It’s here. It’s finally here. Ever since 1977, when fans were first introduced to the galaxy far, far away, a Star Wars movie has been the cinematic event of it’s year. Some, like myself, can tell you that clone army was originally ordered by Master Syfo-Dyas. Others, can’t tell you the different between a Rookie and an Ewok. Regardless of your level of fandom, there’s something about Star Wars that captivates the masses. In 2012, Disney shocked the world by buying Lucasfilm and announcing a brand new Star Wars trilogy. In 2015, JJ Abrams began a new trilogy of Star Wars stories. This year, Rian Johnson has stepped up to the plate, and boy, did he knock it out of the park.
Director Rian Johnson has been given a near impossible task: make a great Star Wars movie. With a rabid fanbase, endless speculation and build up, sky high expectations, and hundreds of millions of dollars all at stake, I would have settled for something simply good. And yet, much to my delightful surprise, he’s delivered something great. From the get go, two things are made perfectly clear. First, Rian Johnson loves Star Wars. There are so many wonderful nods to the rest of this expansive galaxy, nods only a fanboy could place. Second, Johnson is telling his own story. One of my biggest fears going into The Last Jedi was getting a bland, studio sequel that feels the same as every other bloated Jurassic Pirates of the Fast and The Furious: Age of Mediocrity franchise we get these days. Thankfully, no such bloat is to be found here, as Disney (see: our modern day Empire) seems much more interested in letting Johnson’s creative vision drive this ship than they are hacking his script to death with studio notes.
This is not a safe film, and by no means is it just filler until we get to the conclusion in Episode XI. It would have been easy to write a script of crowd pleasing moments, with a few comedic beats in between, and a big climactic action sequence. Rather, just as Lawrence Kasdan did with Empire Strikes Back, Johnson isn’t afraid to take massive risks. While not every decision sticks the landing, the missteps are few and far between, and Johnson deserves some serious credit for having the courage to tell this bold of a story.
The Star Wars franchise is not one know for it’s compelling character drama. Just like all other multi-million dollar blockbuster’s, people go to see these movies for the plot and visual spectacle. Imagine the fan outcry if we got a Star Wars movie that told a quiet story about a moisture farmer trying to provide for his family? What I’m getting at is character will always be secondary to story when it comes to the Galaxy Far, Far Away. Johnson knows this, and uses it to his advantage. He put’s all his players in dire, impossible circumstances, and uses it as a springboard to tell a surprisingly emotional story. There have been plenty of fist-pumping moments in the Star Wars saga, but this is the first time a character has moved me to tears with their performance alone.
The star of the show here is Daisy Ridley. The Force Awakens presented a potential new trio of hero’s in her, John Boyega, and Oscar Issac, but The Last Jedi makes it clear, this is Rey’s story. Ridley is able show off impressive range as she derivers a nuanced, layered performance full of love, hope, ferocity, passion, and doubt. The actual journey she goes on is elevated by the internal journey she’s embarking on. To quote the trailer, she’s just a girl “trying to find her place in all this,” and Ridley plays this conflict beautifully. Her performance so clearly convey’s the internal state of her character, so when Rey makes a decision, we understand why, and what it truly means to her.
Also showing off impressive range this go around is Adam Driver as Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. In The Force Awakens, Kylo was presented as an entitled, moody, kid. This go around, we see the rage and brokenness lying beneath the surface. Just like Rey, Kylo is on an emotional journey to figure out his place in this galaxy. We got a glimpse of this in Episode VII, but Johnson gives Driver much more to work with, allowing the audience to see a fully fleshed out, tormented character. Especially in his interactions with Supreme Leader Snoke, played to scenery-chewing perfection by Andy Serkis, we always know what Kylo is thinking and feeling, lending that much more gravity to the path he eventually chooses.
However, it’s not just internal conflict on display here, as Oscar Isaac shows in spades. Po’s journey isn’t just one of internal conflict, but one of leadership, and grappling with the impact of his decisions. Po’s actions have consequences, and when he makes a bad call, Johnson doesn’t brush it under the rug. Where as most hero’s are given a level of plot armor and the only real fallout of their decisions or a few faceless redshirt biting the dust, this is not the case with Po. The character at the start of the film is drastically different than the one we close on, and Isaac is more than capable of portraying this transformation.
Helping aide Po’s metamorphosis is Carrie Fisher’s General Leia. As you likely remember, Fisher passed away last December, leaving a massive question mark around her role in this saga. Thankfully, Johnson uses Leia in a way that best serves the story he’s telling, never manipulating his audience into using real life circumstances to forgive shoddy storytelling. She’s a character on her own, and she delivers a calming, steady presence that comes only with a life of leadership and hard fought victories. But fans needn’t worry, as Leia gets more than a few moments that will have you out of your seat cheering.
Leia isn’t the only original trilogy character portrayed, as Mark Hamill returns as (*Freddy Mercury voice*) Savior of the Universe, Luke Skywalker. There’s no denying that Hamill’s wasn’t the strongest performance of the original trilogy, (Tosche Station, anyone?), but you wouldn’t be able to tell by watching The Last Jedi. Without spoiling anything, this is a very different Luke than we’ve seen before, one longtime franchise fans might not readily get onboard with. However, this bold new direction for Luke lends itself for some brilliant character moments, ones that Hamill delivers with more grace an emotion than nearly anything we’ve seen in a Star Wars flick before.
Which brings us to what I believe is the strongest aspect of The Last Jedi, how well it uses the Star Wars name. With each new saga film, you expect there to be references to that which came before. But rather than use an out of place line, or shoe horn in back story, Johnson uses these references to his advantage. Rather than just include something to get a reaction from the audience, Johnson plays these intertextual moments subtly, and only when it serves the characters. One towards the end of the film simply uses John Williams brilliant score at just the right moment, both bringing emotion to the event’s on screen, and reminding fans of this event’s place in the universe. Johnson is telling a different Star Wars story, one where plot takes back seat to character, and will only use past continuity to build a better future.
This isn’t always a good thing though, as some characters are clearly more suited for a Rian Johnson movie than they are a Star Wars. General Hux is a clear example of this. What could have been a maniacal tyrant obsessed with order and control, Johnson instead chooses to play for comedy. Whenever Hux appeared on screen, his intensity is minimized for the sake of a joke, making him look completely inept, and nowhere near as menacing as he should be. Domhnall Gleeson’s a fantastic actor, and he’s really the one who doesn’t get to show off all he gets to bring to the table.
Johnson also chooses one storyline and fills it with a little too much modern political commentary. Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (newcomer Kelley Marie Tran) spend the majority of film off on their own adventure, and this is by far The Last Jedi’s weakest element. Not only does the film come to a grinding halt during their second act quest, but the political allegories simply don’t fit the story being told. Thankfully, their third act adventure is enjoyable and brings them back into the main story, but if there’s a part to fast-forward through on repeat viewings, it’s theirs.
While it may take a little too long to get there, The Last Jedi tells an amazing story about the choices we make and why we make them. Rian Johnson has crafted one of the greatest Star Wars tales ever told, one that favors character over crowd-pleasing moments. It’s not the movie I thought we would get, it’s the movie I didn’t know I wanted. I’m confident that looking back, we’ll count this among the greatest Star Wars movies ever released.
Rating: 4.5 — Phenomenal