Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

A spoiler-free review

“This is not going to go the way you think”

This review is probably not the first to open with this line from the The Last Jedi trailer, nor will it be the last. The truth is that line is a perfect encapsulation of Rian Johnson’s latest installment in the long-running Star Wars saga. The Last Jedi is exactly the film I hoped The Force Awakens would be — a rousing sci-fi epic that uses its familiar tropes to subvert your expectations wherever possible.

Now, I do very much enjoy The Force Awakens, but it feels at times like the least exciting possible version of a good Star Wars film. This is not a criticism that can be leveled against The Last JediIn fact there’s a not unreasonable argument to be made that this film has too much story. At times, it feels like Johnson has already made his own trilogy of Star Wars films, but just stuffed them all into one movie.

This is a film that has a lot going on, but to not spoil any of the tricks Johnson has up his sleeve, I’ll keep things as brief as possible. Rey has been sent to the remote island Ahch-To (ed. note: gazuntite) to convince Jedi master Luke Skywalker to step out of his self-imposed exile. Meanwhile, the fledgling Resistance led by General Leia Organa struggles to stay out the grasps of the nefarious First Order. The basic set-up is simple enough, but the film quickly spreads out into so many sub-plots it occasionally threatens to buckle under its own weight. Rey must also confront the powers that are raging inside her, as well as the fall-out from her fight with Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo. Crack resistance pilot Poe Dameron comes into conflict with stern Resistance Admiral Holdo. Finn, the Stormtrooper turned Resistance fighter, gets into his own side-adventure with a plucky maintenance officer named Rose.

 

The constant jumping between storylines results in a first hour that sometimes struggles to find its groove, which is also hindered by a slightly uneven tone. If its predecessor was overly concerned with replicating the magic of A New Hope, the first act of The Last Jedi at times hews dangerously close to being a facsimile of the MCU films. Poe gets some zingers in against Domnhall Gleeson’s First Order figurehead General Hux that probably would’ve sounded less strained if Robert Downey Jr. had delivered them against some HYDRA stooge. Some of the zanier creatures inhabiting Ahch-To would not have looked out of place in Guardians of the Galaxy  and those who took issue with Thor: Ragnarok undercutting itself with jokes will probably have a bone to pick with the way The Force Awakens’ ending is resolved here.

These sorts of humorous moments definitely have a place in the Star Wars universe – I’m not one to rail against George Lucas’ claims that the franchise is ultimately meant for kids – but they do clash somewhat with the grand and mystical tone Johnson establishes for the majority of the film. Cutting out a few throw-away gags involving Porgs could have both made some of the more serious beats land more forcefully and shaved a little off the film’s gargantuan 150-minute runtime. The other main candidate for the cutting room floor is Finn and Rose’s excursion to Canto Bight, a planet harboring a giant casino. The sequence taking place there feels somewhat like wheel spinning in the grand scheme of things, but it does ultimately pay off in a wholly unexpected emotional way in one of the film’s final moments. Plus, it cannot be over-stated how good newcomer Kelly Marie Tran is as Rose, imbuing what could have been a bit-part with warmth, humor and a real sense of conflict.

If the above criticisms make parts of the film sound like a slog, rest assured it’s anything but. Johnson’s direction is incredible, imbuing even the smallest of moments with an overwhelming sense of scale and urgency. There’s a sequence in the film’s opening battle scene involving the pilot of a bomber ship that packs as much emotional punch as any of Rogue One’s climactic moments, and this happens merely ten minutes in. This is also aided by the incredible visuals on display — Star Wars has never looked this good and there were multiple moments that were so visceral and beautiful I watched them with my mouth agape.

And even when it’s spinning its wheels, The Last Jedi is still a very engaging watch thanks to a talented cast firing on all cylinders. It’s hard to say too much about their characters without spoiling the movie, but suffice to say Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill and Adam Driver (respectively playing Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren, but if you didn’t know that already, why are you still reading this review?) are all incredible in their parts, each of them showcasing new dimensions to characters that, in the wrong hands, could easily have become very familiar and trite very quickly. John Boyega is still utterly infectious as Finn, as is Oscar Isaac as Poe, though the dynamite chemistry between the two characters that was so present in The Force Awakens is somewhat missing here.  Sadly, Game of Thrones fans expecting more of Gwendoline Christie’s Stormtrooper Captain Phasma this time around will probably still end up disappointed, though the character is at least at the center of a very cool fight scene instead of being the butt of multiple jokes.

One of the biggest question marks for me before heading into the movie was Andy Serkis’ Snoke, the leader of The First Order. Appearing only in hologram form in its predecessor, the character appears in the flesh for the first time here and does not disappoint. Serkis, who usually embodies his motion-capture characters with so much empathy that Ceasar and Gollum occasionally felt more human than the human characters surrounding them, plays on a completely different register as Snoke here . Taking all the warmth and charisma from his voice and replacing it with raw, undiluted menace, which together with his impressively gnarly design, lends the character a terrifying layer of other-worldliness that could never have been achieved via practical effects.

The biggest main cast member we haven’t discussed yet is Carrie Fisher, tragically giving her last performance as Leia here. I’m very happy to report that it’s a great one, with Fisher imbuing the character with a sense of sincerity and affection that was somewhat missing in her brief scenes in this film’s predecessor, but also a legitimate sense of age. You can feel the weight of all Leia’s years weighing on her in almost every scene she has and it’s both beautiful and more than a little heart-wrenching. The main dig I have against Leia’s role in this film is that she’s mostly sidelined in the film’s second act, but the scenes she does get more than make up for that.

Now, when I said this film was designed to subvert your expectations as much as possible, I was not talking about world-changing plot-reveals (though there are a few of those to be found as well). Rather, almost all the big surprising moments the reviews mention and hint around are purely rooted in character. That’s why, when the film launches into its gigantic, almost hour-long third act, The Last Jedi does not lose itself in its own spectacle. Every decision a character makes, be it big or small, feels earned thanks to the incredible character work Johnson (as well as the foundation J.J. Abrams set in The Force Awakens) has done, resulting in a climax that has more pure, exhilarating and stirring moments than any Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi.

There is still a lot left to talk about in regards to The Last Jedi. Be it stuff like the merits of the new characters played by Benicio Del Toro and Laura Dern, the interesting parallels that can be drawn between this film and a certain other 2017 release, or just fawning over the many, many incredible moments in the third act, but all that stuff is best saved until after release. For now, let me just say that whether or not J.J. Abrams manages to stick the landing on Episode IX in 2019, the fact that this sequel trilogy has provided us with one good film and, now, one bona fide great film – one that makes its predecessor better in retrospect and gives the franchise a sense of scale and urgency it has not seen since 1980 – is nothing short of a miracle.

  • I’m am crazy excited for this

  • YayMayorBee

    You can bet your life that I will be back here to nerd out HARD in about 12 hours.

    • YayMayorBee

      I loved it. But it’s very different. And a bit uneven, to be honest. Johnson obviously went into this thinking it was his one and only shot to make a Star Wars movie, and so he took the opportunity to fill it with every single thing he loves about Star Wars. Yes, the humor is occasionally overdone and slides a bit toward prequel-y buffoonery a handful of times… except the buffoonery here is actually funny, instead of trying to be funny but falling flat on its face.

      The most important thing is that it confounds expectations and delivers a story none of us could have, or did, predict. It surprised. And it didn’t cheat in getting there.

      • Jams

        The climax was everything I could have asked for. I’m so ready for a Rian Johnson trilogy.

        • YayMayorBee

          Yep. And the way it deals with the Snoke problem is goddamn genius.

  • Public Mistake

    Thank you so much for this spoiler-free review. You’re helping me building hype in a great way.

    PS. this ed’s note is officially the goods (ed. note: gazuntite)

  • Lunaman

    I. Cannot. Wait.

  • I’ll probably go… maybe Sunday night

    • YayMayorBee

      You should go sooner, Hansen, if at all possible. It’s the movie you’re hoping it is and you definitely don’t want to be spoiled.

      • Opening weekend crowds at regular theatres tend to ruin the experience, so I’m willing to wait. Besides, I have some writing stuff to do and some new video games, so I’ll just avoid the internet for a few days

        • YayMayorBee

          Fair. Be sure to check back in when you see it. I’m dying to hear your opinion since it kinda directly confronts the issues you and others have had with latter-day Star Wars (and FORCE AWAKENS especially).

          • You probably saw my facebook and twitter stuff by now

          • YayMayorBee

            I saw Twitter, yeah. Good stuff.

  • EdExley

    Sorry guys.

    I’ll start with the humble-brag. During the glorious Irish summer of 2016, I found myself working on The Last Jedi. To say it was the highlight of this semi-aging geek’s life is a total cliché. I stood on the edge of Ahch-To and peered in the crashing waters as the Irish Navy* patrolled the Atlantic Ocean. I had my picture taken with a certain hairy(-ier than me even) friend which I’ll treasure forever. I chatted with Luke Skywalker and his dog and danced to the Baywatch theme with Rian Johnson.

    I should be bias.

    And yet, the overwhelming positive reviews have me baffled. It’s not terrible – there’s too much good work to be that. But there are so many narrative back-waters, under-cooked characters and at least as many OT facsimiles as TFA that I can only guess others are seeing things they want to see instead of what’s actually there.

    The movie starts with a very-Marvel gag directed at Hux, not too dissimilar the latest Thor movie. Now, I thought the Thor / Surtur moment was uh, hammered home a bit too much – you could have the same joke without totally undercutting the threat of a giant fire demon. But 5%-too-many jokes is a typical Marvel problem, and Surtur was not a lead villain. Poe taking the piss out of Hux is fine, as long as you then KILL Hux. Or have Hux kill Poe even. But to then keep Hux around, snarling impotently even as his suddenly AWESOME First Order has reduced the baffling incompetent Resistance to just a few fighters is both bizarre and illustrative of the movie’s having-its-cake problem.

    What we then get are wonderfully composed shorts of a soulful, battered Leia as her head sinks into in her hands while her team is routed by a Spaceballs villain.

    Okay, maybe that is subtext for the modern world.

    I thought the Irish- I mean Ahch-To- scenes worked well. Being in a real location helps sell the feeling of the OT without being exactly like the OT (ironically, it’s of course closest to Dagobah in tone, which was a set…). But then you have Finn and Rose hopping like Jedis onto giraffe-horses and a decapitated AT-ST piloted by BB-8 as they run about a bunch of Prequel cartoon nonsense.

    And Rose. Oh Rose is terrible, yet another bad photocopy, this time of Cally from Battlestar Galactica. The actress has some presence, but doesn’t have the experience to do something with a nothing character. Like Finn. Again energetic and likable, Finn is once again entirely pointless. Excising their subplot would not only shorten the movie but would have also removed the laughable final scene, which is at least as bad a Rogue One’s Leia abomination.

    Feck (as we say here) I could go on, but I’m closing on 500 words and feel like I’m beating a loved-one to death…

    (*this means one boat)

    • YayMayorBee

      Why you’re so very wrong about that final scene: http://lewtonbus.net/editorials/may-the-force-be-with-us-always/

      • EdExley

        Great piece, but I’m not sure why that refutes the ham-fisted stage-school moppets and their decoder ring of a conclusion (speaking as an ex-stage school moppet). Nothing about those kids came across as truly enslaved, they were too darn healthy for one, and we spend so little time with them they barely register.

        I understand the mythic cycle pretty well. I get the intent. But as the last shot in the middle of of trilogy? Already belabored by the it’s own brief barely-there set up? People are already complaining that this movie ends resets everything – had this happened at the end of the third one, with a kid say like IM3’s, I’d get it, but here it’s just silly

        • YayMayorBee

          It’s important because it’s the whole point of the movie. The sequel trilogy seems to be all about Star Wars in a meta-sense. Both in-universe and in our world, LAST JEDI is about the value of Star Wars. That kid is inspired both by the heroes in-universe, and he’s a reflection of how kids are inspired out of it. Also, since we live in a world where old people are ruining everything, it’s nice to put the focus back on kids and how they’re really the ones who’ll save us all, if we just hang on long enough.

          • EdExley

            As I said, I get the general intent. It’s the specific execution, and where it comes in the saga, that baffles me

          • YayMayorBee

            I mean, if it doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t work for you. But I was about ready to cry my eyes out at this story/thematic thread because it was like Rian Johnson and I had the exact same ideas about what Star Wars means. He played me like a fiddle.

          • EdExley

            Had it happened at the end of the casino scene, so as flighty and pointless as the rest of it was, it would feel of a piece, I might like it more. Had the kid picked up a (modern sensibilities wouldn’t allow it) blaster or light saber, resolved to become rebel scum, and not a dime store badge, all the better. But as it is… I will be seeing this again, but I’ll be surprised if it lands any different for me. Here’s ‘hoping’…

          • YayMayorBee

            As much as the twists play better on a first watch (obviously), I imagine a lot of the apparent wheel spinning will play better, knowing where it’s all going.

          • Jams

            There’s actually a great line in the film about the relationship of masters and apprentices that speaks directly to this.

  • Jams

    It’s going to take me time and at least another viewing or two to really process how I feel about this movie, but it’s gorgeous, it’s unexpected, and its themes are remarkably explored. I loved every minute of it, and I’m going right back this weekend.