Though it is the longest Star Wars film to date, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a satisfying and funny rumination on the film series’ visual tropes, narrative conventions and history which adds up to the best of the three films in the current Disney cycle.
Starting shortly before Star Wars: The Force Awakens even ends, it picks up a familiar thread from The Empire Strikes Back. Our plucky band of ill-equipped rebels (or resistance fighters in this case) are on the run for a superior, sophisticated and well-dressed space navy. But the similarities fall away as the specifics come into focus and the last stand of the Resistance base takes zero cues from Empire‘s AT-AT attack.
Though echoes of that battle will emerge later.
The opening fight, a masterpiece of Star Wars movie-making, is just one of the ways writer/director Rian Johnson brings a new playful life to some of the oldest of Star Wars plot points. It also sets up a major thread for Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) that pulls him away from being a mere Han Solo analogue.
Pulling the new characters away from the places fans assumed they would end up after The Force Awakens is a major element of the film. Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) story takes on just about every assumption people had about her and either dismisses them for laughs or dives straight for them to ratchet up tension. For Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), becoming an echo of Star Wars‘s past is more than a thematic concern. Finn (John Boyega), meanwhile, goes on a new mission which underscores a major character flaw only glimpsed in The Force Awakens.
His story is by far the most enjoyable as it avoids much comparison to Empire and partners him up with Rose Tico (the amazing and adorable Kelly Marie Tran); a wholly new element in Star Wars lore who very nearly steals Finn’s story from him. Her journey from squeeing fangirl to brave Rebel fighter is worth the price of admission alone.
But then the film honors the series’ oldest major character by giving Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) a complex, sad, and ultimately uplifting story line. While there are definite similarities to Luke’s time on Dagobah in this story strand, Johnson creates a new and different tension as Luke is now the (reluctant) master. As stated in the trailers, he wants the Jedi religion to end. Once you hear his argument, you will understand his reasoning completely. But just as Empire‘s Dagobah scenes ruminated on the Force, The Last Jedi‘s Ach-To scenes ruminate on the Jedi. In fact, some of these ideas will be very familiar to anyone who appreciated the deconstruction of the Jedi in the Knights of the Old Republic video games.
In fact, The Last Jedi introduces the notion that the black & white worldviews of the Jedi and the Sith — and, indeed, Star Wars itself — are too limited. Characters begin to see systemic problems inherent in the Republic, the Resistance and the First Order; and the prequel trilogy’s prophesied balance returns as a compelling way forward for the main Star Wars saga.
Visually, Johnson finds new astounding images within the Star Wars canvass. Both in playing with traditional camera set-ups and in finding wholly new visual grammar, he admirably adds to the series’ look and tone. He even manages to integrate traditional flashbacks into the mix. Some may complain the film lacks for Johnson’s personal idiosyncrasies, but it is there in lines of salt, surprising asides and the ramped-up humor which pervades the film — even during its climax!
Johnson’s stamp also appears in the film’s odd structure and length. As with his earlier film Looper, The Last Jedi becomes a different movie as it nears its end. Which is not a bad thing as it manages to reincorporate its initial mission statement. But it means you will feel the movie’s runtime, marvel when it continues well past a natural end point into an Episode 7.5, and notice how the film under-serves Gwendoline Christie again.
But then, you may not mind that unusual structure as The Last Jedi offers amazing moments with General Leia Organa (the late great Carrie Fisher), Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), the odious and callow General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and newcomer Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), a character so instantly wonderful and beautiful that you’ll want A Star Wars Story featuring her and how she came to the Resistance. Additionally, the film’s final battle — and its echo of Empire — reminds you what a pleasure it is to sit in the Star Wars universe with a director who is enjoying his time in the toybox.
Johnson even managed to artfully employ the Porgs.
Since this is still Disney-era Star Wars, it’s easy to spot the product placement, future ride developments and other business opportunities mixed into the surprisingly complete story. But embedded within the film is a possible repudiation of those things as the series heads for Episode IX.
Come to think of it, the film will leave you wondering if we even need the next episode.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in theaters now.