Review: ‘STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI’ Takes a Brave Leap Forward

Everyone say it with me, one more time: “The best Star Wars since Empire Strikes Back.” Okay? We’ve got that part down.

This is not going to go the way you think.

–Luke Skywalker

You don’t need me to write a full The Last Jedi review. Obviously, if you’ve clicked on this, you’re seeing it. You just want to know if it’s good.

Reader, it is good. Great, even.

But if you want to know why it’s so good, read on. And you don’t need to worry about spoilers here — that’s for the Roundtable I’m doing with Brian and Manu, which you should check out here once you’ve seen the film. What follows are my general non-spoilery impressions of The Last Jedi, boiled down to three simple ideas.

It’s About the Characters, Dummy

Similar to Empire Strikes Back, the film opens with what’s left of the ragged Resistance trying to avoid extermination by the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (a mo-cap Andy Serkis) and his snivelling military commander, Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). After a heart-stopping aerial sequence, Leia (Carrie Fisher, in her final appearance) and her merry band find escape more difficult than they anticipated, and the screws keep turning throughout the film.

The Force Awakens had to walk a nearly-impossible tightrope in introducing a new generation of lovable heroes (and hissable villains) while remaining true to what, and who, fans loved about Star Wars. Fortunately, Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo Ren were indelible favorites almost immediately, and much of that was owed to the incredible casting. This quartet of young actors (give or take an Oscar Isaac) didn’t wilt under the pressure, or the gauntlet of press obligations, but flew. And in The Last Jedi, writer/director Rian Johnson takes the internal conflicts set up in Episode VII and pushes them farther, and the performers are more than up to the task.

Isaac’s Poe Dameron has to learn to be a leader, not just a hotshot pilot; a desperate gambit takes the coward-turned-hero Finn (John Boyega), along with Rose Tico, a sweet-natured but deceptively tough mechanic (Kelly Marie Tran, making her own memorable debut) to a brand-new planet; meanwhile, everyone waits for Rey to return with Luke Skywalker in tow, but the elder Jedi has simply holed up on the island planet of Ahch-To to die. Mark Hamill, quite simply, is magnificent, using Luke’s cynicism to mask deep, self-inflicted wounds. And Daisy Ridley, as you already know, is a star. Most rewarding, however, is her yin-yang with Kylo Ren, and Adam Driver’s idiosyncratic line readings and gangly energy add up to what’s becoming a complex and iconic heavy. But they’re all a piece of the larger whole, a story about generations and cycles and “letting old things die” — a message for the diehards, perhaps — and, most of all, hope. It’s unsubtle, but it’s honest. This is at its peak in the late Carrie Fisher’s scenes, and simple lines of dialogue take on a devastating poignancy.

Rian Johnson Directs the Hell Out of It

J.J. Abrams did exactly what he had to do with The Force Awakens. People are free to find faults with it, but it showed that Star Wars was in trustworthy hands going forward. And where Abrams made every directorial decision by answering the question “is this pleasurable?,” Johnson, stepping into what’s expected to be the darker third of the trilogy, has bigger artistic goals in mind. The director has been best known for his exemplary work on Breaking Bad (the episodes “Ozymandias” and “Fly”), as well as his time-travel story Looper, his first attempt at blockbuster-sized action. His debut feature, the “neo-noir in a high school” Brick, is one of my all-time favorite films, and you can see the seeds for Jedi’s success way back in 2006 in his confident style and dedication to character.

It begins with the images, assisted by cinematographer Steve Yedlin. From breathtaking wide shots to mirror caves, from the dazzling colors to iconic silhouettes, Johnson makes bold choices every step of the way. There’s red all over the film: in Snoke’s throne room, and in the blood-crimson soil of the mining planet at the film’s climax. There’s a tracking shot, flying over the floor of the Canto Bight casino, straight out of the 1927 silent film Wings. There’s an image of one beloved character, framed like a gunslinger against an impossible enemy and the setting sun, that made me audibly gasp. The Last Jedi is the first film in the saga made by a true auteur.

It’s also incredibly funny, and not like a “writer’s room” funny where people are just throwing out one-liners — it’s rooted in the story and characters. I love Poe’s swagger, and Kylo’s petulance, and everyone taking opportunities to dumk on Hux. The squee-inducing Porgs might be overplayed in Jedi’s marketing, but they aren’t in the film. Even the ultra-serious Rey gets a couple good lines in. If anything, I would fault the film for being a little too amused with itself; after the third reaction shot of one character giving another an awkward glance, the point had already been made.

That’s not the only flaw, either, but I can talk myself out of nitpicking the film’s pacing and structural issues. The Canto Bight sequence will absolutely be the most polarizing, as much for its left-field ideas as for its seeming lack of impact on the story at hand. But the more I thought about it, the more I have to believe Johnson is committed to expanding this world, planting the seeds for future installments — not just Episode IX (with Abrams back in the director’s chair), but for his own recently-announced original trilogy. A filmmaker of his caliber works to make sure all 152 minutes matter, for emotional and thematic reasons, if not plot reasons. And if nothing else, the sequence serves to make the film’s strongest political point, about the .1% who profit no matter who’s winning the star war.

It Expands the Mythos In Satisfying Ways

But the biggest surprises — the spoilers you’ll actually want to avoid — come on the spiritual front, and the film’s use of Luke as delivery system of a new way to think about the Force. The tension between the Jedi as mystics and as flawed crusaders has never been more palpable, a dichotomy Hamill plays beautifully. But Johnson sets aflame (nearly literally) the “midichlorian” garbage that has dogged the films since 1999, which is both narratively and emotionally satisfying. He also telescopes the focus down to just Luke, Rey, and the intergalactic connection she forms with Kylo Ren, as they tug at each other across the scales of darkness and light. It’s this thread, of the entire trifurcated narrative, that we’re most eager to return to, especially when the film begins to sag slightly around the middle.

He also smartly plays against viewer expectations; if The Force Awakens was A New Hope with a new coat of paint, The Last Jedi occupies the same grey zone as Empire, but doesn’t follow the same beats. Instead, the echoing images and callbacks — AT-ATs across a white plain, mysterious caves — are more than just winks to fans, but a metaphor; there can be victory in simply not repeating the same mistakes as our predecessors. I thought, as I am wont to do, of Tolkien, and of a quote from Gandalf about how our job is “uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.” The Dark Side can never fully be destroyed; all Rey, Finn, and Poe can do is fight in their time. I could quote Battlestar Galactica, too, whose early episodes have a lot in common with Jedi: “All of this will happen before, and all of this will happen again.” Johnson knows this, and looks to the future as much as to the past.

There’s much more to discuss, of course; I haven’t even mentioned Laura “Space Dern” Dern as a Resistance commander, or Benicio Del Toro’s typically weird turn as a codebreaker, or the appearance from Maz Kanata so brief you wonder if Lupita Nyong’o is slumming. Or the classic John Williams score, which doesn’t break new ground, but features at least one returning cue that will make you stand up and cheer. Or how delightfully tactile the world is. Or the many, many, many other things I dare not mention at all. Just know, to close this out, that The Last Jedi is an exhilarating near-masterpiece, and shows that the future of Star Wars is brighter than ever.

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