Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Two years ago, Disney launched a new Star Wars saga after their purchase of LucasFilm, with J.J. Abrams at the head. The Force Awakens burst onto the scene in 2015, introduced us to new characters, reacquainted us with old ones, thrust us into a new conflict in the wake of the Empire’s destruction, and spectacularly recaptured the magic of Star Wars to many fans and critics alike. Now, with Rian Johnson (Breaking Bad, Looper) taking up the writing and directing responsibilities, Star Wars: The Last Jedi pushes new boundaries for the universe and is nothing like any Star Wars we’ve ever seen before, and there’s good and bad in that.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Our cast of new and old returns in The Last Jedi; and they all, universally, put on impeccable performances. Daisy Ridley returns as our promised light-side Force user and puts on her best performance in this one, proving that she can be powerhouse actor. Adam Driver reprises his role of Kylo Ren, our troubled dark-side Force user. Driver is amazing in this role, taking all that he learned from TFA and improving it in every aspect. John Boyega as Finn puts on a strong show in some areas but can be unremarkable in others. The writing behind Finn felt a little lackluster in some key spots, mostly in the second act. Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron is brought down to ground level in The Last Jedi. He feels like a real character here, Oscar showing his wonderful range often through the film. Mark Hamill gives us something to be in awe of in his performance of the legendary Luke Skywalker. Hamill perhaps plays his best performance in the role, wonderfully showing Luke’s age and his conflict. And of course, we have the late Carrie Fisher returning as our space princess, Leia Organa. Carrie puts on a great show as her final performance in the iconic role, I did have a flurry of emotions seeing her on screen. Tackling Leia with the passing of Carrie Fisher is a tall order for the next installment, but Leia’s role in this movie was really well done. I only wish we’d seen more of her. However, Leia’s show of her Force capabilities was a wonderful sequence.
Aside from everyone’s strong performances, the writing team seemed to have the intent to focus on smaller, intimate pieces of each character. Rian Johnson does a great job empathizing with most of the cast, putting these characters’ flaws on full display and challenging them. While the more intimate character writing should be commended, there are some instances where the writing, the direction, for some characters feels rushed, or not genuine. Perhaps the most controversial characterization was that of Hamill’s old Luke Skywalker. Luke has always been a symbol of hope in Star Wars lore, so to see him as cold and resentful as he is here is odd. I will say that I commend Rian for wanting to take the character into new territory, however, this Luke doesn’t resemble the Luke we’ve all come to know. Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just his progression into this state doesn’t seem to be believable. Luke always saw the light, even in his long-since corrupted father, Darth Vader, and eventually turned him back to the light; so why could he not do the same with Ben Solo (Kylo Ren)? Perhaps the weight of being a mentor factored into his guilt? Some key catalysts behind Luke’s new characterization remain unknown, locked away. I understand the “I blame myself for the rise of Kylo Ren and the death of my new order of Jedi” aspect, but Luke never struck me as a person who’d give up and exile himself. Or even to go as far as cutting himself off from The Force entirely. It seemed so out of character for him, and Rian didn’t quite justify this choice for him enough for me to get fully behind it. I can understand it, appreciate it to a degree, but I’m not fully sold on it, unfortunately. But I will say, upon seeing the film twice, Luke’s final sequence, his death, is a wonderful send-off for him. Finally being at peace with himself, saving the Resistance, but also in pain after exerting himself so much, he releases himself unto The Force, much like his previous mentors, Yoda and Obi-Wan. Also like his masters, I’m sure we’ll see more of Luke in a Force ghost state.
Another bold character choice in The Last Jedi is the fate of Supreme Leader Snoke (played by the versatile Andy Serkis). Now, this is a personal anecdote, but I wasn’t a fan of Snoke to begin with. I realize there is a lot of intrigue behind him and J.J. Abrams certainly set him up to potentially be the big bad guy, but that’s unoriginal in the scope of Star Wars. Snoke was on the fast track to being The Emperor 2.0. No matter how much we could’ve learned about him, where he came from, why he’s so powerful, etc., Rian Johnson’s choice to end him here was the best choice for this saga to continue into new territory. Now Kylo Ren takes up the mantle as main antagonist, but he’s not fully antagonizing. He’s a dynamic character, a villain who is very conflicted in what he’s doing, and that’s a game-changer for Star Wars. We’ve all come to know these stoic, single-minded villains (Vader, The Emperor, Grievous, Dooku) who all just exude evil. Finally, we get Kylo, who is established from the beginning as a troubled individual constantly conflicted with the path he’s on. He feels the most human. This makes for a more dynamic and powerful pay off in the final film. Although, as much as I approve of this change in course, Snoke’s death did feel anti-climactic. If we weren’t going to learn of him more in this movie (we could still in Episode 9), we needed to at least see his power on full display. Sure, he is given more to do and shows off some of his true capabilities, but we needed to see more of him in order for his death to be earned. He could’ve still died at the hands of Kylo while impressing us with his power. I was a little disappointed to see this “oblivious” stunt we’ve really already seen with Emperor Palpatine.
Now, on the smaller scale, the treatment of an intriguing new supporting character, Captain Phasma (portrayed by Gwendoline Christie), is continuously disappointing. Phasma has a cool image with that chrome armor, but also as a female Stormtrooper leader. But instead of her ushering in a new type of Stormtrooper, we get a lackluster demise. Essentially written off in The Force Awakens, Rian Johnson had the opportunity to save this character, but instead chooses to let her die. Phasma has become a Boba-Fett-level let-down in this new saga.
Each character is given the opportunity to show their more intimate, personal colors in The Last Jedi. Rey, most notably, grapples with her self-worth, her potential, and her lineage. Much of this she comes to terms with on her own, showing her off as an independent, strong character. She continues to own her strong female protagonist role, which is important. One very significant aspect of her character is tackled in The Last Jedi: her parents. Another Rian Johnson course-correction choice. Rey’s lineage is nothing. Her parents are nobodies, just drinkers, and gamblers who sold her off for money. I think this speaks volumes about Rey. Star Wars has always had strong themes of family, lineage, destiny, and the like, but finally we have a character that comes from nowhere, from nobody, and continuously proves herself to be important. We already have a strong role with Kylo Ren dictated by his familial lineage to the Skywalkers. Why would we need two characters like that? Why does she need to be anybody? Tied to Obi-Wan, or Snoke? That would’ve been a weak character choice, because suddenly her power, her strength, isn’t about her at all, it’s about who she came from. Rian Johnson’s move to make her “a nobody” is powerful, and makes Rey far more impressive. [Editor’s note: I see your point clearly, and it is a good one, but I wouldn’t put it past Kylo Ren to lie. Just sayin’.]
The Last Jedi is a visual marvel, let me start off by saying that. When the action gets going, the movie shines, it soars above a lot of the competition. There are several sequences that are unlike anything we’ve seen in Star Wars before. In many ways, The Last Jedi could be seen as the best film of the whole series yet. The CGI is top-notch, and with some amazing set pieces, brilliant cinematography, wonderful performances, and that genius John Williams score, The Last Jedi is a gem in many ways. But there are also a few things that hold the film back from the gold star, gold standard of Star Wars. First of which is its dramatic action. The film starts out wonderfully. It’s exciting, tense, and engaging. But as the second act begins, the lengthier chunk of the film, the movie comes to a screeching halt. The pacing of the film stops in its tracks. We’re taken to three different areas, following our main trio (Rey, Finn, and Poe), but what we experience them doing can feel very unengaging. Rey’s experience with Luke can feel very trivial at times, although it’s the most interesting of the arcs in the film. Our interest in Rey’s Jedi future is what keeps us engaged, even when she’s just following Luke around while he fishes and milks some aliens for green milk (I’m still not sure how I feel about that). Rey carries much of the film through this mid-lull, especially with her chemistry with Adam Driver through their Force connection.
Poe Dameron’s position in the film is supposed to work in the audience’s favor, as he is impatient and eager to make a stand against the First Order, while Vice Admiral Holdo (played by Laura Dern) has plans to play the long game. There are a few reasons why this arc didn’t work too well, but the main complaint I have is Holdo. Holdo plays her cards close to her chest needlessly. While The Resistance is being chased by the First Order (in the slowest space chase EVER), she decides to fly just out of range of the First Order’s cannons for no reason given (until towards the end). She’s immediately unlikable. Poe stages a mutiny against her, and not even that gets Holdo to just share her plan. A lot of what comes to fruition within this plot line is completely undone and rendered useless later on anyway. Plus, if Holdo had shared her plan, we could’ve avoided the whole Finn and Rose casino sabbatical side quest altogether.
Finn and a new character, Rose (played by Kelly Marie Tran), go off-ship to find someone else who can get them onto the First Order’s flagship, which has been tracking them through light speed, undetected. The premise of this plotline is weak. It takes us completely out of the main issue at hand. And to add more insult to the out-of-place quest, it’s not even an interesting sequence. Any time they cut to Finn and Rose on this separate planet looking for some guy, I felt my soul roll its eyes. Sure, Benicio Del Toro is in this part, but his character was a plot device and a weak one at that. This whole sequence just needed some stakes to it rather than diverting our attention to a completely unrelated area. I was never really compelled by this side quest; it’s the real culprit of why the film seemed halted. The one good bit that this part of the movie gave us is the introduction to some young slave kids who seem like they’re going to usher in a new era of Force users/Resistance fighters. Are these kids going to be a part of the saga that Rian Johnson is heading up after this trilogy comes to a close? At least there was that little bit of intrigue.
Something I did want to touch on with The Last Jedi is Rian Johnson’s creative direction with the saga and how it’s in stark contrast to what J.J. Abrams seemingly laid out in The Force Awakens. I’m not upset that this movie takes liberties with some things, as I have stated earlier, but I want this saga to get on some stable ground. Say what you will about the prequel saga, but they were all distinctly under George Lucas’ vision and there’s no disputing that. They may not be the best individual films, but they all felt intrinsically connected to the universe set up in the original trilogy. From The Force Awakens to The Last Jedi, however, it feels like the creative differences between Abrams and Johnson are in direct contrast. This results in the saga feeling a bit shaky, especially when you consider all the plot points and themes that were set up in TFA and almost abandoned in TLJ. Again, there’s Snoke’s part and Rey’s parents, but also Kylo’s obsession with following in Vader’s footsteps (I did find this to be a positive course change, though–kill the past), and the Knights of Ren seem to have faded into obscurity (however, there is room for them to make an appearance in Episode 9). JJ does have his work cut out for him for Episode 9; however, I feel like Rian Johnson’s moves in The Last Jedi will force Abrams to brave new narrative avenues in the next installment. Much of the reluctance from the fan base on JJ’s return is the fear he’ll just stick to the status-quo of Star Wars. He’ll hit the checklist of “What Makes A Good Star Wars Movie” but won’t do anything to push the envelope and do something a little more daring with the universe and the characters. I don’t think there’s any arguing that what Rian Johnson did was very daring. Johnson takes a lot of risks and I respect that a lot, even if there are a few that don’t quite hit the mark.
The parts in The Last Jedi that work, work phenomenally well; conversely, the parts that don’t work stick out plainly. There is a lot to love about this movie, but with this movie comes a good bit of uncertainty and unsteadiness. Rian Johnson makes a lot of bold choices, pushing the envelope of what we know as Star Wars, but some of those choices falter in their execution. I will commend this film, though, for making several callbacks to the original trilogy and even the prequels without it feeling like a copy, kind of like The Force Awaken’s basic plot structure and how it closely resembled/imitated A New Hope. The movie can be a lot of fun and thought-provoking, but there’s plenty that this movie leaves to be desired. I think general audiences will come out of this movie very happy with it, but although Star Wars followers like myself have a chance to really enjoy it, I’m sure they will find at least a few things to be irked about.