Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the film that finally allowed me to be at peace with the new trilogy of Star Wars movies. There was a lot that I loved about The Force Awakens two years ago. I thought the new cast of characters were all compelling, particularly Rey and Finn. I enjoyed seeing the old favorites back, I appreciated the way it tried to honor the films that came before, and generally found it to be both a fun ride and an emotional experience. At the same time, there were a number of things in The Force Awakens that did not sit well with me, which ultimately served as distractions from the experience. I felt its tone was inconsistent and its humor occasionally felt forced or like it didn’t fit stylistically within the greater Star Wars saga. It occasionally felt too much like fan fiction (and I don’t mean that as a compliment), and it tried too hard to try to distance itself from the prequels. It also was far too much of a remake of A New Hope, which is not a huge deal for me the way it is for other people but which felt kind of lazy. Most of all, it bothered me that they were continuing the main series of films without George Lucas, and in fact intentionally disregarding any plans he might have had for them. I understand why they did it, but The Force Awakens did not justify these new uncharted waters they were sailing. (On the other hand, I 100% love Rogue One, even if its characters aren’t nearly as strong as those in The Force Awakens.)
So when I say The Last Jedi has brought me peace with regards to the new movies, I mean that as a huge compliment. Not only is it a better film than The Force Awakens in almost every way, its boldness and daring alongside its very clear artistic vision have renewed my enthusiasm for this new trilogy. Where The Force Awakens felt at times like it was fan-service that had been subjected to far too many focus groups, The Last Jedi feels like a movie told by someone with a clear story they wanted to tell. Writer/director Rian Johnson brought purpose and direction to this new Star Wars trilogy, and I’m suddenly eager to see what comes next. Add to this boldness some excellent acting and character development, a unique and compelling visual style, an expansion of the mythology, and meditation on themes we’re not used to seeing in the Star Wars universe, and The Last Jedi becomes a thrilling and thought-provoking episode in the world’s most famous saga.
Episode VIII picks up right where The Force Awakens left off. The Resistance dealt a huge blow to the First Order, yet the galaxy is in disarray after Starkiller Base destroyed the New Republic capital. But the First Order is set to wipe out the Resistance in spite of the failure of Kylo Ren and General Hux, forcing General Leia, ace pilot Poe Dameron, former Stormtrooper Finn, and the rest of these new Rebels to flee in their few remaining ships. Meanwhile Rey has sought out Luke Skywalker to convince him to rejoin the fight, but also in the hopes that he might be willing to guide and teach her in the ways of the force. Of course, the reality is that nothing is going to go the way everyone thinks, but to delve much further would be to enter the realm of spoilers.
One of the great joys of The Last Jedi is the excellent cast. Mark Hamill gets top billing returning as Luke Skywalker, and it’s exhilarating to see him in character once more. He disappears once more into the defining role of his career as though he’d never left it, while bringing new depths of emotion to this older, broken and dispirited Luke. Carrie Fisher also shines in her final performance as Leia, who balances the toughness of a general with the weariness of a leader who sees a potential end ahead, but always with hope and a lesson to teach. This pair of legends anchor the film, but they share the screen both with the younger generation from The Force Awakens and a handful of new characters. Daisy Ridley has wonderful chemistry as Rey with Mark Hamill’s Luke, and the pair really feed off of each other to build their performances. Rey gives Luke a challenging force he hadn’t prepared for. Oscar Isaac’s Poe gets some great moments with Leia, as well as facing off against newcomer Laura Dern as Vice-Admiral Holdo of the Resistance, whose command decisions don’t sit very well with Poe. Dern brings a very different energy to The Last Jedi, and contributes greatly to ways in which this latest film actively works at setting itself apart from what came before. And Adam Driver brings a bit more range and conflict to villainous Kylo Ren, while Benicio Del Toro gives an odd performance in a mysterious role. But perhaps my favorite new character is Rose, a scrappy Resistance fighter and mechanic played by Kelly Marie Tran, who is paired with John Boyega’s Finn on a dangerous mission. Tran, the first Asian-American with a starring role in a Star Wars movie, makes Rose a tough, brave, and defiant woman who is dealing with personal tragedy but who helps remind everyone why the Resistance continues to fight.
The Last Jedi is a visual treat. It’s filled with striking images and cleverly crafted action. It has a creativity to the production design and cinematography that really makes it stand out among the rest of the Star Wars saga, but it does it without ever feeling like it doesn’t belong. Rian Johnson’s use of color and movement in the cinematography deepens the drama and makes the action particularly striking. Johnson draws from a variety of different visual styles from cinematic history in ways that enhance the story. The production design is also top notch, bringing us new planets, creatures (porgs!), and aliens as well as new ships and cultures. An occasional dash of minimalism in set design is a bold choice that pays off well by allowing us to focus on character. I found The Force Awakens to be a bit of a visual mess, with some sequence really standing out while others felt bland, but The Last Jedi has a unified vision that really pays off.
A common complaint about The Force Awakens was that it was basically a remake of A New Hope, and it’s a complaint that I put some stock in even if it wasn’t a dealbreaker for me. The easiest choice for the production team to take this time around would have been to remake The Empire Strikes Back, often regarded as the best Star Wars film. And it’s true, there are some similarities between The Last Jedi and Empire. Both feature young aspiring Jedi hoping to be trained by old masters in hiding and a rebellion defeated and on the run. But The Last Jedi is far from a remake. Rian Johnson takes things in new and unexpected directions, frequently making very different choices than I would have made had I been in his position. The result is a film that is often surprising and occasionally shocking, which challenges both our preconceptions about characters and story and our ideas about the defining characteristics of Star Wars. Some lingering questions are answered, some are discarded completely, while still others simply leave more questions in their wake. It’s an intense experience but it’s punctuated by a good number of laughs, but unlike The Force Awakens the humor here feels far more natural and in keeping with the spirit of the saga. The best aspect of the script, however, is the way the characters genuinely learn and grow over 2 ½ hours. By story’s end none of the characters are the same as when they started, and their experiences mold them into deeper individuals as the story progresses. They’re allowed to make mistakes and fail, and to learn from that failure, in ways that allow the film’s themes to be explored in interesting ways.
The Last Jedi has its faults, though. It’s longer than it needs to be, and is in fact the longest Star Wars movie ever. Parts of it start to drag at times or feel unnecessary, particularly a portion of Rose and Finn’s story which is a shame as the pair is great and the story does lead to some good character growth. Still, I’ll take a movie that is too long and a bit slow if it’s going to be as good as The Last Jedi. I’ll have more thoughts at a later date, perhaps once I’ve seen it again, that will be filled with spoilers, but for now I can safely say that The Last Jedi got things back on track for this sequel trilogy as far as I’m concerned. It’s a work of singular artistic vision and it takes the series in new, bold directions. It does the unexpected, it’s not afraid to take risks, and it keeps you guessing. It’s also fun, exciting, full of heart, and all the things you want from a Star Wars movie. And to top it all off, Rian Johnson will be bringing us a new trilogy of Star Wars films in the future featuring an entirely new cast of characters. From where I’m sitting he’s the right man for the job, and I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.