After watching the newest installment of the Star Wars franchise (2nd under the Disney umbrella) one thing has been made abundantly clear: this world no longer belongs to George Lucas. If you are expecting his stories, his swipe effects that cut to the next scene, or sweeping visuals of new planets and subtle introductions of fantastical creatures, then you will be truly disappointed. Star Wars no longer has George’s fingerprints, nor does it have J.J. Abrams’ for that matter. Where J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens (2015) stoked feelings of nostalgia, Rian Johnson’s entry, The Last Jedi is the antithesis, rejecting nostalgia while simultaneously challenging you to either accept it or don’t. The resulting product is surprisingly good.
After The Force Awakens we were left with so many unanswered questions: Who are Rey’s parents? Who are the Knights of Ren? Who is Snoke? Can Kylo Ren be redeemed after killing his father? Does he want to be redeemed? Why has Luke exiled himself? Why does Poe Dameron matter? Will Finn continue to be cannon fodder? Rian Johnson answers all of these questions, gifting the audience with three-dimensional characters with solid arcs while carefully abandoning all the Star Wars tropes we’ve grown accustomed to: you can’t pin all of your hopes on half-baked schemes because they seldom work when put into play, and certain acts of heroism does not make you a hero. Rian does a great job of taking these different story lines and yo-yoing them on a string, keeping them intertwined on one central theme: failure.
From the opening scene we literally drop into chaotic mayhem. It’s quick paced and fun; it feels like we’re falling into familiar territory, until we realize it isn’t. We get re-introduced to General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), both of whom no longer resemble the characters we remember from the previous film. Domhnall Gleeson brilliantly plays Hux as a sniveling weasel, whose soul purpose is to please his Supreme Leader, relishing in undermining his rival Kylo Ren. Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of the brash fighter pilot Poe Dameron is electric; he’s quick, witty, and hot headed to a fault. I was taken aback by the fact that his character was actually central to the plot of the films theme. Mr. Isaac and the late Carrie Fisher, who plays the Princess- turned- General Leia Organa with an unparalleled elegance, don’t have much screen time together but when they do share it, it’s as if they have worked together forever; their give and take is refreshing and fun, but it is his scenes with Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) that delivery the most fire. We are also introduced to a new character, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) a resistance mechanic who is integral to Finn’s (John Boyega) story. Newcomer Kelly Marie Tran plays Rose with a sweet innocence that teeters on the edge of naivety but never falls. I honestly believed that Finn was in danger of being forgotten, lost in the shadows while the spotlight shown bright on new characters but he too shined with the rest of his cohorts.
We’re quickly whisked back to the Island of Ahch-To (get it?) where Rey (Daisy Ridley) is meeting THE Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) for the very first time. That amazement and wonderment is short lived, however, as the Luke Skywalker that we all grew up with and loved is lost in this husk of a hermit who has shut himself off from the world he helped rebuild. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is licking his wounds, both physically and emotionally before Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who mercilessly berates him for losing to a girl who had no training and exposes the conflict that killing Han Solo created within him. Rey and Kylo Ren’s story lines run parallel to each other, each desperately seeking approval from their elder. Ms. Ridley plays Rey with an earnest vulnerability that really doesn’t give us any option but to root for her. Adam Driver again delivers as the severely conflicted Kylo Ren, conveying Ren’s torment with devoted conviction. What is most surprising is the amazing chemistry Daisy and Adam have. Ren’s flame burns with rage, while Rey is the calm breeze that stokes it. Still it is Mark Hamill who’s flame burns brightest. Mr. Hamill was tasked with not only coming back to play Luke, but he had to play a version he’d never played: a disgruntled, disillusioned, shell of a Jedi, who’d abandoned his religion. The most optimistic Jedi has become the most dejected, his pain and sorrow told through his sullen blue eyes.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a nonstop thrill ride replete of highs and lows. Rian Johnson does a great job of introducing the debate of the excessive hubris, hypocrisy, and vanity of the Jedi Order and their teachings. Rian takes what we think we already know about the force and hits us over the head with something brand new. I found myself pleasantly surprised by Rian’s take on the force. George Lucas had a chance to dive into the mysticism of the force in the prequels but failed to, and aside from Yoda’s original description of the force in The Empire Strikes Back, Rian showed us just how eerie the force can truly be. The film clocks in at 2 hours and 33 minutes making it the longest running time for a Star Wars film, yet the movie never drags… which is an issue. The film is exhilarating but we’re never given time to breathe and gaze upon the world Rian is presenting to us. The camera is always moving even when it shouldn’t and the music doesn’t act as a companion piece but a blaring annoyance (except for one scene that was completely devoid of sound. The second most visually stunning sequence I’ve ever scene in a Star Wars film, the first being the carbonite chamber scene between Luke and Vader). Canto Bight was underwhelming (supposed to be the anti-cantina scene?) and Finn and Rose’s story line felt a bit forced; there was even a moment that I can only describe as Die Hard-esque. Another let down was that Benicio Del Toro’s character D.J. did not have as prominent of a role as was expected. The fact that his talent was not fully utilized is disappointing; he acted marvelously in the short amount of screen time he was given leaving us with the desire to see more of him, and it is his character that delivers an on-the-nose political commentary on war and how the wealthy aren’t the only ones who benefit. There is also a moment in the film with Princess Leia that is absolutely cringe worthy. This will continue to be a trend in future Star Wars films. Since the story no longer belongs to George Lucas, different writers and different directors will have opposing views on the story, which will leave some glaring plot holes (We still know nothing of the Knights Of Ren seen in The Force Awakens) from film to film, each feeling like a stand alone, fractured piece rather than a complete series that is connected flawlessly.
Alas, Rian Johnson’s entry to the Star Wars saga is not perfect nor is it an instant classic, but it is the fresh take we ached for in 2015. Though this film is technically Ahch-To (See what I did there?) it doesn’t feel like The Empire Strikes Back. Quite the contrary, where Empire ended with bleak uncertainty, The Last Jedi’s outlook was bright and full of hope. Rian Johnson is hell bent on exploring other portions of the massive Star Wars universe, away from the Jedi, the Sith, the Empire, the Republic, the Rebels, and the mighty Skywalker’s. Before he does that he must first “let the past die.”
He has succeeded.