Editor’s note: This is a spoiler free review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Any readers who have not seen the film will not have to worry about the plot being spoiled for them, nor the fates of any of the film’s characters.
Each December of the past two years saw eyes upon Lucasfilm. This year is no different, if not more so than ever before. That’s because Star Wars: The Last Jedi has the added pressure of being the middle film in the sequel trilogy. How do you support an established narrative while simultaneously raising the stakes for a third and final film? Somehow, director Rian Johnson stepped up to the plate and knocked this chapter in the Star Wars saga out of the park and into our favorite galaxy far, far away.
Months before its official release, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) mentioned in a trailer for The Last Jedi that “this is not going to go the way you think.” How those words ring true. As I sat in the theater on opening night, each one of my hypotheses surrounding the film were thrown out the window. I was surprised at every turn. This is a Star Wars film unlike any other.
The story of The Last Jedi picks up directly after the events of The Force Awakens. The Resistance secured a victory over the First Order by destroying the Starkiller Base, but the latter is now hot on the Resistance’s trail. With the New Republic destroyed, eliminating the Resistance means the First Order can reign supreme. So begins a long and arduous game of cat and mouse. In fact, the opening space battle of The Last Jedi did everything from making me laugh, and feel tension and grief. It’s a testament to Johnson’s vision for the film in that we see the familiar tropes that we’ve grown to love, but Johnson also shatters tradition, and our expectations with it.
Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to apprentice herself to a tired and cantankerous Luke Skywalker who has sworn off teaching prospective Jedi ever again, much to Rey’s continued insistence that the galaxy is in desperate need of Skywalker’s help. It is here that Hamill gives his best performance as Luke Skywalker, where just the look on his face tells the painful story of the Jedi Order’s downfall at the hands of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Moreover, the master-apprentice relationship between Skywalker and Rey is an interesting dynamic thanks to the synergy between Hamill and Ridley. It’s peppered with subtle humor at first, much like the Luke-Yoda apprenticeship from The Empire Strikes Back. Yet it’s true attention grabber is that, where Luke asserted he was not afraid of the power within him to Yoda, Rey openly admits she’s afraid of the once dormant power within her.
Luke gets a lot of flak for departing from what made the character memorable in the original trilogy. But Luke was not a traditionally conditioned Jedi to begin with was he? He was trained far later in life. He fought Darth Vader out of fear of losing his friends on Bespin. He gave into anger to overpower his father when he threatened to turn Leia. If anyone gets an excuse to feel deeply wounded by entertaining the line of thought that Luke tiptoed around prior to his Order’s downfall it’s Skywalker himself. I agree with Luke himself: the Jedi at the height of their power were victims to their own hubris. To say that a Jedi dies; the light dies bears the trappings of vanity. To the film’s credit, Luke explores concepts of the Force, and one’s role within the Living Force, that we haven’t seen on screen before, and the payoff is poetic.
On the other side of the coin we see Kylo Ren attempting to assuage his apprenticeship with Supreme Leader Snoke, brought to life by a captivating performance from Andy Serkis. No longer a mere hologram, we witness the frightening power that Snoke possesses. Moving bodies with mere thought and flick of the wrist, and an eerily boisterous voice that demands attention. It seems the way of masters of the dark side to impart substantial pressure on their apprentices, most likely to incite anger and hatred to breed limitless power. Driver brings such menace to a Kylo Ren that seeks to earn his master’s approval but also to comprehend his place in the galaxy and in the Force. Where in The Force Awakens he was randomly explosive, The Last Jedi sees Kylo Ren focused and more receptive to consequences; cautiously aimed as opposed to being let completely loose. Driver’s performance reaches new heights. However, a plot point that was introduced with this pair quickly slams a door shut in on itself as soon as it was opened. There may no longer be incentive to continue this story on screen. And yet, it was a very bold decision that, as I mentioned earlier, defies expectation from the past and brings something new to the table.
For those wondering how Rey could possibly be as gifted as she is, Snoke answered that himself, even in the trailer. “Darkness rises, and light to meet it.” There has been an awakening in the Force. Kylo Ren is that rising darkness, and it seems that the Force has called on Rey to be the light. Although we haven’t seen this payoff just yet, I’m excited at the possibilities of this duality.
Yet the galaxy does not only rely on the help of Force sensitives, but also those with a heart to succeed. Such are the likes of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). Poe is ever the trigger-happy flyboy, yet Isaac’s performance outside of the cockpit is to be lauded as Poe finds himself under the command of Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) and the two butt heads time and time again. Dern fantastically portrays Holdo with tongue-in-cheek pluckiness, lifted straight out of the Leia: Princess of Alderaan novel, and yet there’s a degree of unwavering resolve. Poe and Holdo each have a means to an end, and that heated tension carries throughout the film, despite getting slightly predictable and worn at each turn.
Meanwhile, Finn and Rose pursue their own last-ditch-effort mission to save the Resistance by attempting to retrieve a master code breaker. Their mission brings them to the casino planet of Canto Bight, which has fast become one of my new favorite locations in the saga. Where the Mos Eisley cantina was home to scum and villainy, and the high levels of Coruscant showed us the club hopping scene, Canto Bight shows us how the pompous and pontifical denizens of the galaxy enjoy their time. Canto Bight makes it a point to show off imaginative new alien species, and a fresh view on a brand of evil born out of war profiteering. Eventually the pair come across the likes of DJ, played by an eccentric Benicio Del Toro. Del Toro brings a fresh perspective to the shady character trope. True, DJ is out for his own gain, but he alludes to Finn and Rose that there could be more to the white and black dynamic of do-gooders and villains personifying each side of the war.
It’s around this midpoint of the film that features a Canto Bight racetrack displaying a new creature called fathiers; large dog-horse hybrid creatures that are whipped and prodded by their trainers for the amusement of race goers. While the segment, and the ensuing chase sequence, does a great job of communicating the empathic nature of Rose, it seems to convey that the film was in need of a quick action sequence to quench our thirst for the film’s high stakes second half and therefore drags down the plot’s gaining steam, if only for a moment.
Special mention has to go to the late Carrie Fisher, and her performance as General Leia Organa. Fisher was able to wrap filming for The Last Jedi prior to her untimely death, making this her final performance as the character. Without a doubt, for every scene she appears in, Fisher steals the show. Leia’s arc in The Last Jedi is poignantly synonymous with the real world loss of Fisher, in which the character remarks on such themes as conviction and the fear of loss. It was said that each sequel film would focus on an older character. Han to The Force Awakens, and Luke to The Last Jedi. However, Fisher’s Leia in The Last Jedi is astounding, mesmerizing, witty, and… “charming to the last.” Dare I say, a hope I held for the film for Leia did indeed come true. I also could not help but fight back tears at Leia’s haunting gaze behind her veiled cloak just prior to the Battle of Crait. Well done, Ms. Fisher.
John Williams yet again provides an unprecedented score that got more respect from me on my second viewing. I felt The Force Awakens lacked Williams’ signature diverse leitmotifs for characters, places, and things, but The Last Jedi presents them in spades to the point I have to tap replay in my car’s audio system (I’ve been listening to the soundtrack nonstop). Familiar leitmotifs such as that of the Force, the Emperor’s theme, and Luke and Leia’s theme return. However, some of The Last Jedi’s best new pieces include the airy and woodwind centric theme of Rose that then flares into brilliant brass power notes that brings adventure into the falthier chase. The greedy echelon of Canto Bight is musically portrayed, like an island paradise, via the use of steel drums and wonderful muted trumpets.
For as dark and tragic the film can be at times, there’s just the right touch of humor in the scrappy porgs, BB-8, and, yes, Poe trolling General Hux. While there were more instances of comic relief, I felt they didn’t overstay their welcome with the overall pensive tone of the film, especially given that The Last Jedi is now the longest running film in the saga. In fact, even the use of Porgs felt in keeping with the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi as opposed to the overabundance of Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace. What’s more is that we are again immersed in a beautiful visual representation of this beloved galaxy. The use of practical effects once again is a visual marvel such as the crystal fox-like creatures called vulptex.
Rian Johnson, and The Last Jedi by association, is an exciting, apologetic, bold step forward for the Star Wars brand. Where some criticized The Force Awakens for being too similar to A New Hope, The Last Jedi borrows the best characteristics of the saga, but also is brave enough to stand on its own. While the plot may pose more questions than it does answer, the adventure along the way is spectacular. The Last Jedi seems to exude this pattern of breathing deep before uttering a shout. Just when you reach a moment of stillness, Johnson pulls you out of it again and again. In doing so, I laughed, I cried, I was heartbroken, I was excited, my mouth hung agape.
I don’t believe there’s such thing as a “real” Star Wars fan, or a “real” fan of anything. Beginning an argument with the words “real” or “true” commands eyes to roll. What absurd amount of criteria do you need to meet to even be called such a thing? Encasing your hand in a vacuum sealed container for life after George Lucas shook it? This is the man who, as recently as Star Wars Celebration 2017, said his saga was and still is for 12 year olds. It’s all subjective to everyone in the end. While it’s easy to tell when one film is similar to another (The Force Awakens to A New Hope), it’s also easy to tell when one film is very different, as is the case with The Last Jedi. “It’s too similar. It’s too different. It’s not similar enough. It’s not different enough. Too much this. Not this.” The Star Wars fandom belongs to everyone. The narrative does not. For the story, it’s Lucasfilm who is the author and finisher of that narrative.
That being said, the final scene of The Last Jedi brings home exactly what Star Wars set out to be, and is taken straight from Lucas’ own mouth. It’s that final scene that, in my opinion, was a brilliant end to a solid film. May the Force be with you.