The concluding title card of The Last Jedi reads “written and directed by Rian Johnson,” a title no other filmmaker in the Star Wars canon has been able to claim besides its creator, George Lucas. It’s a weighty position, one even JJ Abrams eschewed with previous episode The Force Awakens, which ushered in this new era for the franchise. On that film, Abrams enlisted The Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan. Part of that weighty position are the expectations placed on the shoulders of the sole writer-director. Everything is on you; there’s no one else to blame (even if it isn’t true). Abrams and co. erred a bit on the side of caution with Awakens, hewing closely in plot and structure to Lucas’ A New Hope, the Original Trilogy’s first chapter. Fears were that The Last Jedi, episode eight of the saga (and second chapter of this new trilogy), would be a retread of Empire.
We needn’t have worried.
Johnson’s The Last Jedi is an assured, confident chapter, filled with callbacks and nods to previous, classic instalments, yet simultaneously looking to the future. It puts its new core cast of characters through the wringer, testing them in ways appropriate to their personalities and backgrounds, paving the way forward for what they need to become in the concluding chapter of the trilogy.
It also challenges the world and mythos itself of Star Wars: to progress, to grow. This is no mean feat. It’s a risky move; there is danger of alienating a generation of fans, but Johnson himself belongs to that generation, and is canny (and clever) enough to know what developments would be emotionally satisfying, intellectually ingenious, and in hindsight, tellingly obvious. Without giving away any details, The Last Jedi opens up the Star Wars universe, a move that fans sifting through the minutiae of press releases shouldn’t be too surprised about, given that it’s been announced that episode nine will be the last to feature the Skywalker clan and that Johnson himself will be the architect of a new trilogy. The terms “jedi” and “force” are broadened in definition and scope due to the events that transpire here, and it is the most exciting and interesting development in this series in years.
What elevates The Last Jedi is that Johnson does well both with macro bigger-picture developments and “micro” individual moments, both the cheer-raising hero kinds and quieter, emotional ones. New skills, new information, revelations of the past are given great opportunities to land and shine. A sequence with Leia made the hairs on my arm stand on end. Another climactic sequence where one expects a loud noise is played utterly silent, and in my theater what was audible was 50 or so people (myself included) going, “Whoa.” Johnson’s previous films: Looper, Brick, and The Brothers Bloom, have shown his facility for a good set-up and delivery, and that facility is brought to bear here. Last Jedi’s first sequence, for example, features a lone X-wing facing off against a gargantuan ship. It’s played almost for comedy (and there is comedy in the scene), but then it subverts expectations.
Long withheld from a starved audience, Mark Hamill returns as Luke Skywalker, and it’s comforting to hear the familiar voice and cadence of his speech. He’s gotten older, just like his peers, and the tension between what was and what will be plays nicely underneath the scenes he shares with Daisy Ridley. Carrie Fisher, in her last outing as this character, is effective at looking dignified while also appearing to be undeniably exhausted, and one can’t help read more into that than may be necessary (considering the events of the last film). Nonetheless, her grit and resolve shine as ever, even when scolding someone on her own team. Oscar Isaac gets to have more meat in his scenes this time around, given a proper arc with resolution, and newcomer Kelly Marie Tran presents a different side to the average Resistance fighter. But the bad guys might be having the most fun. Andy Serkis’ Snoke gets to do much more than his previous hologram existence, and makes a meal out of his scenes. Domhnall Gleeson is such a game whipping boy, perfectly ridiculous when bloviating and perfectly pathetic when faced with the limits of his arrogance. And Adam Driver continues to be the best cinematic Star Wars villain in a good long while: a wronged, conflicted character prone to emotional outbursts, both vulnerable and sympathetic even as he does A Series of Bad Things.
As ever, John Williams is impeccable, and Johnson’s regular cinematographer Steve Yedlin does a great job, their rapport a strength in both epic sequences and more particular, stylistic, signature shots (note some of the extreme zooms). Production Designer Rick Heinrichs and the rest of the art department do terrific work, especially with some new corners of the galaxy like Canto Bight, a Monte Carlo-esque vacation/gambling spot for the .001%.
The Last Jedi isn’t without its faults, mostly in the form of a bit of bloat. The Canto Bight sequence makes an interesting (and more complex than usual for Star Wars) point about who profits from conflict, but the actual plot mechanics of why the characters need to be there don’t hold up under scrutiny (although thematically are entirely of a piece with the film’s thesis statement as a whole, so it elides being a capital-M mistake). Benicio Del Toro’s character DJ also doesn’t resolve in a fully satisfying manner, so much so that it’s likely he will reappear in the next episode.
But what few nits there are to pick disappear under a swath of well-executed, powerful moments. Ones that can elicit awe, surprise, emotion… basically, the things we go to Star Wars movies for.
Photos from Lucasfilm Ltd. via IMDb
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