‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Review: A Saga Returns to Greatness
Rian Johnson grew up a Star Wars fan. There’s a well-known story about him getting a Millennium Falcon toy as a kid and accidentally breaking it when he tried to make it fly. Watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which Johnson wrote and directed, one gets the distinct sense he’s been waiting his whole life to make this movie; to guide these characters, to make the Falcon fly. The people in Star Wars implore one another to fulfill their destinies. With The Last Jedi, Johnson fulfilled his. Given the opportunity, he made the best Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back.
The film actively invites such comparisons. As the second film in the new Star Wars trilogy that began with 2015’s The Force Awakens, it is littered with parallels and allusions to Empire. Both films scatter their trio of protagonists across the galaxy. Both follow the Rebels (or the Resistance, as they’re now known) on the run from the Empire (or the First Order). Both introduce amoral characters who can’t be easily categorized as heroes or villains. And both feature a budding Jedi warrior waylaid on a distant planet, under the training of an eccentric teacher.
In Empire, the young Jedi was Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill); now he is the eccentric teacher. At the end of The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley) finally finds him on the planet of Ahch-To, where he has been hiding for years. With the First Order on the rise, General Leia (Carrie Fisher) has dispatched Rey to retrieve Luke, a source of hope throughout the galaxy, and convince him to rejoin the fight. For Rey, who discovered her own powerful connection to the Force in the last movie, the mission also gives her a unique opportunity to train with the last Jedi.
But Luke is committed to letting the Jedi ways die with him, following a disaster at the last school he founded. One of his students, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), was turned to the Dark Side by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), and then murdered all the other students. Now Kylo and Snoke are on the verge of destroying the Resistance, but Luke refuses to come back and face them, or to help Rey learn to focus her untapped powers.
If there’s one major issue with The Last Jedi, it’s this: After seven films, Star Wars has a lot of characters and subplots to service. Even with two paragraphs of plot I barely mentioned Leia, who’s leading the Resistance on a desperate race to find a new secret base with the brave but reckless Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). And I didn’t include a single mention of Finn (John Boyega), the First Order defector who became a trusted Rebel ally and now is sent on a quest that introduces two new characters: Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a Rebel maintenance worker, and DJ (Benicio Del Toro), a charismatic scoundrel. It takes Johnson a long time to put all of these pieces together and after a flurry of excitement in the opening space battle, the first and second acts of the movie settle into a surprisingly talky groove.
The Force Awakens was undeniably more exciting, particularly in the early scenes that introduced Rey, Poe, and Finn in thrilling fashion. But it also seemed to hew a little too closely to the franchise formula. The Last Jedi checks off all the boxes you want from a Star Wars movie, including one of the coolest lightsaber fights in the series’ 40 years, but Johnson is also interested in exploring new territory, including a consideration of the shadings and nuances to the Light and Dark Sides of the Force.
Past Star Wars have treated the two sides as a kind of yin and yang but Johnson digs into what that really means, and makes us reconsider preconceived notions of what the “good guys” and “bad guys” of the galaxy really stand for. Along the way Johnson’s screenplay provides some of the series’ most moving life lessons (the one about masters and students obliterated me) and a surprising number of big laughs — the film’s generally foreboding mood is regularly punctuated by a steady stream of hilarious one liners and visual gags.
It’s also very clear that this series has never had a director as good with actors as Johnson. Hamill’s performance in The Last Jedi may be the best in any Star Wars movie. Audiences barely got to see Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens, but he’s front and center throughout The Last Jedi. Years of mistakes have hardened the hero we once knew, along with Hamill’s features, although Luke’s humanity sneaks through in beautiful close-ups that linger on his moist eyes as he talks about Han Solo or reconnects with his old pal R2-D2 for the first time in decades. The fall of Luke Skywalker, and the way Hamill plays this spoiled icon of youthful heroism, is exactly what makes these new Star Wars special. There’s a lot of fantasy and fiction in these films. But what time has done to Hamill’s face, and the way his idealism has given way to something sadder and more realistic, couldn’t be faked with special effects. It requires the wisdom of age.
But even amidst the melancholy, there is a ton of joy and excitement in The Last Jedi; like the Force, this Star Wars is all about balance. Rian Johnson understands better than a lot of people who’ve worked on Star Wars — including George Lucas at times — that this saga is not about lightsabers or cool spaceships and aliens. At its core, Star Wars is about hope and inspiration. Without spoiling it, pay attention to the final scene of The Last Jedi. Observe who the last character on screen is, and what this person does. I believe that in this moment, this character is playing the role of Rian Johnson, and all the Rian Johnsons of the world who’ve found in Star Wars the spark that fueled their dreams.
-Adam Driver delivers the other great performance in this movie. Kylo Ren initially looked like a cheap Darth Vader knockoff but he’s proven to be the franchise’s most interesting new character. Driver’s astonishing range — he can play a petulant child in one scene, and a sensitive heartthrob in the next — serves Johnson well.
-Among other things, The Last Jedi is a defense of George Lucas’ notorious comments (at least among some longtime fans) that Star Wars is really for kids. The Last Jedi is dark and mature in some ways. But several key scenes make it obvious that Johnson is aiming his message at a young audience. I hope they hear him loud and clear.
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