“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 Jedi. In 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.