What do you want from a Star Wars film? When it comes to The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the Skywalker saga, that question gets to the heart of what you’re going to get from this film.
What worked brilliantly about The Force Awakens was its unabashed embrace of nostalgia. Its form was so predictable that I wrote a “pre-review” for Episode VII prior to its release, noting that Abrams’ was meant to serve as catharsis. His job was to not “fuck it up” and to “keep things relatively simple, make people remember what they loved about these films and give them that.” Meanwhile, I hoped that “Rian Johnson’s next film may prove to be the real interesting one, where the slate has been wiped to a certain extent and more dark and dramatic themes can again be explored. The burden isn’t there on Episode VIII to strictly give the people what they want, and so it may be the more original and effective of the flicks.”
Despite all these predictions, the most satisfying thing about my first viewing of The Last Jedi was that it continuously managed to surprise. Rian Johnson knows the source material deeply, and in the same way knows how to toy with the expectations of general audiences and hardcore fans alike. While J.J. Abrams’ film got the ship out of the landing dock, Rian takes us along for a ride (some may say too long at over 2 ½ hours), finding detours along the way that managed to entertain and enthral in equal measure.
This is the first of any of the so-called “saga” films that starts immediately following the last, making it in some ways more akin to how Rogue One will dovetails with A New Hope if played as part of a marathon. In some ways this makes for abrupt changes with the motivations of the characters as they swing quickly in different directions. At the same time, this direct follow-on does give the narrative a more immediate feel – We have grown accustomed to time ellipsis in these films where characters became closer or further apart, yet here we’re just as off kilter and trying to stay one step ahead as the fleeing rebels.
Of all the things predictable about Johnson’s vision for the film, I wasn’t expecting a movie quite so playful and funny in between the bleak, tragic elements. A failure of my own imagination and faith in the director to so powerfully balance light and dark. There’s a goofiness that’s refreshing, and even if there’s one too many shots of the disgustingly cute Porgs, their inclusion is indicative of the thrill the filmmaker brings to simply playing in this sandbox.
Those things that are taken seriously, from training sequences to the space battles endemic to this saga, for the most part avoid feeling procedural or rote. Johnson’s script manages to find new ways of doing the same, while at the same time expanding on fundamental aspects of the underlying ethos of the force, Jedi training, leadership, sacrifice, and so on.
Visually the film is at times stunning, from a salt-covered blood-red plane that provided a beautiful metaphor for the pain under the exterior, to sleek expansions of the Imperial aesthetic drawn from the original trilogy. Camera placement is at times quite different from what’s come before, and it provides unique angles that give the work a feel of its own. There’s little in the way of overt showiness, but it nonetheless feels both original and respectful of the established look.
This is but one of dozens of dialectics at play, no surprise for a film that fundamentally looks at the dark/light dichotomy in myriad forms and finds grey in between. For those that scoffed at Lucas’ fascination with the “balance of the force” in the Prequels now find this fundamental notion at the core of this sequel trilogy (even if, admittedly, “midichlorians” haven’t come up in discussion up as yet). The Last Jedi provides deep dives into many of these established dualities, finding complexity in the master/student relationship, the ambiguity of a commander in a rebellion who subverts command rebelliously, or the apprentice who may yet best the master.
Cut to the core The Last Jedi takes the best of both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi and gently twists the elements around. It’s when these prior events are subverted that the film is the most interesting, and this is the skill that Johnson exhibited with Looper that I was most looking forward to with this project, taking a myriad of references, echoes and even clichés and crafting something new and compelling out of it. It’s this alchemy that’s the most exhilarating about the film, finding ways of becoming more engaged, more emotionally invested in moments that previously were masked by whiz-bang pyrotechnics.
There isn’t another Death Star to blow up here, thankfully, even if there are similar quests at hand. Yet unlike a mere repetition, Johnson bookends Last Jedi with two different missions, humanizing both battles in ways that were best seen in the final few moments of Rogue One as nameless soldiers made deep sacrifices. This is the first Star Wars film where someone takes time to quietly sob in a corner, the daily sufferings of those engaged in battle exemplified by characters that aren’t all Jedis, generals, and princesses.
The Skywalker saga has always been a kind of rags-to-riches-to-ruin tale, where both Anakin and Luke emerged from a backwater, looking from the outside, only to be thrust into the very fabric of high level political society. The Last Jedi teases this out even further, exploding just a little bit the “small universe” shtick where on a galactic scale the same retinue of familiar characters, be they good or evil, are always running into one another.
The only time this irks is when the character of Phasma makes her return. As much as I’m a fan of the costume and Gwendoline Christie who inhabits the suit, this remains the most tacked on element of the film, an inelegant inclusion of a character who never really has lived up to expectations. The same argument could be made for Boba Fett shoehorned into the Special Edition of A New Hope or his ignominious Sarlaac encounter on Tatooine, but that’s the stuff for another nerdy debate.
Yes, the film is the longest in the series, but it’s told swiftly and easily could have accommodated a few more minutes to flesh out some of the sequences that feel a bit rushed. It’s a film of boldness and ambition, and even if it doesn’t always live up to what it’s striving to communicate it’s to be applauded by taking seriously its mission of expanding what’s come before while doing justice to the best of the past. There are some simple images that are indelible – a wonderful shot down a bomb bay hatch, a surreal mirrored visit during a training sequence, and a terrific sight gag by a certain astromech droid.
On a bittersweet note, Carrie Fisher’s loss is amplified by her final performance, a real gift for fans of the character that she’s most closely associated with. She stood around and seemed superfluous last film, here her heart is at the center of most of what takes place. It’s a fine send off to a legend.
With all its pieces it can be somewhat overwhelming, and for those slightly less inculcated in this world it may take another visit to truly make sense of it all. Kids may find it less appealing, and casual fans maybe confused. It helps to remember that the very same criticisms were levelled at Empire Strikes Back, a film that took decades to firmly establish itself as the prime element of the canon. The Last Jedi reaches towards the heights of that film, and in many ways manages to equal or better what came before.
I cannot speak to how this film will be embraced collectively, nor do I particularly care about its box office potential. I can say that this film lived up to the high expectations that Rian Johnson would give us something worth chewing on, a darker, slyer, sillier film that manages to answer long-held questions and raise new ones along the way. There’s real joy at play here, a filmmaker clearly influenced deeply by Lucas’ vision but confident and capable enough to wrestle the world to be his own. If J.J.’s film gave us the popcorn thrills, Johnson gives us a more filling meal that still manages to provide moments of giddy excitement.
With the promise of an entirely new trilogy far removed from the Skywalkers, Johnson is primed to be the new master of this cinematic universe. Abrams is a fine choice to close out the series, and while he’s not known for capable endings the elements are well laid for him to sweep it all together and give us the warranted catharsis. So, what do you want from your Star Wars? Something fun, fluffy with a bit of fanciful to make it interesting? You got that with Force Awakens.
If instead you want to dive deeper into what’s come before, to see things previously hinted at taken seriously but not portentously, and to be even more emotionally and spiritually engaged in the narrative then The Last Jedi is the film for you. Its flaws are the result of overreach rather than trying to appease everyone. It feels throughout as a highly personal film made within the constraints of an existing franchise, a blockbuster with the beating heart of its creator worn proudly on its sleeve.
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