong reactions really come as little surprise. “The Last Jedi” marks the third “Star Wars” film released under the Disney umbrella and its writer/director, Rian Johnson, sought to deliver something that felt new and un-expected to the franchise. That comes at a stark contrast to the two previous films; J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakes” and the anthology film “Rogue One”. Both pictures were beholden to the original trilogy, especially “A New Hope”, and prided themselves on being the ultimate fan experience.

Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with making a “Star Wars” movie that pays homage to all the moments that made us fall in love but that clearly was not Johnson’s intention with this latest entry. “The Last Jedi” is less about celebrating the legacy of “Star Wars”, as Abrams did in “The Force Awakens”, but rather about tearing down the old in order to introduce the new. As a seminal character states in the film; “Let the past die; kill it, if you have to.” It’s not a knock at what’s come before but an invitation to leave behind the familiar and step forward into the great unknown.

Before continuing further, it’s important to discuss this film in a non-spoiler fashion for those who haven’t had the chance to make it to the theater. The movie is certainly not without its faults. The film’s jokes are largely hit or miss and there are a couple of new characters whose writing and dialogue is almost cringe inducing. However, where the film does succeed is in deepening many of the new characters we saw in the last film, and giving them their own character arcs. The only one who largely feels underserved is Finn, who becomes entangled in easily the weakest of the film’s plotlines.

Clocking in at two-and-half hours, “The Last Jedi” is easily the longest “Star Wars” film; however, Johnson manages to keep the story moving while jumping back and forth between the Resistance fighters outrunning the First Order as well as Rey’s time with Luke Skywalker. Oh, and did I mention it contains some of the most thrilling and visually dazzling set-pieces in the entire series? One lightsaber fight in particular might rival the one seen in “Revenge of the Sith” as the most exciting put to screen.

 

Now onto the spoilers…

 

As mentioned earlier, the section of the film involving Finn is largely unsatisfying. Part of the problem is the pairing of actor John Boyega with the character of Rose, played by Kelly Marie Tran. Rose is far and away the weakest written in the entire movie, with many of her lines coming across as heavy-handed or just plain clunky. The pair’s excursion to the Casino Planet also represents the rare great idea in this movie that simply fails in execution. The world’s visual design marks something slightly new for the series and the idea of exploring a society that profits on the war our characters’ fight in is definitely exciting territory. However, the scene largely fails due to much of the unsatisfying humor I hinted at early. The whole sequence winds up feeling like an odd excursion, one whose only purpose is to place the characters with Benicio Del Toro. Rose also undercuts what could have been another bold and powerful moment in the film’s final hour; Finn’s sacrifice during the battle on the salt-planet.

Yet, aside from the Finn and Rose plotline, many of the creative swings Johnson takes with characters and concepts wind up excelling. The most major of these is arguably the film’s depiction of Luke Skywalker. It was up to Johnson to figure out just who Luke was after all these years. Abrams left Skywalker largely unseen for most of “The Force Awakens”, only to end on a cliffhanger of Rey reaching out to hand him his lightsaber. Where Johnson chose to take the character may have been alarming to some but it allowed for arguably the most fascinating and complex look at any of the returning characters. Unlike say Han Solo in, who is largely the same as he was in the original films, Luke has changed, becoming a much more damaged and doubtful individual. He’s thrown in the towel, leaving life as a Jedi behind as he lives on as a hermit. His place in this movie is not as a teacher of the force but someone who still has much to learn about himself and his place in the universe. By allowing Luke to wrestle with his own demons and perceived failed legacy makes for a more satisfying picture than if he’d jumped into the Falcon to re-join the adventure.  

However, when thinking on who the two most compelling characters are in the film, it comes down to Rey and Kylo Ren. Both characters get much more depth added as they attempt to navigate both sides of the force, neither one truly finding their fitting until the very end. One of the more debated elements of “The Last Jedi” is a brand new way of seeing the force. Understandably, Leia “Mary Poppins” flying back to her ship in the vacuum of space was a little silly but Johnson largely figures out a way to open the force to new possibilities. Never more is this clear than the moments of telepathic connectivity between Rey and Kylo Ren, sequences that, the more I think about, shouldn’t work as well as they do. All is to say, “The Last Jedi” finds a way to make the force mysterious and omniscient; a powerful energy that even the characters have just begun to scratch the surface of.

Still, “The Last Jedi’s” most earth-shattering aspect is the decimation of fan theories and questions that emerged from “The Force Awakens”. Many viewers left Episode VII mystified by the idea of who Rey’s parents were or whether supreme leader Snoke was some important figure in the “Star Wars” canon. Here, the movie dares to deny that satisfaction. Instead of choosing from any one of the numerous fan theories (Don’t try and tell me J.J. Abrams had all this figured out when he wrote “Force Awakens”) Johnson chose to simply give us the unsatisfactory answer Rey’s lineage; one that actually adds more dramatic weight to the story.

A character who rises above to do the heroic thing, despite being told they are not “the special one” and have no great destiny, is far more moving and impactful than simply being someone of purpose. It becomes their own personal choice, as opposed to some outside set of circumstances. One also has to admit, this galaxy would feel rather small if every new character wound up being related to someone else. As for Snoke, I for one could care less. The thought of who this character was or whether or not there was some big reveal to be had never kept me up at night. His death was certainly a bold shock but allows the far more interesting Kylo Ren to step forth as the series’ main villain. I’ll take to inner turmoil and emotional complexity that Adam Driver brings that character over another CG creature that just wants to take over the world.

Ultimately, Johnson has largely cleared the board, or at least shaken things up to the point of this new trilogy evolving into its unique corner of the Star Wars universe. Disney has plans for these movies for arguably the next 5 years or more. I for one don’t need a Star Wars movie every year but if that’s the situation we’re lucky someone like Johnson is daring to imagine what other directions the franchise can take. “The Last Jedi” might not have been the installment fans wanted but it’s most definitely the one the franchise needed.

Rating:   ★ 1/2