"The Last Jedi dares to take the iconic Star Wars franchise to new, riskier heights"
By: Steve Pulaski
Where J. J. Abrams's Star Wars: The Force Awakens compellingly assembled a cast of likable characters while laying the foundation for a new Star Wars trilogy to commence, Rian Johnson's Last Jedi takes a few steps forward to cover creative new ground. The Force Awakens felt like it was constructed by a plethora of producers and studio-heads carefully piecing together a Star Wars film easy for the masses to digest, right down to the fact it was built in the same structural and narrative molds used for A New Hope. The Last Jedi finds itself commanded by a visionary filmmaker with a plan in place to lift the new installments off into new heights — at the risk of succumbing to ridicule and hate from fans.
While far from perfect and burdened by a few specific misgivings, it's abundantly clear that fans of the franchise will find themselves at odds with themselves just as much as the actual film. The same people that lamented The Force Awakens for not trying anything new and sticking to preexisting formula will be the same who critique The Last Jedi for taking too many risks and, by some justification, soiling the fabric of the series. Similar to its predecessor, the film does what it needs to do at the right time and does it successfully enough to warrant praise. Abrams did what was required in establishing groundwork that would give subsequent installments and the creators behind them a lot of room off which to work. Conversely, Johnson takes the opportunity to make a captivating space-battle where desperation threatens to overtake hope in the minds of our characters.
The film picks up where The Force Awakens left off. General Leia (Carrie Fisher in her final film role) is leading the Resistance against the First Order despite dwindling human capital and resources. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) has found a way to keep tabs on the rebels movements even if they're traveling through hyper-speed, causing them to have to constantly change their whereabouts and paths of transport. Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) decide to operate on offense, disobeying the initial command of Leia and Admiral Ackbar by trying to find a way to disable the First Order's tracking device. Poe uses his expert piloting-skills to engage while Finn and a maintenance worker (Kelly Marie Tran) seek the help of a petty code-cracker. Meanwhile, on the secluded oceanic island of Ahch-To, Rey (Daisy Ridley) thanklessly tries to convince a grizzled, stubborn Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to train her in hopes she'll be able to channel the elusive powers of the force. Finally, Supreme Leader Snoke's do-boy Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) attempts to muster up the gravitas necessary to come to grips with his role in the First Order to despite his connection with the leader of the Resistance.
One of the downsides to Abrams and company playing The Force Awakens so safely was that, like most reboots and origins stories, the villain, in that case, Kylo Ren, felt like an inconsequential addition whose time to shine was a point in the near-future. The upside to that, however, was that Johnson could once again use the existing foundation on which to build an oddly sympathetic character, whose guilt and telepathic abilities with Rey serve as some of the most original aspects in a film that feels as fresh as any new Star Wars film has been since the iconic trilogy. Furthermore, this unexpected ability prompts a lot of intrigue and theories I'll leave you to piece together for yourselves. What matters above all is Kylo Ren now has dimension and purpose, while Rey's challenges amass further as she badgers a grouchy Luke to give her guidance in the similar way Yoda gave him so many years ago. The major players in The Last Jedi are given the added depth they need to resonate now and for the long-term, and contributing to this development is at the forefront of Johnson's mind.
Certain scenes demonstrate how Star Wars can be many things at once, something Johnson experiments with in the wryest of ways. Consider the extended sequence at an intergalactic casino, populated by grotesque creatures, where the intoxicating aura of sound and lights take on a life of their own thanks to immaculate decoration and total immersion in this visual world. This sequence also goes from being lightly expository to existing purely as entertainment only to double-back and be fruitfully climactic, a sweetly textured little nod at the versatility of extended moments in any given Star Wars film. There's also the opening destruction of a massive Dreadnaught spacecraft, which turns a good chunk of the galaxy into a gleaming fireball of unforeseen proportions, affirming that this is an installment with stakes as well as tangible consequences.
Johnson also believes in adding moments of peril and prevalent emotion in an attempt to try and resurrect that attachment many of us have to Star Wars but perhaps haven't experienced in quite sometime, especially while watching the latest installment. Outcomes and solutions for our beloved heroes never come too easy as they might've in the past, as there always seems to be some sort of barrier or set of circumstances that must work out to a tee in order for even the simplest plan to unfold. Some moments, such as Finn stumbling upon an ominous crook (Benicio del Toro) who is exactly who he needs in the moment, may be a bit too convenient, but the surmounting obstacles that Johnson throws at his characters — be them uncooperative codgers or their ship running on fumes — realizes a great aura of desperation. In some respects, it's no wonder why people have likened this installment to The Empire Strikes Back, for the bleakness returns to haunt the characters and leave them grappling for answers and solutions that their own wits sometimes struggle to attain.
A few things about The Last Jedi don't work as well as they could. For one, the film adopts the kind of Marvel-brand humor that has the biting and often cloying desire to end several scenes with a quip or a joke that ostensibly exists to lighten the mood, if only for a mere moment. This humor could not be more out of place, and at its worst, undermines all the thought Johnson has put into furthering these characters in meaningful ways. Although the success rate of humor in Marvel films is around a coin-flip in my mind, the light-hearted humor has been integral to the films since the dawn of the respective cinematic universe. Star Wars hasn't included humor nearly as much, and dates back to a time when science-fiction and fantasy didn't feel the need to undercut the legitimacy of their verisimilitude with jokes; so naturally, it feels like Johnson has a lack of confidence or a biting desire to be contemporary.
Then there's the isolation aspect of being confined on the Resistance that might prove to be a tiring by the time it wraps up. The Last Jedi essentially feels like a cruise-ship movie, in which the events take place largely in one elaborate setting (save for the moments with Rey and Luke), and though that setting is the final and largest frontier known to mankind, there is a sameness that begins to exhaust after 150 minutes. Trying to morph a negative into a positive, I hope that in the same way The Force Awakens limited the development of Kylo Ren and Rey only for this installment to capitalize on the potential, Episode IX will take the thrill of discovering new worlds in the Star Wars universe into consideration and drives home the infinite possibilities.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi does what it needs to do, and it inspires in a crisp and nimble manner. Johnson shows that with great potential, a lofty budget, and cherished source-material comes the opportunity for thoughtful craftsmanship. Visuals and camerawork feel like remixes of the layered landscapes of Akira Kurosawa in some ways, but remain nuanced enough where imitation doesn't supersede the director's unique vision. This has been a satisfying opera thus far and, once again, time will tell if it concludes with a bang intense enough to at least make the naysayers grin.