Walking into The Last Jedi, which premiered worldwide on Friday (technically Thursday if you count all the well-attended midnight screenings), I had just a handful of requirements in pocket: the chance to better get to know the central characters introduced in The Force Awakens, as well as old favorites; the continued inclusion of wry humor; the opportunity to gawk at a modicum of new whimsical creatures and dreamworlds; and, of course, the showcasing of jaw-dropping, show-stopping battle sequences.
The Last Jedi, which sees the directorial reigns passed from J.J. Abrams to Rian Johnson (who also wrote the screenplay), meets the above mentioned expectations – but unexpected is the way the movie doesn’t tonally match up with The Force Awakens. The latter was all roguish misadventures and cheery one-liners, a nostalgic yarn that as much bolstered the essence of the Star Wars pictures as a whole as it did harken back to the better characteristics of ‘50s Westerns. The Last Jedi, in contrast, is something of a The Empire Strikes Back (1980): it’s a darker, more emotionally nuanced detour in space operatics, shining a light on failure and, like previous entries in the saga, deciding that the difference between good and evil is not exactly black and white in its simplicity.
This unexpected bleakness – paired with the weathered depiction of the returning fan favorite Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – has proven polarizing. While the majority of critics have taken to The Last Jedi’s shaking up of the formula, with some even going as far as declaring it the best of the franchise, a great number of devoted audience members, doing their best imitation of a character in an Aaron Spelling soap, have already dramatically proclaimed that the saga is “ruined.”
As The Force Awakens and Rogue One provoked similarly histrionic reactions, it’s perhaps best to decide that such reception will come to light with the release of any new Star Wars movie: listening too intently to overpraising writers or overemotional fanatics is good for no one, especially since one’s own consumption of a new offering is always a generally personal experience anyway.
In the aftermath of my own viewing, I’ve settled into the thinking that The Last Jedi is neither a franchise peak nor an all-time low. It’s rather an enormously effective continuation of a thrilling new narrative, likely to improve with repeated viewings. Sure, its first act tends to wander – its three intermingling storylines are arguably disbalanced in their abilities to respectively compel – and sure, the admittance of new characters doesn’t go over as successfully as the various introductions in The Force Awakens. But The Last Jedi is nevertheless an electrifying spectacle, reinforced by a series of emotionally satisfying sequences that start shortly before the last act really gets going.
The film picks up immediately from where its predecessor left off. Which, memorably, allowed us to watch with an open mouth as its focal heroine, Rey (Daisy Ridley), tracked down the reclusive Luke Skywalker and, through body language alone, essentially asked him to realign himself with the resistance.
The Last Jedi revolves around Rey’s efforts to convince Skywalker to leave the secluded island he’s been calling home (as well as her grapplings with her unsteady sense of self) all the while depicting the increasingly fraught battle between the nefarious First Order and the Resistance.
Even while the movie treads over territories that might sound overly familiar to even the most nonchalant of Star Wars fans, so much about it feels unforeseeable. There’s notably the three-dimensionalizing of Skywalker (who turns out to be much more flawed than the quasi-mythic being so many have billed him as); the unusually strong sensation that the First Order, weasels aside, might be more powerful than the Resistance; and the subplot involving Finn and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) that abnormally ends in pronounced failure.
There’s a vulnerability felt in The Last Jedi that hasn’t always been so apparent in other Star Wars movies; I wondered on numerous occasions if Johnson was intentionally trying to reflect the political and cultural of this particular moment in global history and somehow translate a commonly felt susceptibility to help buoy a good-versus-evil story.
I relished this rarely felt sensitivity, even if I much prefer Star Wars when it’s at its most classically escapist. So as such, my issues with it are more a matter of personal taste than genuinely subpar characteristics. I wish there were more humor here, more emphasis on the original trilogy’s mains (Luke and Leia get plenty of screen time, but R2D2, C3PO, and Chewbacca are all reduced to cameoing), and more space to allow us to ogle the scenery. (An entire storyline is predominantly set in a luxurious casino, but we hardly get to experience its hedonism for ourselves.)
But The Last Jedi is so obviously the product of a talented filmmaker cum Star Wars superfan that most of the film’s shortcomings are made up for in other areas. The stylistics are inspired here (I love the sea of blood reds that make up the villainous Supreme Leader Snoke’s lair, and I was sensorially thrilled by the climactic battle on the planet Crait, wherein you can literally see the the aftereffects of war on the ground), and so is the ingeniously cut editing. Plus, there’s a clear fondness for these characters on Johnson’s part; the ways in which Fisher and Hamill are characterized and photographed are particularly affectionate.
Because so much about The Last Jedi differs from the approach encompassed by The Force Awakens, I recommend seeing it a second time. Since I spent the entirety of the first act readjusting to the fact that the work in store was not going to be the same type of easily enjoyable fanservice as exemplified by its predecessor, there’s a certain understanding that with overarching knowledge will come a more effortless kind of enjoyment.
With just a single viewing under my belt, for now I’ll call The Last Jedi a fulfilling step forward – but who knows how such a statement will change with a second ticket purchase. But one thing is definite, though: if the moment in which Carrie Fisher and welcome newcomer Laura Dern have a touching heart to heart doesn’t have some sort of emotional effect on you, you probably shouldn’t even be reading this anyway. B+
Kelly Marie Tran
Benicio Del Toro
2 Hrs., 32 Mins.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi December 19, 2017
afe as 2015’s The Force Awakens undeniably was, its being not a whole lot more besides better-than-usual fanservice was perfectly fine with me. Being the casual Star Wars fan that I am – I’ve seen the original trilogy just once or twice and have skipped the divisive aughts entries entirely – my expectations have remained fairly neutral in comparison to the drama queens who are the obsessives. I’m a sucker for old-fashioned adventure delivered with a wink and plenty of visual zip, after all, and the series thus far has usually given me what I’ve wanted.
This review also appeared on Verge Campus.
This review also appeared on Verge Campus.