The release of a new episode of ‘Star Wars’ is hands down the biggest cinematic event of whatever year each drops, and as such there is an enormous weight on these films due to a fan base that is truly unrivaled among franchises. While it is impossible to please everyone, the new entries from the past few years have somehow managed to satisfy both critics and most fans (many were particularly wowed by the gritty war-film feel of last year’s ‘Rogue One’). The release of ‘Episode VIII: The Last Jedi’ details the further exploits of the Skywalker clan and the new characters almost unanimously praised in their introduction via 2015’s ‘The Force Awakens’. Disney/Lucasfilm gave the reigns, and what seems to be artistic license, to writer/director Rian Johnson (‘Brick’, ‘Looper’, and some of the best episodes of ‘Breaking Bad’), who crafts a unique tale that subverts the tropes of the series with both quiet contemplation and mind-blowing sequences of gorgeous fantastical sci-fi action.
‘The Last Jedi’ resembles it’s spiritual middle-trilogy sibling, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, in that its’ plot is also ostensibly an extended pursuit interspersed with secluded teachings in the ways of the Force. Also like ‘Empire’, there are moments of betrayal and loss, themes of doubt and failure, but TLJ has something else on its’ mind and it’s pretty shocking to behold. This film is the best directed ‘Star Wars’ film and the most artistically daring in presentation and scope (Johnson doubles down on Lucas’ Kurosawa influence) as it jumps between conventional, although breathtaking, space battles (the clearly presented dogfights may be the best in the series) and interiors of various space cruisers, to the new island location of Ach-To, introduced at the end of TFA where Luke has sequestered himself, and finally to the salt-covered red crystal planet Krait, a genius design in itself. There are moments of visual representation of light and darkside power that bring new dimension to aspects of the Force that audiences have never realized or imagined before. These choices, combined with the twists, turns and shocks of the screenplay belie the hand of an auteur whose obvious desire to shake the foundation of character and audience expectation is on full display.
The film basically starts immediately where TFA left off. The General Leia-led Resistance is narrowly escaping the might of a First Order that has proven its’ power with the destruction of the New Republic. New characters are introduced (Kelly Marie Tran’s star-struck and idyllic Rose, Laura Dern’s steadfast second-in-command Vice Admiral Holdo) and familiar ones are re-introduced (Oscar Isaac in a welcome beefed up role as the brazen fighter pilot Poe Dameron, John Boyega’s former stormtrooper, Finn, conflicted by his newly heroic status) in these sequences where the stakes couldn’t be higher and choices are made that will resonate for the rest of the movie. Rey (a note-perfect Daisy Ridley continuing her heroic journey) confronts the grizzled and haunted Luke Skywalker in a plea for his return in order to provide hope and inspiration to the galaxy. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver’s villainous performance is incredibly complex here) and General Hux (a sniveling Domhnall Gleeson) are facing the ire of a fully revealed Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis in a chilling mo-cap performance). Johnson sets all the pieces on the board, and if at times they move sideways from the goal of the film (the only complaint is that the movie may throw a little too much on screen), it all comes together in weird, emotional, compelling, and unexpected ways for a final third act that contains some of the best elements in the entire franchise.
In what is sure to be the most talked about, debated, but ultimately fascinating turns, Mark Hamill’s performance as Luke Skywalker is the centerpiece and lynchpin of ‘The Last Jedi.’ Despite some public misgivings with where his character finds himself at the start of the film, Hamill trusts his director and gives in to him fully. As a result, he supplies his greatest representation of the character, overwhelmed by the weight of his own legend. No one could have predicted the fates of the main three heroes of the original trilogy, and it may wind up being the source of fan ire, but what happens to these characters is understandable and illuminates their humanity in interesting ways. This new trilogy is shadowed by themes of parental failure and the nature of legacy, so much so that it becomes an extended metaphor for the whole franchise, one that holds such a place of rare reverence that it threatens to overwhelm itself. To look past history, to find hope in the future, for something different and better, in the face of such stifling attachment to a realized ‘ideal’, is also a perfect message for a modern age obsessed with all things retro while simultaneously yearning for change . . .
Written & Directed By: Rian Johnson
Runtime: 152 min
* * * * (out of 4 stars) -OR- A