Star Wars: The Last Jedi and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Directed by Rian Johnson
And we’re back for our yearly song and dance to the empire George Lucas created and Disney is rebuilding! Not that Star Wars ever really went away (nor did its fans who were perfectly willing to still spend money on it), but the last few years have been just the shot in the arm the franchise needed in order to make it more than a nostalgia artifact that won’t go away into something that will resonate with audiences today and maintain its throne as KING OF THE BLOCKBUSTERS. Now that we’re at the second installment of the new trilogy, will it be yet another example of Disney getting this formula right, or have we already started hurtling head long into the dark side… by which I mean the movie is not very good? Let’s find out!!
The movie picks up not long after the events of the first film where The First Order is understandably peeved over the destruction of the Star Killer Base and are on a warpath to hunt down the remnants of The Rebellion; more or less whittling them down to a single flagship desperately trying to find a place to hole up until the heat dies down. Unfortunately for them, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) along with his own flagship are right on their tails and are blasting away at the Rebel ship’s shields until they can get a shot in and blow the whole thing up; effectively killing the resistance and all the loveable characters onboard. Said characters include Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) who’s having trouble ceding to the Rebel Leadership which is primarily General Leia and Admiral Holdo (Carrie Fisher and Laura Dern), Finn (John Boyega) who’s all fixed up after the fight against Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the engineer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) who’s sister recently died in an attack and wants to help Finn in saving everyone who’s left on the flagship. While Finn, Pie, and Rose are working out a way to save the ship while subverting the Rebel Leadership, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is off on Planet Nowhere with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) trying to coax the latter into going back to The Rebels and giving her Jedi lessons, while Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo)… well he’s keeping the Millennium Falcon warm in case either of them needs it. Need it they might though considering how dire the situation is with The Rebels and Rey can’t exactly wait around for Luke to stop being a grumpy pants; especially with Kylo Ren growing more and more desperate to prove himself which only makes him that much more dangerous of a blunt tool for Snoke’s greater ambitions. Will The Rebels find a way to survive this unceasing onslaught by The First Order? Will Rey find her place in this conflict and become the Jedi Master that everyone can look up to in these trying times? Will Luke teach her all those lessons he kinda sorta learned from Yoda and Obi-Wan!?
Well wouldn’t you know it, this movie is actually REALLY good! I know; you’re all surprised. CLEARLY no one was expecting the biggest franchise in the world with some of the best names in Hollywood behind it to pump out yet another masterpiece of blockbuster film making, and yet here we are! I’ll admit that I was rather lukewarm going into this, and the fact that I ended up missing the opening crawl due to slow lines at the theater didn’t help my mood, but it didn’t take long for the film to remind me that not only is Star Wars one of the most viscerally engaging franchises out there but that this new crop of movies truly understands the potential that this universe hold and is willing to take risks when they could have kept it safe. I don’t know if it’s QUITE as good as The Force Awakens due to the fact that this is the middle film (can’t wow you like the first one and can’t end like it’s the finale), but this is easily one of the most satisfying movie going experiences of the year; not because it’s flashing familiar iconography at you and reminding you of what happened in the previous films that you loved, but because it’s a truly excellent story that knows how to twist the narrative in just the right places to make something that seems familiar at first to be one of the more unpredictable and remarkably engaging films we’ve gotten in quite some time. Again, not much of a shock considering it’s freaking Star Wars.
The nuts and bolts haven’t changed much from the previous film which means that everything looks consistent and authentic with the previous film, though the filmmakers do manage to throw in a few interesting ideas with its cinematography that work surprisingly well considering their simplicity. A simple twist on the classic shot reverse shot is used to effectively communicate the connection between two characters (by way of the force of course), and the action scenes look as good as they ever have; finding that right balance between the practical impact of the original trilogy and the occasionally solid use of spectacle in the prequels (shut up, we can at least say one or two nice things about that movie) that again isn’t all that different from what we got last time around but is still just as effective. I will say that structurally it’s a tad wonky as the film essentially has two third acts, but once you realize that we’re not wrapping things up just yet and we have at least one more action set piece left, it’s not that much of a problem. Disney might just be an evil empire in the making (their acquisition of Fox further cementing their control of all our childhood memories), but they know how to cross their T’s and dot their I’s which is why pretty much everything that gets their stamp of approval at least manages to be competently made. Now that’s not the case EVERY time (*cough* Pirates 5 *cough*), but it’s certainly been the case with their Star Wars movies so far.
Now since this is a sequel and can’t rely on the Nostalgia and Novelty that the first film benefited from (which is still there to be sure but just now as important the second time around), how does this movie pick up the slack? For the most part, this film’s greatest strength is its script which remains unpredictable all the way through despite still feeling COMPLETELY within the realm of possibility set up by the universe. Now look, MAYBE I should have seen some of the twists and turns of the storyline coming considering how many movies I watch, but I was genuinely impressed with how often I was worried the film was going to go down the obvious path and instead found a way to subvert it. The biggest one that kept my stomach in knots was what they were going to ultimately do with Kylo Ren as the movie was pushing us towards a VERY plausible and VERY disappointing arc for his character, yet manages to find the right way to make the ultimate outcome completely surprising as well misdirection totally believable. This isn’t a situation where they make a movie about one very specific thing and then balk at the very last minute to try and save face (*cough* Book of Henry *cough*); it’s a well told story that finds the best path for a character who could easily have fallen into one camp (the disappointing one) or the other (the NOT disappointing one but ultimately less interesting one). Sadly I can’t really go into details on how pretty much every character in this one has such interesting and satisfying character arcs as it would get too much into spoilers, but needless to say that aside from one dude who PROBABLY won’t be showing up again (a new character just for this film it seems), everyone gets their moment in the spotlight; especially Carrie Fisher who steals this movie the same way Harrison Ford did in the last film and it makes the whole thing that much more tragic that she won’t be returning in the next one.
There’s been a lot of talk about how many fans are already disappointed by this movie and want to decry it for effectively RUINING the franchise all over again which I’m PRETTY SURE most of them were shouting when The Force Awakens came out, but whatever. I won’t go into spoilers about it, but to a certain extent they are right. What works about this movie, and what worked about the last one as well, is how much everything has changed despite it all feeling very familiar. This is why it never bothered me that The Force Awakens has a similar structure to A New Hope, because in doing so it made it THAT much clearer that we were heading into a new, diverse, and progressive direction for the series to fit within the world that these new stories are being created in. For this movie specifically, it’s certainly a lot more… destructive I guess considering we’re not just putting up something new but are actively pointing out flawed and outdated certain aspects of the previous films were; not so much to point at those movies (or as far as the metanarrative, the original Rebellion that Luke, Han, and Leia were a part of) and say that they were bad or were doing something wrong; rather that things NEED to change as we grow and change, and that the future may not always reflect what we loved about the past but will bring us to something new and possibly even better. I loved all of this, especially when you get to how Kylo Ren’s interpretation of this mindset shows that it can have evil and horrifying connotations as well, and I think we need to get away from certain aspects of the original trilogy in order for this to truly exist as its own thing. It’s an exciting new prospect and I think the “sendoffs” as they were in this film are appropriate in bringing us to this new vision of what A LONG TIME AGO IN A GALAXY FAR FAR AWAY can look like in the right hands.
If there’s one flaw in the movie, I’d say that it’s a bit too arch with some of its themes and visual signifiers. Now the universe has ALWAYS had a rather black and white way of portraying the two sides of this conflict (The Empire look like Nazis while The Rebels are scrappy), but some of the new stuff that they add could have used a bit more nuance. I’m mostly referring to the Casino Royale planet which is easily the most visually different location in the series since the prequels, but it’s all a bit much. The rich aliens are ALL arms dealers wearing three piece suits so that you KNOW they’re bad guys and the exploited underclass seem to be an alien species that have a striking resemblance to Dickensian street urchins. For a movie that prides itself so much on its diverse cast of characters, we are butting RIGHT up on the edge of stereotypes here when it really wasn’t all that necessary to get their point across. Now to be fair, the point they are getting across is a REALLY great point as Finn and () watching the rich people yuck it up in their casinos and martini bars frames the conflict between The First Order and The Rebels in a much more ambiguous tone than any of the other Star Wars films as it gives context to what the rest of the galaxy is doing and how it isn’t just gun toting fascists versus freedom loving guerrilla fighters. Evil comes in many forms and it’s important to realize the mechanisms at play with any given conflict; not that this is entirely NEW ground we’re treading on in fiction (Hideo Kojima has been banging this drum for a solid two decades) but it works in further distinguishing this new trilogy from what came before it. All I’m saying is that it could have been a little less cartoonish in the way it’s giving us this message.
It’s frankly no surprise that Disney knows how to make big crowd pleasing movies and it’s even less of a surprise that they try to imbue them with a bit more depth and meaning than what the other studios churn out on a regular basis. The month of December is now owned by Star Wars and at least for the moment they’ve earned that distinction by making movies worthy of the license and worthy of the generation who will grow up with them. Two years is certainly a while to wait for the next chapter in this story and I assume that my enthusiasm for Star Wars will no doubt wane in that time (much the same way as I wasn’t all that worked up to see this one going into it), but I have no doubt that they’ll find a way to pull it off again the same way they did here. You’re going to go see the movie whether or not I tell you to, but rest assured that the wait was worth it as this franchise is only getting better and better. Man, it’s gonna be rough when we get to another prequel level disaster, isn’t it?