Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
After the great disturbance in the Force that was the Star Wars prequel trilogy — thank-you George Lucas — filmmaker J.J. Abrams (at long last) gave us hungry sci-fi ‘Star Warriors’ something to smile about: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), a movie that was hailed as a return to form for the beloved ‘galaxy far, far away,’ Episode VII (while heavily banking on nostalgia) praised for being good ol’ fashioned escapism fun, the film a thrilling and captivating space epic that was surely destined to revitalize the series for a whole new generation of nerds. And of course, it was a galactic-sized hit, The Force Awakens breaking every record imaginable, eventually going on to become the highest-grossing film of all time in the United States.
It was worrying to hear, then, that Abrams — after the near-impossible feat of reviving the once-loved property — was stepping away from the follow-up chapter as helmer, with the less experienced Rian Johnson, Looper (2012), coming in to write and direct. Thankfully, all my fears and reservations can (finally) be put to rest, as Johnson’s The Last Jedi not only reaches the soaring heights of The Force Awakens (which made my best-of list that year), but also manages to exceed it, Episode VIII a deeply satisfying, emotionally-resonant science-fiction extravaganza that understands what came before it yet progresses the storyline in gripping, subversive and surprising ways.
Picking up almost immediately after the events of The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi opens with a bombastic space skirmish between the Resistance and the First Order — which sees Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his droid pal BB-8 destroy a Dreadnought cruiser’s surface cannons with an X-Wing — before cutting back to the oceanic planet of Ahch-To, where we last saw Rey (Daisy Ridley), when she presented ‘missing’ Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who’d gone into exile on a rocky island on the water-world, with his old lightsaber. From there, hopeful Jedi Rey asks to become Luke’s new apprentice, the former scavenger eager to learn the ways of the Force. Wanting to be left alone, Skywalker initially declines, Luke (consumed by his own fears and doubts) deeming himself a disappointment to the Jedi Order and unworthy of becoming Rey’s mentor — let’s just say, he’s gonna need a little convincing!
Meanwhile, having to abandon their newly destroyed headquarters on planet D’Qar, the Resistance army are being tailed through open space by the tyrannical First Order — the pursuit led by the arrogant General Armitage Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and the tempered Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) — who are somehow able to track the fleeing convoy through hyperspace. With their shields weakening and their fuel supply dwindling, the Resistance are forced to embark on a mission that will help them outrun the gaining fleet, ex-Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega) and female maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) tasked with the covert operation. With Resistance leader General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) injured in the ongoing assault, the former princess now in a state of comatose, the mauve-haired Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) assumes command, the Vice Admiral’s pragmatism clashing against the recklessness of hotheaded pilot Poe, who is not in favor of Holdo’s discreet evacuation plan, the officer wanting to transport the remaining freedom fighters onto an abandoned Rebel Alliance outpost on the nearby mineral planet Crait.
Blasting into hyperdrive, writer-director Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is the most divisive entry in the saga’s decades long history. Brimming with confidence, complexity and bravado, Johnson plays with the formula in ways that are both bold and exciting, the 43-year-old filmmaker melding explosive space opera action with comedy and poignant drama; the narrative is lightning-fast and the callbacks and Easter Eggs an extension of the overall story. Choosing to explore the ‘greys’ rather than just the Lights and Darks, Johnson breaks expectations by burning down the past, this in order to veer the series into some rather unfamiliar territory, his Star Wars every bit as philosophical as it is action-packed, the movie really about disappointment (broken heroes and unsatisfactory answers) and bouncing back from one’s sins and mistakes.
The esteemed Luke Skywalker, for instance, hasn’t become an Alec Guinness-type sage, no siree. And, although Mark Hamill didn’t agree with the direction Johnson decided to take the character when he first read the script — and it’s easy to see why — he’s never been better, the Star Wars veteran delivering what could be his best performance as Luke Skywalker, a gruff, bearded Jedi who’s lost faith in those who yield power, totally ready to let his teachings die out. Here, there’s an ideological battle taking place, the film (almost re-examining its own legacy) questioning the very nature of the Force and why Luke considers himself and the Jedi to be a failure. Rey also begins to interact with antagonist Kylo Ren/ Ben Solo through Force-telepathy; shot as if they’re in the same room, the couple work through problems of neglect and allegiance, chiefly the conflicted Kylo, who ditches his Vader-like helmet after he’s belittled by his monstrous master, the disfigured Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Needless to say, The Last Jedi cements Driver’s unhinged Kylo as one of the most torn and tortured characters in the Star Wars canon.
Even though The Last Jedi is pegged as a big budget studio franchise film — meaning, heavyweight producers like Kathleen Kennedy (probably) have sway over final cut — Johnson’s distinct voice and unique style doesn’t get lost or shadowed.
With that said, not everything gels perfectly. Finn’s sub-plot, for example, where he and technician Rose head to a luxury Monte Carlo-esque casino city on Canto Bight, to track down a hacker who can help the Resistance out of a jam, feels as though it were plucked from a Harry Potter film. Fortunately, the creatures we meet there are weird and wonderful and the visuals sublime, Rian even managing to sneak in some political messages about war profiteers, who are free from the cost of their actions and care very little about the child labor that fuels their ostentatious lifestyle. Sure there’s some padding, but even at a whopping 152 minutes, The Last Jedi never lets up.
Magnetic, stunning and dazzling, The Last Jedi could very well be the slickest, and most visually striking Star Wars movie to date, with Johnson and regular cinematographer Steve Yedlin, Looper (2012), crafting some of the most exhilarating imagery we’ve seen this year. From the electrifying lightsaber clash in Snoke’s blood-red throne room, which pits Kylo and Rey against a number of his crimson-clad First Order guards, to the fist-pumping finale, where a line of giant AT-AT Walkers close in on the Resistance who are hiding out on the salt-mining planet of Crait, the ensuing dogfight kicking up waves of red-velvet colored dust, each and every scene utterly breathtaking. The make-up, aliens and VFX are also first rate, viewers meeting an array of memorable new monsters, such the crystal-furred foxes on the aforementioned Crait, along with those that reside on Ahch-To, including its amphibian nun-looking caretakers, a giant sloth-like beast that Luke milks as part of his ‘busy’ routine, and the much-talked about big-eyed bird-otters, the Porgs, who’ve been tailor-made to steal hearts and scenes.
Although there’s a lot to keep track of, every character, both old and new, gets a moment or two to shine. Ms. Ridley is better this time around as heroine Rey, who shares a bulk of her scenes with Hamill, the reclusive Jedi pushing her into reliving the past while she urges him to instruct her in the ways of the Force, the striking young Brit managing to sell both the physical and emotional aspects of the role. Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina (2014), gets more to do as ace flyboy Poe Dameron, who’s slowly but surely becoming this series’ cocky Han Solo-type character, the capable Isaac nailing the guy’s cheeky attitude and gung-ho manner. John Boyega, Detroit (2017), is, once again, great as First Order defector Finn, who’s become a trusted rebel ally, the Storm Trooper ‘deserter’ ultimately coming face to face with his former commander, the chrome-suited Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) — who’s kinda-sorta become this generation’s Boba Fett — for a violent confrontation. Jimmy Vee supplies a bit of well-timed nostalgia as R2-D2, whilst Anthony Daniels and Peter Mayhew return for a bit of fun as C-3PO and Chewbacca respectively, the latter even guilt-tripped out of snacking on a tasty treat.
Domhnall Gleeson, American Made (2017), looks to be enjoying himself as sniveling baddie General Hux, a cheesy headman who surprisingly winds up being the butt of a few tension-levitating jokes. Elsewhere, Benicio del Toro, Guardians of the Galaxy (2015), chews the scenery as a slippery underworld scoundrel named DJ, who plays both sides for financial gain, while a fitting re-appearance of the revered Grand Master Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz) is sure to hit longtime Star Wars fans in the feels, the wise and witty, funny-speaking muppet brought to life via practical old-school puppetry, this a cool little throwback to The Empire Strikes Back/ Return of the Jedi days. Finally, reuniting on screen with co-star Mark Hamill after 34 long years, the late Carrie Fisher reprises the iconic role of Leia, founder/ general of the Resistance, this her final appearance before prematurely passing in December of 2016, The Last Jedi (which is dedicated to Fisher) a beautiful and fitting send-off to the darling princess of the galaxy.
Concluding with a stirring, hope-filled scene on Canto Bight, this moment bound to light a fire in the hearts of Star Wars enthusiasts everywhere, the final frame injects that burst of blazing passion that film nerds (like myself) need right now, The Last Jedi proving that there are more stories to be told in Disney’s sprawling cosmic universe, and that, perhaps, Rian Johnson’s proposed upcoming trilogy may be the best new idea this side of the stars.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie