Title: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Genre: Space Opera
Director: Rian Johnson
Stars (primary actors): Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaacs, John Boyega, and Mark Hamill
Bias: It’s Star Wars and I’m a nerd. I don’t think I could begin to list the biases (pro and con) that factor into this.
In A Nutshell: After their brief victory in The Force Awakens, the remains of the Resistance are on the run from the First Order. Rey (Ridley) has tracked down the missing Luke Skywalker (Hamill) and tries to convince him that he’s the last spark of hope the Resistance needs. Meanwhile, she finds herself drawn to a conflicted Kylo Ren (Driver). As the First Order hunts down the Resistance, Poe Dameron (Isaacs) chafes under the leadership of General Leia (Fisher) and Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), and Finn (Boyega) chases a MacGuffin with a Resistance mechanic (Kelly Marie Tran) who isn’t sure she can trust him.
The Critique: It’s impossible to talk about The Last Jedi without engaging in SPOILERS, so consider yourself warned. Writer/Director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) picks up where J.J. Abrams leaves off and immediately takes the story in unpredictable directions. While some complained that The Force Awakens was a beat-for-beat rehashing of A New Hope (a complaint I feel is overstated) this film almost feels like a deconstruction of the themes and tropes of the Star Wars saga. First, of course, are the two big questions fans had after the first film – who is Snoke (the giant holographic Emperor-like figure bossing Kylo Ren and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) around) and who were/are Rey’s parents? Oh, and how would Luke respond to Rey, last seen offering him his old lightsaber? Without getting too much into the online response to film, I do think that how you feel about those three answers will determine a lot about how you end up feeling about the rest of the film. For me, I was mostly onboard with all three (though the last was a bit too much on the cute side). As much as I loved The Force Awakens, I was never all that invested in those questions, and to the extent that I was, I got the answers I was hoping for.
Moving on to the action, Johnson makes some bold visual choices and inventiveness in the staging of several sequences. Specifically, The Last Jedi might feature the best space battle of ANY of the films in the opening sequence as the Resistance stages a bombing raid against a First Order Dreadnought to give the planet-side base time to evacuate. The battle, in which almost nothing goes right, also sets up the overarching theme of the film. If The Empire Strikes Back is the “dark” middle film of the original trilogy, this takes that darkness in a different direction, as the characters must struggle to overcome failure after failure throughout the film.
The epicness of that scene alone would likely be enough to win me over, but there are at least two other sequences (a lightsaber battle and planet-side action) that stand out, as well.
Finally, there are fantastic performances, including Fisher and Hamill reprising their roles and feeling more naturally like older versions of their characters than Ford did as Han (which isn’t really a complaint – Han felt like the Han of the original series, and I loved that, but he was a pretty stagnant character). Luke and Leia come across as characters that have lived life, felt pain, and changed because of it. Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose is a great addition to the series, with an ability to shift from enthusiastic hero-worship to a blue collar, no-nonsense cynicism at the drop of a hat.
The two stand-out performances, for me, are Isaacs and Driver, both of whom are given more to do in this film, and both playing characters that walk the line of likability in different ways. With Poe, it’s a case of the hotheaded rogue hero having to learn to be a leader (and learn that he doesn’t always have the answers) and, frankly, screwing up quite a bit in the process. Kylo, on the other hand, has a lot more layers in this film than the last, as he begins to question everything he seemed to believe in (or does he?). Not to mention that he’s the guy who killed Han Solo, so making the character someone the audience can sympathize with at all is a tough hurdle that Driver and Johnson manage to clear.
Having said all of that, the film is far from perfect. Finn, and to a lesser extent, Rey, are both underserved by their stories. Rey’s goals are to get Luke, then to try and turn Kylo, both of which are hard to invest in when one of the strengths of Rey in The Force Awakens was her self-reliance and drive. Finn’s arc, in which he learns to invest in the Resistance beyond his connection to Rey, looks fine on paper, but he’s not really given anything of consequence to do (by design) which ends up making his scenes feel pointless. It also feels like a bit of a rehash of his arc in the prior film, as he’s partnered with a much more invested, active, and competent female character which leaves him feeling a bit too bumbling for the second film in a row. And, relatedly, one of the things I loved the most about TFA was the relationship between Finn and Rey, so separating them for nearly the entirety of this film didn’t work for me.
The biggest problem, however, comes down to Johnson’s choice to try and focus on such a compressed narrative space (the plot essentially covers less than a day) while trying to service so many different characters. It simultaneously makes the film feel unfocused and messy in spots and without enough room to breathe in others. It’s ambitious, and that’s both a strength and a weakness. Ultimately, it works for me, and I love that I genuinely have no idea what’s going to happen next, but I can see where it might not have the same effect on others.
Shout-out: The late Carrie Fisher. Even if this hadn’t been her final role, I think we’d be talking about how great she is here. Every moment she’s onscreen worked for me.
To Go, to Rent, or to Netflix: See this in theaters. It’s thrilling, visually spectacular, and has some incredible sound design.