Star Wars: The Last Jedi | Rian Johnson | December 15, 2017
The Force Awakens was J.J. Abrams’ attempt to create a new Star Wars story in a way that was fairly safe and reminiscent of previous installments, as if slowly dipping its toes into the water to establish that this was indeed a story worth telling. It gave us new characters mixed with the beloved preexisting world, while also using familiar beats to ease us into the process and give us some comfort in knowing that this wasn’t going to be anything resembling George Lucas’ prequels. It seems that in the two years since The Force Awakens broke box office records that the fandom has turned against the movie, citing it for being nothing more than a rehash of A New Hope.
In comes Rian Johnson (who both directed and wrote this latest installment), who pushes the story forward even more and isn’t out to make another conventional Star Wars picture. There are some big choices to be made and Johnson is fully up to the challenge and certainly risks putting off the legions of dedicated fans who probably already have a clear path for where they want the story to go in their minds. Based on internet chatter and talks with some friends, this seems to be the case, as a lot of Star Wars die-hards don’t agree with some of the decisions Johnson has made with his film. But credit to Johnson, as I am sure he was aware that this was a possibility anytime you shake up the expected status quo of such a huge piece of machinery, such as this mega-franchise. While not all of the choices worked for me and won’t for many people, there are enough moments that do work to balance it all out.
Johnson’s story picks off right where The Force Awakens left off. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), along with her resistance fighters such as Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), continue the battle against General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and the rest of the First Order army under the leadership of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Rey (Daisy Ridley) comes face-to-face with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has been long tucked away on a remote island where he wants to be left in peace. Her goal is to find out the truth about Luke’s history with his nephew Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), ultimately hoping that he can give her the insight she needs to possibly bring Kylo Ren back into the light. Then there’s a storyline with Finn (John Boyega), who goes on a mission with mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and BB-8 so that the First Order will no longer be able to track General Organa’s ship.
It seems many fans expected The Last Jedi simply to show symmetry to The Empire Strikes Back in dark tone and bring some darkness upon our characters. And in many instances, it’s there, but things don’t go down quite the way you’re expecting. Johnson takes plenty of risks and offers many surprises that take it all to some unexpected places. Without diving into spoilers, if the film does dive into a dark somber territory, it’s through the thematic element of the characters failing or previous failures, as well as the concept of letting go of the past – from Luke’s failure to successfully train Kylo Ren to the failures of new heroes such as Rey, Finn, and Poe. Failure is a tough pill to swallow, but a necessary lesson and often the best teacher to allow for future greatness and it’s this part of the script that sneaks up on you and may go missed by those who are too busy nitpicking about plot points that aren’t going the way that they want or envisioned.
That’s not to say that this is a movie without problems, as there are some. At an unwieldy 152 minutes, it’s way too long. A much tighter edit would’ve benefited certainly storylines and it felt like Johnson often struggled to carry the weight of all the necessary due diligence of the ever-expanding character list, with old favorites such as Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2 going on the back-burner. Finn’s arc to the casino city of Canto Bight, where they engage with a shady character known as DJ (Benicio del Toro). I am sure I am not alone in echoing my frustration with this whole subplot, but especially the time here felt like a deviation that didn’t enhance the story but rather disrupted the much stronger and engaging plot points with Luke, Rey and Kylo Ren. Not to mention that I just wasn’t buying into the character of DJ or the performance of Benicio del Toro, which is not something I’d thought I’d ever say.
Casual fans are more likely to find pleasure in this film that those diehards super engrained and devoted to the mythology. I’m sure they won’t agree with many of Johnson’s fundamental choices here and may have severe nitpicks here as some questions are left over from the previous entry and many raised about what comes next. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of this series, but I am not nearly as attached as so many others and was able to let go a bit and just enjoy the ride and vision that Johnson has set forth.
It’s a film with some points that don’t work (maybe a bit too much oddly timed humor), lows if you will. But for all the lows, there are some major moments here that, for me, stand out as some of the best scenes of the series’ history. Particularly many moments with Luke and one hell of an epic lightsaber battle that Johnson stages wonderfully and executes in spectacular fashion. Shot on film by cinematographer Steve Yedlin, there is some stunning imagery that deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible, paired perfectly with the familiar score of this series’ longtime composer John Williams.
Johnson’s position is not an easy one, to please fans who want things done their way, to try and offer something new that feels authentic to what came before it, but also offering a visionary look ahead. You don’t want to keep things too familiar or you’ll get similar flack that Abrams got with The Force Awakens. There’s really no winning in a way when you take a step back and look at the many factions of people that he has to please. So I can understand that there are many fans who may not be seeing the Star Wars they want, but the story has to evolve. If it’s for better or worse, that’s ultimately for every individual viewer and fan to decide.
The biggest takeaway from The Last Jedi is the performance from Mark Hamill, easily his strongest work to date in the series and possibly of his career. He’s broken down and not the Luke that we remember, both physically and philosophically. Hamill’s grizzly and worn down look perfectly fits the bill. Getting to see him briefly interact with some old friends and family will toy with one’s emotions and he sold every single beat to perfection. Carrie Fisher offers a more subdued but equally moving performance, sadly her last after her tragic passing last year. It is hard to see how they will handle it all in the next installment, but at least we have this performance to treasure. Of the new faces in this trilogy, Daisy Ridley offers more solid work as Rey, and, of course, Andy Serkis offers a great physical performance as Supreme Leader Snoke. But the real standout of the pack is Adam Driver, who offers quite a bit of range as Kylo Ren, who you can’t stand, yet you strangely admire. Ren is nowhere as imposing a villain as in previous installments, but Driver’s strong performance is enough to elevate his character, offering an interesting yin and yang dynamic with Rey.
It seems that fans who initially like The Force Awakens grew less fond of it over time. So far I am hearing that fans are mixed on The Last Jedi, but I have a feeling this film may have the opposite effect in due time. If you’re able to let go of what you want to happen and try to embrace a fresh take on this series and a different exploration of the galaxy that you wish to call you’re own, I think more appreciation of this film may surface. Not only does The Last Jedi surprise with the way it handles the story, but in the way it handles themes and an emotionally moving and thrilling third act that ultimately won me over. You can sense that Johnson is an artist who deeply cares about this franchise and he paints this new work with a loving care and adoration that it carries home in an equally thrilling and moving fashion.