REVIEW: Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)

Theatrical Release Poster – Disney / Lucasfilm

The following is my review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi — Directed by Rian Johnson.

There is nothing like Star Wars. The Star Wars saga includes the biggest films of all-time, the most influential films of all-time, and one of the most rabid and passionate fandoms in popular culture. There is an innumerable amount of lore about the galaxy far, far away, and the philosophy of Jediism was once recorded as a religion. Star Wars, as author Chris Taylor wrote, conquered the universe, and its influences can be felt throughout popular culture. 

With J. J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Disney and Lucasfilm proposed a ‘reconquering,’ of sorts, of popular culture, and audiences came out in droves to see it. Star Wars was back — effectively back on top of the world. The aforementioned terrific Abrams’ film may have had a familiar plot, but it comfortably introduced audiences to new characters and reintroduced us to our old favorites. The Force Awakens was a triumph.

It has recently been decided that Abrams will return to the franchise to finish out this sequel trilogy with Episode IX, but before that happens another director has been given the reins to the greatest franchise in all of popular culture. Rian Johnson, the writer-director of Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, is not as ingrained in nerd culture as J. J. Abrams is. Johnson’s major contributions to popular culture include a couple of critically acclaimed indie hits, the underappreciated science-fiction film Looper, and some of the most noteworthy episodes of AMC’s Breaking Bad — including one of the greatest hours of television ever with Breaking Bad‘s “Ozymandias.”

And here we are. Star Wars: The Last Jedi has been released for all to see. The film takes place almost right after the end of The Force Awakens. The First Order, hot off the heels after having essentially wiped out the New Republic, is chasing the Resistance, and Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) has arrived on Ahch-To to ask Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill) to teach her the ways of the Force and help the galaxy once more. To say much more, would be to risk spoiling you of the experience of watching the highly anticipated sequel. But, speaking generally, this movie continues the fascination with the conflict within the new central characters, and the entirety of the film revolves around both the attempt to escape from the First Order and the attempt to bring back Luke Skywalker — the eponymous ‘last jedi.’

Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi may not end up as highly regarded in cinematic history as ‘Ozymandias’ is to television, but it certainly is the most confident and bold film in the Skywalker saga since Irvin Kershner’s masterpiece The Empire Strikes Back. The film tears down any and all expectations and most assumptions that you may have had of the continuation of the central saga story. There are twists and turns in this film that are genuinely unexpected. The Force Awakens was safe insofar as it closely followed the framework and story beats of George Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope, but, even though Star Wars: The Last Jedi certainly does owe a lot to the original trilogy in the way the film is structured, it is very different.

“This is not going to go the way you think.” – Luke Skywalker.

Saying something is bold and risky obviously doesn’t mean it is good, but I believe that The Last Jedi is not only bold and fresh, but also genuinely entertaining from start to finish. I think this is a great Star Wars movie, it just isn’t the movie you may have thought it was. Johnson’s approach is completely different than J. J. Abrams’, which does worry me seeing as Johnson’s film will be sandwiched in between two Abrams flicks. But Johnson tells you exactly that this isn’t The Force Awakens in Luke Skywalker’s first scene, which openly rejects the past and begins to reposition the focus of these films. Take everything you thought you knew about this movie and throw it off a cliff. The Last Jedi isn’t a retread, it is a move forward. The film defies expectations, and many of Johnson’s choices are impressively audacious. It is a different galaxy once the film is over, for better and worse.

That is also tied into one of the core themes of the film: letting go of the past. For that reason alone, this film will rub some Star Wars fans the wrong way. If you are averse to change, then this film won’t sit well with you, at least not on your first viewing of the film. Characters have to let go of the past that has come to define them, but the theme runs deeper than that. What this sequel trilogy, in essence, is asking of its audience is to let go of the pristine, picture perfect ‘and they lived happily ever after’ of the end of Lucas’ original trilogy. There can be no First Order without disturbance in the galaxy, and there can be no Kylo Ren or Rey without some kind of disturbance or evolution in the Force.

In The Force Awakens, we were asked to accept that Han Solo and Leia did not live happily ever after, that perhaps Han wasn’t a perfect father, and that some heroes’ journeys end in tragedy. The Last Jedi requests similar things from its audience, while it still declares that there are new heroes to teach and reposition as the faces of the franchise. As one memorable character notes, all masters must learn that their students outgrow them. It is one of the finest moments in the film as it crystalizes the changes and turns that the film expects us to take on. Let go of the past and accept change — it is a lot to ask of those of us that are die-hard fans of the franchise, but that is the price we pay for wanting to see what happens beyond the end of the Empire.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is frustrating but necessary and absolutely amazing. It is frustrating in the way that it insists on rejecting many things that had been set up by The Force Awakens, but the way in which Johnson rejects your theories and expectations is done in such a confident way that you almost can’t help but be in awe of the decision. Do all of these risks land well? No, but most of them do. Even when The Last Jedi chucks an interesting character introduced briefly in The Force Awakens out of the window in an effort to build on another character unique to this trilogy, it feels earned and even somewhat wise.

Another risk that Johnson takes is fundamentally altering our perspective of the Force and its limits. This may be another thing that infuriates Star Wars purists, but, again, I think most of it works — I think most of it works really well actually. In altering our perspective of the Force, Johnson is also deepening our understanding of the Force, even if some may say the, for some, boundless powers of the Force in The Last Jedi is somewhat illogical, or unexplained, for the established galaxy. This sudden and surging evolution of the powers of the Force also isn’t just thrown in there as a bonus. On your second viewing you may notice how well Johnson sets up particular changes to pay off later in the film.

I appreciate all of the risks taken here, and, seeing as I do think most of them work, these weren’t really problems with the movie, for me. There are some risks that I have issues with as a fan, but I don’t think they hurt the movie, per se. I have four quibbles with the film. For one, I think that some of the jokes fall alarmingly flat. Secondly, I think the end scene, which I do like, feels tacked on. It almost feels like that ending scene was intended to be a hopeful post-credits scene, but that Disney and Lucasfilm — in the last minute — decided that they didn’t want one of those in The Last Jedi. I also dislike how a major part of the plot hinges on withheld information.

My final legitimate issue that I have with the film is that I just don’t think the Canto Bight-subplot works very well. It is a sequence which, among other things, includes what I thought looked like a visual homage to the famous party dolly shot in William Wellman’s Wings as well as genuinely interesting discussions about the wealthy in the galaxy far, far away. Yet even though this subplot looks wonderful and is fairly interesting, it didn’t immediately feel like Star Wars, to me. I think this sequence borrows a lot from other franchises. It also just feels like a detour from the most interesting pieces of The Last Jedi that goes on for too long, and it sets up the blossoming of a romance that I think feels somewhat forced, pun intended.

But there is so much to like or even love about this movie. I was particularly impressed with how well Rian Johnson balances all of these strong characters. Just like The Empire Strikes Back, characters go on separate adventures only to rejoin each other at the very end, but Johnson juggles many more characters than they ever did in The Empire Strikes Back. Although Rey and Kylo Ren’s journeys are the most highly anticipated in this film, Johnson also pays a lot of attention to the character development of new fan-favorite characters like Poe Dameron. Dameron, who originally was supposed to be killed off in The Force Awakens, is thrust into a leadership role in this film, and in The Last Jedi he is given plenty of advice on how to be the leader the Resistance needs. You can always count on Oscar Isaac to deliver a strong performance, but his is not the most remarkable performance in the film.

Adam Driver’s performance as Ben Solo, also known as Kylo Ren, was my favorite thing about The Force Awakens, and I think he gives the best performance in The Last Jedi as well. Driver gives it his all, and puts out yet another iconic performance as the conflicted villain-in-the-making known as Kylo Ren. Daisy Ridley is also very good here, and I think it shows that she has grown with the role. Driver has great chemistry with Daisy Ridley, and their interactions are terrific.

Mark Hamill didn’t get to say anything in The Force Awakens, thus robbing him from getting his moment in the spotlight there. In The Last Jedi, Mark Hamill gives one of his best performances as an old man unsatisfied with the hubris and vanity of the legends that decorate the legacy of the Jedi Order and that have come to define him. He made a mistake with Ben Solo, and in his self-imposed exile he is basically trying to bury the ancient order with him. Hamill hasn’t been this good since The Empire Strikes Back. This is also a film about growing old, and that is one of my favorite things about it.

The other remaining Star Wars legend from the original trilogy is Carrie Fisher’s Leia. They had filmed the entire film before Carrie Fisher passed away, and therefore her appearance is much more than a cameo. I was really happy with how Rian Johnson treated Fisher and Leia here. There are some really great moments for her character. This will be Fisher’s last film, and it is a good tribute to her. She is very good here. Leia and Poe aren’t the only leaders in the Resistance. In The Last Jedi, we are introduced to Amilyn Holdo. Holdo is played by Laura Dern, and she is one of two great additions to the main cast. The other great addition is Rose Tico played by Kelly Marie Tran. Tran gets to work a lot with the very charming John Boyega in this film.

Admittedly, this John Williams score isn’t his best work in the series, but I thought it was a solid score nonetheless. The film also looks fantastic. Director of photography Steve Yedlin has done a great job here, it is a beautiful film. There are some great sets here, including one jawdroppingly gorgeous red throne room. I think the film stumbles a bit during the Canto Bight-subplot, and it may be a tad too long — but I was never bored.

Taking everything into account after having seen the film more than once, I think Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an impressive new episode in the Star Wars saga. It is a thought-provoking exploration of heroism, legacy, accepting change, and learning through loss. It is one of the more mature entries in the saga. It points us in a new direction for Star Wars, and it repositions the franchise. It certainly isn’t without its flaws, but Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a confident sequel that challenges audiences by giving us a story about disappointment, failure, and the end of legends.

9 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen

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