‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Review: The Force Is Strong with This One
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a film that needed to play it safe in some regards. It was introducing new characters, new worlds, and trying to restore a fanbase that felt burned by the prequels. It succeeded in establishing a baseline for the sequel trilogy, and that baseline has allowed writer-director Rian Johnson to move the franchise forward with the stunning Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Although, like The Force Awakens, it takes more than a few beats from the Original Trilogy, Johnson feels eager to subvert our expectations, challenge the archetypes the series was founded on, and take bold steps to establishing a new concept of what a Star Wars movie can be while still feeling very much in line with previous films in the franchise. Although the movie suffers from a few pacing issues, they ultimately don’t detract from the film’s stunning craft and confident storytelling.
The Last Jedi is spread out over three storylines. Although Starkiller Base was destroyed, the First Order is on the move and the Resistance is on the ropes. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has traveled to the island on Ahch-To to try and convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join the Resistance and lead a new Jedi Order, but she also has the personal motives to try and find her place in the galaxy now that the Force has awakened within her. She’s also found a new bond with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) that allows them to communicate over long distances, and she believes she might be able to save him like Luke saved Vader. Over on the Resistance Fleet, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) butts heads with commanding officer Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) over trying to preserve the remnants of the fleet with the First Order bearing down on them. Discovering they can’t escape because their lightspeed is being tracked by the First Order, a revived Finn (John Boyega) and technician Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) head to the casino on Canto Bight to find a hacker who can break the tracking device and allow the Resistance to escape.
Although the similarities to The Empire Strikes Back are clear, Johnson is always upping the stakes in his story to try and deprive the audience of the security blanket of recognizing callbacks and parallels. The opening battle between the Resistance and the First Order makes the skirmish on Hoth look like a cakewalk, and Johnson is invested in not only showing the cost of war (as much as a PG-13 movie will allow), but challenging the comfortable archetypes that allows viewers to take a passive stance on the conflict at hand. In a lesser movie, the cocksure Poe Dameron challenges authority, shows his bold ways are what wins battles, and is the Han Solo 2.0 that inspires a generation of boys to also be cocksure charmers. In The Last Jedi, Johnson is eager to challenge that ideal and show that it’s wise, authoritative women like Holdo and Leia (Carrie Fisher) that have something to teach the flyboys. That’s incredibly refreshing, but it never feels preachy or self-congratulatory. It comes off as the evolution this story needs.
You see that evolution on Ahch-To as well where, on the surface, it seems like The Last Jedi has created a mash up of Empire and Return of the Jedi where the island is Rey’s Dagobah, providing a journey of self-discovery and Jedi training, but she also believes she can save Kylo Ren by forming a personal bond with him. Neither one goes according to plan, and while the parallels are clear, where The Last Jedi comes alive is how Johnson twists and subverts our expectations in the way that only a true Star Wars fan can. If The Force Awakens was a matter of giving fans what they wanted, then The Last Jedi is giving them what they need, which is more complex characters and themes that break free of the traditional archetypes and mythic tropes the franchise was founded upon.
Where the film struggles the most is on Canto Bight. Taken on her own, Rose isn’t a bad addition to the Star Wars mythos, and the movie definitely needs someone to play against Finn. Unfortunately, they lack the electric chemistry we saw between Finn and Rey in The Force Awakens, and their secret mission in a casino feels like it should be far more entertaining than it actually is. The plot beats feel rote, but that can almost be forgiven for Johnson’s willingness to go overtly political. Johnson shows the rich populace of Canto Bight as war profiteers, free from the consequences of their actions, burdened by neither the First Order or the Resistance or even the morality of the child slavery that supports their entertainment.
Some may see this kind of commentary as a break from the escapism they expect from a Star Wars film, but it’s actually Johnson making the world richer and more complex, finally freeing it from its sacred confines, pulling it apart to see what makes it tick, and building it back into something richer and more interesting if not as easy to digest. Rather than follow a clear moral line, it pulls the characters into interesting trajectories, showing their faults and pushing deeper into the greys rather than relishing the black-and-white conflict that spawned the series.
And yet none of these complexities deprive the film of its richness or texture. This is still Star Wars, but with the freedom to finally take some chances in everything it does from the humor (this is the first Star Wars movie to make a joke at the expense of someone’s mother), to the visuals (cinematographer Steve Yedlin has made the best-looking Star Wars movie with images that others will copy for years to come), to the score (John Williams continues to find ways to outdo himself) and beyond. The performances across the board are outstanding with everyone absolutely owning their character. Snoke finally feels threatening, Luke is broken but not unrecognizable, and Fisher makes us miss her terribly every second she’s on screen. The Last Jedi is a movie that feels different enough that it no longer feels stale, but it never veers so far away that you couldn’t immediately recognize it as Star Wars.
Where the film falters is in its pacing. Even jumping between three storylines, there’s a lack of momentum at times as no one is really going anywhere. The Resistance fleet is crawling away from the First Order; Rey is in a stalemate with Luke on Ahch-To; and obviously things aren’t a breeze on Canto Bight. And yet the dramatic tension of the first two storylines hold up intact. The fleet storyline plays like the excellent Battlestar Galactica episode “33” and everything is Ahch-To is great because Johnson is doing some fascinating things with the character dynamics between Rey, Luke, and Kylo Ren. But the Canto Bight stuff is a bit of a drag, and then you feel it in final act of the film where, despite some amazing moments, you can’t shake the feeling that The Last Jedi is probably a bit too long even if it’s difficult to know what to cut.
Even if you can feel the film’s runtime as it heads to the climax, there’s no shortage of appreciation for what Johnson has accomplished. I won’t be surprised if fans start openly wondering if The Last Jedi is better than A New Hope or Empire, although I think it’s clear that the film surpasses The Force Awakens even if the sequel’s success is partly due to the unglamorous groundwork The Force Awakens had to accomplish. There are so many moments and details I want to dig into with The Last Jedi, but I don’t want to spoil the many reveals, twists, and turns that make the movie such a wonderful experience. I lost count of the jaw-dropping moments The Last Jedi presents, and it’s a movie I can’t wait to revisit.