Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the
Star Wars franchise with 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).
Thankfully, the latest entry in the series, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, has a refreshingly new story to tell. Writer-director Rian Johnson clearly intends to subvert our expectations at every turn. Yes, it takes entirely too long to get started and then it doesn’t know when to end, but Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a rousing space adventure that spares the platitudes in favor of big emotional payoffs.
When last we saw Rey (Daisy Ridley), she was presenting a visibly haggard Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) with his iconic lightsaber as they posed for a dramatic aerial camera shot. Luke
very reluctantly takes the powerful young girl under his crusty wing, but not for the reasons you might imagine. It’s the first of many surprises concocted by Johnson (Brick (2005), Looper (2012), and the mighty “Ozymandias” from Breaking Bad), who taunts our knowledge and familiarity with the franchise in delightfully twisted ways.
While it’s overly simplistic to call this the darkest chapter in the series (that honor still falls to the masterful
The Empire Strikes Back), it’s certainly fair to say Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the most cynical. Luke’s selfish reasons for tutoring Rey, along with multiple Rashomon-like flashbacks revealing the betrayal of his former apprentice, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), reflect a modern-day cynicism that fans of the original Star Wars trilogy might find jarring (but not Jar Jarring, fortunately).
This is a world where Good and Evil fight one another not out of ideological necessity, but as a byproduct of inescapable human frailty and those who profit by enabling it. Both forces are helplessly trapped in a “machine” that will play out the same cycle over and over again. The only thing that truly matters — that which sustains us through the pointless monotony — is the emotional connection that binds us together. It’s ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.
Aside from Rey’s training and her inevitable dalliance with the Dark Side, Johnson must set up two other story threads that are, sadly, less interesting on their own. General “Princess” Leia (Carrie Fisher in her last role) scrambles her fighters, including the “trigger-happy flyboy,” Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), to run interference for the Resistance’s crippled spaceship. The First Order (the bad guys in this new trilogy) can track the Resistance during light speed jumps, allowing Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) to simply follow the ship until it runs out of fuel. Apparently, none of their favorite television shows are on, so they’ve got nothing better to do with their time.
In the third thread, Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) must sneak aboard the First Order ship and disable the light speed tracking device. This quest takes them to a planet populated by wealthy weapons dealers and a stuttering Benicio Del Toro, who can supposedly break any code. It’s always nice to see Del Toro, but his efforts to fill the ‘lovable rogue’ gap left by the death of Han Solo are largely unsuccessful.
These latter two threads struggle mightily to take flight, inflicting a considerable drag on the engrossing storyline that follows Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren along their bizarre love/hate triangle. It’s only at the midpoint of the film, when these three threads intersect, that things really click. From that point forward,
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is almost non-stop action; epic space battles interspersed with ruthlessly efficient character moments that swing the action into new and surprising directions.
Johnson flashes an impressive array of visual techniques. There are a startling number of sets and individual shots that should pry their way into the
Star Wars iconography. From Supreme Leader Snoke’s chamber, which looks like a discotheque designed by Devil worshiping Nazis, to a final lightsaber battle in front of a crumbling fortress, there’s a feast of images that will have sci-fi fans drooling.
All of this spectacle might feel empty were it not for the unrelenting tension and countless dramatic twists. This, perhaps, explains Johnson’s difficulty in sculpting an elegant finalé. What feels like a satisfying ending is merely the prelude to something bigger and noisier. Just when it appears Johnson might have lost control, he pulls back to reveal an even
more satisfying conclusion. It’s a precarious balance that works, primarily, because we have such affection for these characters.
Given the insistence upon juggling three storylines (a
Star Wars tradition that desperately needs to be broken), there’s not much room for the actors to breathe. Isaac delivers most of the humor, though there’s less to be found here than Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Perhaps the character who continues to grow and surprise the most is Kylo Ren, which gives Adam Driver the most opportunity to shine. Carrie Fisher is much more prominent as Leia, however, giving fans one last chance to enjoy this beloved character.
For the first time in several decades, the
Star Wars saga is moving in new and exciting directions. If Star Wars: The Last Jedi isn’t a complete deconstruction of the original trilogy, it’s at least an acknowledgement that these archetypical characters must evolve in order to survive. Discretion and disillusionment are now active components in a universe built upon naiveté and reckless heroes. Perhaps, for some viewers, this will tarnish the escapist nature of Lucas’s original vision, but it’s a necessary turn if Star Wars wishes to remain relevant.