Film Review – Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Ever since A New Hope was released in 1977, every Star Wars film followed the same basic formula: operatic space battles between good and evil, with a central character being pulled in both directions, whose final choice could decide the fate of all. From the original trilogy, to the prequel trilogy, and now with this latest iteration, the different variations haven’t moved all that far away from the basic outline. Why is that? Because the outline works. This is a proven equation with generations of fans and financial profits as evidence. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right?
That’s the feeling I get when I watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017). On the surface, this is a slickly made production, helmed by writer/director Rian Johnson. Everything that you’ve come to expect from the franchise is here, bridging the past with the present much better than the last entry, The Force Awakens (2015). Where The Force Awakens relied heavily on fan service and nostalgia as a crouch (almost to detrimental ends), The Last Jedi attempts to use the past merely as a stepping-stone to build its own identity. Even the inclusion of mainstays Luke (Mark Hamill) and Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) isn’t for simple cameos – they play relevant factors into the narrative.
But let’s be honest with ourselves. Just as the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Bond series has to maintain a certain brand type, so does the Star Wars universe. A New Hope (and perhaps more so with The Empire Strikes Back (1980)) was revolutionary in blockbuster storytelling. The Force Awakens and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) felt like they needed to stick to the script. At the very least, Johnson was able to make The Last Jedi feel as much of a “Rian Johnson film” as well as a “Star Wars film.” This is much looser than past entries, taking twists and turns that may or may not work for audiences. But the fact that it took those risks is worth admiration.
The plot is split into three different sections, taking place almost immediately after the events of The Force Awakens. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) along with General Leia, lead the small remaining fleet of Resistance fighters as they try to escape The First Order, headed by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). While that’s happening, Finn (John Boyega) – whose development from the last film I will not get into – teams up with new comer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) – in an attempt to help the Resistance escape. And finally, Rey (Daisy Ridley) spends the majority of her time on an isolated planet with Luke, begging for his tutelage and to help the Resistance’s cause.
While Rey has been set up to be the key figure of this current storyline, Kylo Ren has emerged to be the most interesting character. Just as Luke was torn between the light and the dark side, Kylo Ren also has conflicting emotions on where his morality stands. He sits right on the fence, where his admiration of Darth Vader and the power of The First Order contrast with the goodness in him calling out. He and Luke share similar emotional arcs – where Luke was on the side of good but was tempted by evil, Kylo Ren initially starts off in darkness and is tempted by the light. The choices he makes often appear hypocritical, but I don’t necessarily see that as a detriment, but more as the actions of a person who is at war with himself.
I don’t know if Kylo Ren being the most fully realized character so far is a good thing, given that Rey is thought to be the central character of this trilogy. An issue is that her back story was first shrouded in mystery, with one of the biggest question marks being who her parents are. The fact that we haven’t learned much of her – at least up to this film – makes it a little more difficult to connect to her than to Kylo Ren. Sure, she wants to find meaning to her life and her place in the universe, but those are very broad motivations. Take the interactions she has with Luke. Where Rey goes there to learn and find purpose, it’s Luke who comes out of it as the more developed character. This isn’t just because Luke has been around longer; he has a concrete arc here that takes him from one place to another psychologically. It’s perhaps Hamill’s strongest performance in the franchise – instead of a wide-eyed kid he’s become a cynical old man who’d rather spend his days as a hermit than a hero. Compare that to Rey, who has not been given enough material for us (yet) to gravitate toward her.
In terms of production, can you expect anything less from a franchise like this? The space battles, individual fight scenes, and special effects all work incredible well. The sound design specifically works to amplify key moments. During a scene when the sound completely cuts out, the deafening silence made what we see on screen all the more impactful. Another highlighted aspect is how spacecraft jump into and out of light speed. This isn’t used just for window dressing, there is a specific reason for it and the payoff turns out to be one of the major high points we get.
I mentioned earlier that the looseness of the narrative allowed Johnson and his team to take the story in directions we may not be anticipating. On the flip side, it also makes the structure a bit messier. Other than Kylo Ren, Luke, and maybe Poe and Leia, the rest of the characters and story beats operate to varied success. Unfortunately, Finn’s storyline dragged everything down, taking an upbeat pace and tossing it into the mud. Where he goes and what he does felt irrelevant, and the dynamic he shares with Rose was more of an awkward plot mechanic than a natural progression. The character of Snoke is also a missed opportunity. Just like Rey, we have a character that is intriguing on the outside, but whom we learn nothing about. What Snoke does and where he ends up could leave audiences disappointed.
The Last Jedi is like that updated toy or gadget that you get for Christmas. It has all of the stuff that you liked in the older versions, some new tricks thrown in to keep you satisfied, and just enough features left out to keep you eager for the next one. While those who desire to see something entirely new and different may walk away wishing for more, those that are bought in will embrace this with open arms.