Review by C.J. Bunce
As you will no doubt hear as moviegoers walk out of theaters this holiday season, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a very “different” Star Wars movie. That said, despite writer/director Rian Johnson’s assertions to the contrary, it is very much an echo of the second film of the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, with several parallel elements you’ll encounter along the way. Picking up where director J.J. Abrams left off two years ago in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Johnson seems to take the bits and pieces of questions raised in Abrams’ film, answers a few, dismisses a few, and ignores the rest, perhaps for Abrams to pick them up again as he re-takes the reins in two years for the final film in the Skywalker family saga. So many questions seem to have been definitively tied up by the end of The Last Jedi, moviegoers are now left to ponder for the next two years, “What could Episode IX possibly be about?”
The Last Jedi is most intriguing when it emulates some of the surprises and emotional impact of last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story–a bold, unique film that falls outside the three trilogies of franchise films, but provided a fantastically gritty, nostalgic, and heart-pounding story that put the “war” back in Star Wars. An opening scene in The Last Jedi featuring the heroic death of a new character made me sit up thinking another gritty war movie was coming (only swap a guerilla land war for World War II-inspired bombing runs). Heroism is the theme of The Last Jedi, and every character gets a chance to be a hero, but the damage is not as gut-wrenching as Rogue One. Yet, depending on who your favorite character was in The Force Awakens, every fan should find something in The Last Jedi to be happy about. Even if it might not offer up the excitement of the original trilogy, the third of the new annual holiday Star Wars adventures will be a great excuse to get together with family and friends for the event itself–annual Star Wars movies are becoming what the annual Christmas Special has become for Doctor Who fans, an event that for many will be bigger than whatever you think of the film.
The actors are top-notch in The Last Jedi, including Carrie Fisher in her final performance as General Leia Organa, although Hamill’s work stands out and could easily merit an Oscar nomination. Alec Guinness’s genius as the similar Jedi wizard Obi-Wan Kenobi of the original Star Wars was in his reserved performance and iconic utterances of wisdom. Here Hamill shows that Hollywood has missed the boat for 40 years by not featuring him regularly in mainstream films, bringing a powerful and emotional performance from beginning to end. And gone are the days of Star Wars’ clunky dialogue–Johnson’s success is pulling out the stilted exchanges Star Wars had began to become known for.
The new beasts are brilliantly rendered, from the much previewed flying Porgs and Jedi island caretakers to a horselike creature at a racetrack, a giant fish, an island cow, and beautiful crystalline foxes. Other CGI characters will appeal similarly as Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One–either a viewer is going to go along with it or he isn’t. Better yet are creatures and machines that appear that were produced as real, three dimensional models using “old school” moviemaking methods.
As previewed in the trailers and posters, The Last Jedi has a heavy red color theme, from Snoke’s chamber to the color of sand under a landscape of salt flats on the planet Crait (not to be confused with Tatooine’s krayt dragon), which stands out as a bit odd when The Force Awakens had no discernible primary color. There’s a storytelling lesson to be found with this third trilogy–switching back and forth between creative voices makes for clunky shifts between movies. Will Abrams finish Johnson’s story in Episode IX or go back and return to his own vision and story?
Where The Last Jedi doesn’t quite capture the wonder of The Force Awakens is in its shifting focus from Daisy Ridley’s Rey. In the latest film the plot is more proportionally divided between dual character missions for Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, who at last gets to demonstrate why he is one of the Resistance’s finest leaders–although Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren have some superb scenes. For fans of the franchise whose favorite character is Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, disappointed by his achingly brief finale scene in The Force Awakens, at last they get to see Luke as the star of the show. His line previewed in trailers, “this is not going to go the way you think,” is certainly true, but it also might take back old-timer fans of Luke Skywalker who still remember how his adventures continued for decades beyond the last we had seen him on the big screen in Return of the Jedi, via the novels begun by Timothy Zahn, and the memorable Dark Empire series from Dark Horse Comics. Any hope that a speck of the Disney post-Lucas Star Wars world might have carried forward is definitely completely gone in this final trilogy (although Star Wars Rebels, with its inclusion of characters like Grand Admiral Thrawn, keeps the dream alive).
Although prequel trilogy haters may be offended by the label, The Last Jedi feels more like George Lucas’s prequels than The Force Awakens. Audiences will find plenty of tangents–many more than in any of the films in the original trilogy–pairings of characters and scenes and side trips that seem to have been added to give all the characters something to do. But they’ll also find new environments that look like what Lucas created for the prequels, especially with Canto Bight–a casino resort for the wealthy with steel drum band Jamaican music merged with the classic Star Wars Cantina band song (and kudos to John Williams for expanding his music for the series once again, and better than his score for The Force Awakens). On the one hand, these things help to make The Last Jedi a very Star Wars looking and sounding film, but it also reflects some of the derivative nature of this trilogy. Star Wars maintains its status as space fantasy as opposed to science fiction–the sci-fi idea from the prequels that Midichlorians determine your Force abilities is ignored, replaced with the Jedi as a religion. Just as J.J. Abrams Star Trek reboot series changed many rules from its franchise, keep an eye out for the many ways the framework of Star Wars is changed for this movie, including re-writing rules regarding major concepts from the previous seven films about the Force and hyperspace.
Like any film The Last Jedi is neither bad nor perfect. There will be those that love it, those that hate it, and everything in between. It ticks enough boxes to provide the minimum fun and excitement so everyone should walk away feeling satisfied with the effort and the ticket price, even if they may not like the particular direction the story is taking or the way the story is told. And if you aren’t in the habit of nitpicking films, you may even go back a few times to watch it again.
Star Wars celebrated its fortieth anniversary this year, and it’s showing no signs of stopping. Star Wars: The Last Jedi begins nationwide this weekend in theaters across the country.