The mammoth success of 2015’s “The Force Awakens” shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Star Wars fans had ten years of anticipation built up since the last movie and when Disney purchased the property from George Lucas they immediately began touting a new installment. Now just two years later (not counting last year’s stand-alone film) an incredible $450 million for the latest episode’s opening weekend indicates the fire hasn’t died down one bit.
“The Last Jedi” is the eighth film in the series proper, the ninth Star Wars film overall. And while it has been intensely popular and profitable, the reactions have been all over the map. Some have heralded it “the best Star Wars film since Empire” while others are petitioning Disney to have it removed from canon. Regardless of where you land, everyone has to agree that “The Last Jedi” continues the franchise trend of epitomizing the ‘space opera’ concept.
J.J. Abrams hands over the reins to Rian Johnson who both writes and directs episode VIII. Johnson has shown himself to be an intriguing filmmaker as evident by his movies “Brick” and the sci-fi mindbender “Looper”. But a Star Wars film is an entirely different animal, heavy with high expectations and an extremely passionate (and vocal) fanbase.
Johnson’s story offers franchise fans plenty to smile at and just as much to chew on. Several scenes call back to the original trilogy and the inspiration is undeniable. “The Force Awakens” not so subtly but effectively followed the blueprint of 1977’s “A New Hope”. You could say Johnson’s film is a melding of “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Return of the Jedi”. The structure of some scenes are so similar you can’t help but recognize it.
But fear not, this is no ‘copy and paste’ rehash. Johnson has numerous fresh strokes and narrative angles that makes “The Last Jedi” feel completely of its own. Some of Johnson’s decisions have stoked the ire of certain fans, but he’s clearly trying to develop his own take on the universe. Because of this a couple of characters handed off by Abrams don’t quite get the attention. Is it because they don’t completely fit within Johnson’s vision? I’m not sure.
“The Force Awakens” ends with Rey (Daisy Ridley) finding Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a remote island. Johnson drops his anchor and spends a lot of time on the island with Rey trying to convince Luke the Rebel Alliance needs him. She also seeks his help in understanding the Force and the powers she has discovered. But Luke has become a disillusioned hermit conflicted about his own legend and convinced the time of the Jedi has passed. Hamill’s performance may be his best yet and Ridley is such an asset. The two share several good scenes – some funny and some emotional.
Elsewhere in the galaxy the young rebellion led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher) is forced to evacuate their base after Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the menacing First Order arrive. The pursuit that follows takes a big chunk of the film and includes the return of impetuous hot-shot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), former stormtrooper turned resistance superstar Finn (John Boyega), and droid-of-all-trades BB-8. Fisher brings out a whole new layer of humanity to Leia that’s hinted at in the previous film but truly realized in this performance (sadly her last following her recent passing). Speaking of new layers, Kylo Ren has several of them and Johnson has made him into the most intriguing character of the new series.
“The Last Jedi” is the longest Star Wars film by a good 15 minutes and unfortunately you can tell. The first half has some big moments but it’s also a bit slow getting its footing. Johnson spends a tad too much time on the island only giving us baby steps of progression with Luke and Rey until finally getting in gear in the second half. The pursuit segment also has some stumbles particularly involving a side mission with Finn and a new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). Aside from some pretty obvious logistical issues, their mission lacks energy and only exists because of a pointless story angle involving another new face Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). She is without question the most poorly conceived character of the new trilogy. This mission also features a pretty bad CGI-heavy chase sequence that felt completely out of sync with the rest of the movie.
At the same time there are many more things Johnson gets right especially in the second half where the intensity really amps up. I especially love the stress on characters and the personal bonds many of them share. And there is also the connections between the old and the new. I’ll be intentionally vague but this can be tricky ground for a filmmaker. Johnson nails it and none of these moments feel contrived or meaningless. Some had me wanting to cheer. Others brought tears to my eyes. The film also ends with an exhilarating final sequence that leaves the story in an interesting place, ready to be picked up in Episode IX.
I can certainly understand fans having a lot of questions. I do myself. But that’s a big part of the fun when it comes to a Star Wars movie – wondering and speculating. “The Last Jedi” has some early pacing issues and a few things that simply don’t make sense. But it’s still a fantastic Star Wars experience filled with excitement, emotion and nostalgia. It also features a few of those truly great moments that franchise fans will forever link with this film. I know I won’t forget them and my inner fanboy is getting a bit giddy just thinking about them.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS