A funny thing happened on the way to VIII; the Internet seemed to collectively decide it hated 2015's The Force Awakens. Despite critical acclaim and box office supremacy, TFA was written off by many fans as a soulless remake of the original Star Wars masquerading as a sequel, a cash-grab banking on decades of nostalgia. It’s a reputation the film still hasn’t shaken in some corners, and even if the underlying criticism is valid, I’m not sure it’s a fair one.
As I said at the time, director J.J. Abrams seemed so scared of not making a bad Star Wars movie that he didn’t want to risk making a great one, settling on something that turned out to be pretty good. But pretty good ain’t bad, and if structural plot similarities were enough to render new movies terrible, you’d probably never see another romantic comedy or superhero film again. There’s more to a movie than just the story being told, and the visuals, dialogue, characters, and music were more than enough to overcome what was an admittedly safe story.
Anyway, I digress. That was then. Fast forward two years to the release of Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, and for better or worse, “safe” is the one adjective that can’t be fairly applied here. This time around, director Rian Johnson (he of Looper fame) gleefully subverts audience expectations of what we expect from big franchise sequels, the second installment of trilogies, and from Star Wars itself. The end result is a boldly flawed film that decidedly isn’t the “best Star Wars since Empire,” but packed with enough set pieces to hold your attention and enough surprises to keep you guessing until the final frame. It’s already becoming something of a cliche to highlight Luke Skywalker’s line from the trailers that “this is not going to go the way you think” in reviews of the movie, but…yeah. This one is not going to go the way you think.
To the review. Punch it.
The Last Jedi opens more or less immediately after The Force Awakens. Coming off the high of destroying the third Death Sta — I mean Starkiller Base, the heroic Resistance is beating a full retreat from their headquarters on the planet D’Qar as the villainous First Order closes in with their starships, apparently having realized that an armada is just as good as a giant superweapon when it comes to conquering the galaxy. After trading some shots, the action cuts back to TFA’s ending on the planet Ahch-To, with the fledgling Force prodigy Rey (Daisy Ridley) offering a lightsaber to Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (the Mark Hamill) in a silent plea for his help.
And yes, I can hear the groans already; structurally, this is virtually identical to the set-up for The Empire Strikes Back. Swap D’Qar for Hoth, Ahch-To for Dagobah, the First Order for the Empire, the Resistance for the Rebellion, and Rey and Luke for a younger Luke and Yoda, and the claims of yet another rip-off write themselves.
And the moment you catch yourself thinking this, Rian Johnson has caught you in his trap. For the rest of the film’s running time, it’s one subtle and not-so-subtle subversion after another. Every time you think the film will zig, it zags. Just when you think it will launch forward, it’s more than content to pump the breaks. Once you think you’ve pinned down a character’s motivations, a new layer gets revealed. Even the major influences are a surprise, as The Last Jedi ultimately resonates more with Return of the Jedi and classic Japanese cinema more than it seems to be an homage to Empire. And from stem to stern, it’s probably the funniest Star Wars movie to date, often by dint of those very subversions.
To be clear: being subversive for subversion’s own sake is not necessarily good writing or good directing, and not all of Johnson’s swerves hit their mark — without going into spoilers and barring a new reveal in the upcoming Episode IX, one of the two major mysteries that fans have been speculating about for years is mishandled pretty badly. But it never feels mean-spirited, arrogant, or self-aware; Johnson is certainly toying with audience expectations, but it’s all in service to the larger story that he’s trying to tell. Part of that story (shout out to Phoebe Salzman-Cohen for the great post-premiere discussion on this subject) seems to be a commentary on the nature of storytelling itself, set in a universe where the stories of the prequel and original trilogies are actually history, and the mythic figures involved have to grapple with the effects of their own legends and the implications of failing to live up to them. It’s earnestly acted, it’s ambitiously written, it’s gorgeously shot, and love it or hate it, The Last Jedi is completely unafraid to try something new.
That said, it doesn’t always work.
At 150 minutes, this is the longest Star Wars movie to date, and it shows. Wedged between a thrilling opening and a stirring finale is a second act that seems to drag on forever, and it’s exacerbated by the disparate structure of most of the plot. While Rey and Luke ruminate on the nature of the Force and what it means to be a Jedi and the Sith scion Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) questions his commitment to the Dark Side, the Resistance plotline splits into two threads anchored by hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac in a mercifully expanded role) on one end and former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega in an unfortunately reduced one) on the other. Sometimes these threads connect in surprisingly poignant ways, but for the most part it means jumping around between four storylines that ultimately feel like an extended holding pattern for a breathtaking finale; a word I use both to praise the finale’s events and express fatigue for its length. It’s not quite Return of the King territory, but man. It’s up there.
This echoes a criticism that I had in my (unwritten) review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 from this spring: part of the fun of an ensemble of characters is seeing them interact with each other, and part of the tension in splitting them up is our (and their) desire to eventually reunite and the consequences that result if their reunion is delayed or mistimed. That tension has fueled every Star Wars movie to date, even the much-maligned prequels. With the exception of Finn’s single-minded devotion to seeing Rey again and ensuring her safety, TLJ seems uninterested in bringing them back together until the end. This is somewhat alleviated by the arrival of newcomers Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and Resistance mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), with the latter’s wide-eyed enthusiasm gamely rescuing by far the weakest subplot in the movie and the former unexpectedly fueling what might the best shot in the entire franchise, but the sense of broader camaraderie that is intrinsic seems to be missing for the first time. I don’t think it was worth it.
Nevertheless, when it comes time for The Last Jedi to hit its major beats, it does, thanks in large part to the resurgence of a grizzled Luke Skywalker and an expanded role for General Leia Organa (the dearly departed Carrie Fisher, to whom the film is lovingly dedicated). Both lend a gravitas to the movie amid its often-irreverent tone, and Hamill and Fisher carry themselves in-story like the legends their characters have become out of it. To say much more delves into spoilers with where these characters end up at film’s end, but as the movie throws twists and turns at the audience, their omnipresence anchors the story even when they aren’t on-screen and form a strong connection to the original films at the moments when the movie feels at its most disruptive to the Star Wars canon. I will say this much: The Last Jedi will make you miss Carrie Fisher even more, for all she brought to the movies and all that she might have brought to the final sequel installment in 2019.
There seems to be a disconnect brewing once again between professional critics and unaffiliated fans when it comes to The Last Jedi; there’s quite the divide between the tomatometer and audience reactions on Rotten Tomatoes, to say nothing of how it’s being treated on YouTube. This time around, I can see why; while many are declaring TLJ to be the best Star Wars since 1980 (e.g. the best since Empire), I’m not even sure it’s better than The Force Awakens. Episode VII knew what it was trying to be and succeeded. Episode VIII seemed as though it was trying to be many things and only succeeded at a few.
But that’s not a bad thing. In many respects, that’s kind of what Star Wars is all about, in and out of story. Taking bold risks, experimenting with new techniques and technologies, toying with the expectations of the people who are so certain they know how events will unfold. To put it succinctly, The Force Awakens was content to be merely good. The Last Jedi dared to be great. Whether it succeeded or failed, I salute the effort, and while I’m still working out where I’d slot it in my grand rankings of Star Wars movies, I’m very glad I saw it, and once again, even with growing concern over how Disney is buying the rights to everything, I’m once again impatiently counting down the days until Episode IX. 735, if you’re curious.
This a pretty short review by my standards, but the truth is, so much of The Last Jedi revolves around its mini-twists that there isn’t much more to say without getting sucked into the orbit of a spoiler. The visuals are great, the acting is solid, the story moves its characters to interesting new places, the jokes are hysterical, and the music, even though this is probably the first Star Wars movie to lack a breakaway standout track (such as the duel themes from I and III, the love theme from II, the villainous themes from V, VI, and Rogue One, Rey’s theme from VII and literally anything from the OG IV) draws from enough of the franchise’s musical history to power the onscreen action. I still have problems with the pacing, backstory, and treatment of the villains (dear god, people, what are you doing with Captain Phasma?), but it’s nothing that sinks the movie. Give it a spin this weekend, keep an open mind, and you may be surprised at just how much The Last Jedi surprises you.
May the Force continue to be with us all.
And also porgs.
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