If J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was an exercise in nostalgia, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is an experiment of expectancy. It pushes the boundaries of its characters, its audience, and the franchise’s capacity, upending our expectations even as it fulfills ones we never knew we had. There are new worlds, new characters, and important new questions both raised and answered. To put it simply, this is a hopeful film; it is moving into the future of Star Wars even as it honors the past.
The Last Jedi picks up right where The Force Awakens left off, with ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) recovering from his battle with the darkly unstable Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) as maverick Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his Resistance fighters try to make their escape from the nefarious First Order. All this occurs as the intrepid Rey (Daisy Ridley) hands a lightsaber to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in an attempt to bring him back to spark hope in the rebellion, even as she eagerly desires to learn the ways of the Force from the Jedi master-turned-hermit.
For all its parallels to The Empire Strikes Back in structure, themes, and existential crises, The Last Jedi is the funniest of all the Star Wars films (not including the unintentionally funny Star Wars Holiday Special). It’s also the most narratively complex, with a cast of new significant characters, including Laura Dern as Resistance leader Admiral Amilyn Holdo and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a Resistance mechanic who finds herself caught up with Finn in an eleventh-hour plot to save the Resistance from total destruction. A few of these narrative beats feel like they elongate the plot too much. One such sequence on a casino planet (think Mos Eisley meets Las Vegas), frankly, doesn’t affect the final outcome of the plot machinations, though it does provide for some humorous action sequences and character development. Still for all the narrative threads and various characters, Johnson has crafted a well-paced, thrilling Star Wars film filled with interesting characters and some rich ideas to explore. There are a number of surprises and twists here, ones which don’t feel hokey or a ploy, but which genuinely add to the development of key characters.
It’s not only the characters who grow in their capacity–the mythology around the Force expands as well. At one point, Luke asks Rey what she really knows about the Force. Her answer, though innocent and simple, also proves her naïveté, and ours as the audience. The Force truly was awakened in Episode VII in ways we can finally experience, crossing the planes of time and space with a sense of purpose. Johnson utilizes the cinematic language to frame these Force awakenings, particularly in the editing and framing of characters in various conversations. The planetary environments are also unique and interesting, from the casino planet mentioned above to the red-and-white salt flats of a Rebel base. The cinematography is also rich and well-crafted; some shots still linger in my mind even now, and one actually made me gasp in the theatre at its brilliance in the midst of silence. With both visuals and sound–the John Williams score is as wonderful as ever here–The Last Jedi certainly leaves its impact.
The Last Jedi also raises the question of politics, economics, and justice in ways previous Star Wars films haven’t broached as deeply. While the political procedurals about trade routes in Episode I are still painful in memory, the politics I’m speaking of here have to do with class structures, markets, and systems of power and oppression. We get to see just what the Resistance are resisting, and why the First Order might be “orderly” only for those who wield power through wealth and violence. We know why they’re rebelling, and we can see the impact when liberation occurs for those enslaved. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is more than a shadowy hologram; we see him in the flesh (albeit CGI flesh) sitting on an enormous throne with a long golden robe. These ostentatious signs of extravagance and greed, along with the First Order’s military quest for power and snuffing out any sense of a republic, and one doesn’t have to do much mental gymnastics to make the leap to present-day political realities. As one character quips, “It’s all just business.” In contrast to such notions, Johnson has crafted a sympathetic and affecting film, one which truly values and humanizes the characters (even the non-human ones).
Did I mention BB-8? Or porgs? Or the other residents on Luke’s island? Or the lightsaber battles? Chewbacca? The Millennium Falcon? More porgs? They’re all here in The Last Jedi, and they’re wonderful. I haven’t delved into the film’s specific plot details, and I won’t for now, apart from one: Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa is far more present in The Last Jedi than I anticipated. With her tragic death nearly a year ago, and the ghastly CGI Leia in Rogue One, I was hesitant that her role would either be too brief, or CGI-infused. I can say that not only is Fisher a significant character here, but she gives a remarkable performance–to the last, she’s fully alive. Hamill is significant here too as Luke, and imbues the character with a weightiness and maturity not yet seen in Star Wars. I’d be hesitant to say its his best performance as Luke, but one could argue for it, and I wouldn’t disagree. Indeed, The Last Jedi is one of the better additions to the saga; in terms of form and direction, it’s the strongest since Empire Strikes Back. As a cinematic experiment of expectancy, it met, then far exceeded all my expectations.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2527336/