There’s a sequence in the second act of Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi that is not great. It’s not bad, per say, but it protracts the second act in a way that is unnecessary and, in retrospect, kind of feels like franchise service more than it feels like good story-telling. I bring it up here, in the opening of this review, because it stands out as almost the ONLY thing I did not like about The Last Jedi. It’s so indicative of everything this film is NOT that it’s kind of glaring that it’s in the film at all, or at least in the film in this form. The Last Jedi is powerful and thrilling. It’s the most emotional I’ve ever been watching a Star Wars movie. This sequence in the middle of the film is the only dark spot in a film that I feel comfortable proclaiming as the best Star Wars that has been made up to now. It’s incredible.
J.J. Abrams‘ The Force Awakens was a massively successful film, both financially and culturally. If there is a dark stain on its reputation it is that many scornfully point out that its plot is recycled from the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope. This never bothered me. Yes, I noticed it, but I was so in love with the energy and excitement and the new characters and the stellar performances that I didn’t care about the similar plot. However, going in to The Last Jedi I was curious to see how Rian Johnson would handle this aspect of the film. Would this film recycle the plot of The Empire Strikes Back or would it take this new trilogy a new direction? I think it’s safe to say that for the most part it’s very much its own movie, free from the burdens of The Force Awakens which had to do so much to get this franchise off the ground.
Indeed, not only is the film able to take Rey, Finn, Kylo Ren, and Poe in new directions and to new places, it’s also able to explore themes in a way no other Star Wars movie has before. These Star Wars films have always been about a battle between the Dark Side and the Light. Between the Empire and the Rebellion, or now, in the new trilogy, the First Order and the Resistance. The Last Jedi dares to have multiple characters challenge this framework in service of a new, more cynical look at the world. That these systems are ALL flawed, ALL corrupt, ALL part of a machine not worthy of our time, attention, or sacrifice. That the only sane choice in this world that is so flawed is to either withdraw entirely from it, or try to conquer the whole thing by blowing it up. In short, this is the first Star Wars of the Trump era and it’s also as pure a reflection on our culture moment as I’ve seen in a major Hollywood franchise-film thus far.
It’s also funny as hell. I laughed A LOT during this film. The comedic timing of Oscar Isaac, Benecio Del Toro, and a bunch of Porgs are all put to good use. I was particularly impressed with the way in which the humor was deployed. It’s not just comic relief, although there is a ton of that, but also comedy used to undercut some of the more self-serious moments in the movie AND as a way to further the plot in unexpected ways. This aspect along with the political undercurrent were some of the more surprising aspects of the movie to me.
The other major highlight of the film is just how grand in scope and scale it is, particularly from an emotional standpoint. Both the second and third act of this film feel long. In the second act this is kind of a problem, but in the third act it’s glorious. The film escalates in emotional intensity to the point that I almost couldn’t handle it any more. All the key players get moments to shine in ways that are thrilling, powerful, and at times surprising. Mark Hamill’s work in the whole film is quite good, but in the final act his performance becomes sublime. I have a lot to say about others in the cast but it would be difficult to discuss them without spoiling elements of the film, so instead I’ll just say that there isn’t a bad performance in the film. John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Andy Serkis, and Laura Dern are all terrific in the film. Domhnall Gleeson, who I quite liked in The Force Awakens, is probably a weaker link here, but that’s more of a writing problem than it is anything else. I would also like to highlight Kelly Marie Tran who is a welcome, delightful addition to the cast. The late great Carrie Fisher is also quite good in the film.
The experience of watching The Last Jedi was one of the best I have had in a theater this year. Moreover, the experience of watching it with an audience was fantastic. Listening to the laughter, the gasps, the collective sighs of relief, groans of doom, and the weird, breathy sounds of astonishment coming at pivotal moments-it was a blast and I can’t wait to see it again. And again. Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens across the galaxy on December, 15th.