Man reviewing THE LAST JEDI is going to be a damn tough task. In the interest of letting readers go in as fresh as possible, I’ll keep the plot description to a minimum, though there’s mild spoilers ahead. In the interest of not coming off like a drooling nincompoop, I’ll do my best to not just type “OH DEAR GAWD TAKE ALL MY MONEY I WANNA WATCH IT SIX ZILLION MORE TIMES” over and over again. Make no mistake about it, Rian Johnson has given fans one hell of a movie, an instant classic that will rank right up there with the best of the original trilogy for sure. I’m not sure if what follows qualifies so much as a review as it does some semi-cohesive ramblings, but try to bear with me. Oh, and apologies in advance for barely touching on how outstanding Daisy Ridley continues to be in these films. We’ll touch on Rey’s arc in an upcoming piece.
THE FORCE AWAKENS was a balm meant to assure fans burned by the prequel trilogy that the new films would be a return to classic form. JJ Abrahms job was to set the table for fans, and allow the future entries of the franchise to branch out into uncharted terrain. THE LAST JEDI doesn’t trade on your nostalgia. Yes, it manages to feel familiar at times, but its greatest feat is fearlessness with which it dives headfirst into new territory. The results are nothing short of breathtaking. Rian Johnson builds on the path taken by last year’s standalone ROUGE ONE and continues the transformation of Star Wars from an adventure driven space opera into a politically and socially conscience war film. It’s not that the fun has been wiped off the chart and replaced with “grim and gritty.” This isn’t a DC Comics franchise after all.
What’s striking is how THE LAST JEDI manages to mirror the two essential plots of the OT’s middle chapter, while feeling like its wholly own entity. Without diving into plot details, the new film centers on the Jedi mentor relationship between Luke and Rey, while the last remnants of the Resistance do their damndest to escape a First Order that’s perilously close to wrapping its fingers around their throats. The newest Star Wars brings back series favorites Luke, Leia, & Chewie while further developing its new heroes Rey, Finn and Poe. It also adds a handful of terrific new characters to the mix, not the least of which are Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose. We meet the latter in a moment when she’s consumed with grief, and watch as she becomes a working class hero driven to do what’s right. Rose is a unique addition to the franchise in that she exposes the kinds of oppression the Empire/First Order subjects to the common people to.
What gives the new film its power is the way it escalates the stakes. TLJ isn’t afraid to show that the casualties and consequences of warfare. It’s a film where the heroic and risky attempts at catching the enemy off guard come at a high cost. The film opens with the kind of space battle we’ve seen before, where an outnumbered fleet of Rebel pilots take on the overwhelming brute force of Empire Star Destroyers. While the audience cheers on Poe Dameron’s brave but reckless plan to take out an Imperial Dreadnaught (a Star Destroyer on steroids), Johnson interests lie in the human costs of war. When LAST JEDI opens, what’s left of the Resistance may barely fill the insides of a high school gymnasium. By the time the credits role, that number has been chopped even further.
In Kylo Ren, LAST JEDI also gives audiences what so many blockbuster franchises lack today: a complex, fascinating antagonist. TFA’s Renn was an angry kid cosplaying at Darth Vader and yielding tremendous power he has no idea how to control. LAST JEDI opens with Renn acting the part of a scolded dog at Snoke’s feet. His rage simmers just under the surface until it boils over. Like The Dark Knight’s Joker, Kylo Ren just wants to watch the galaxy burn. All of it: his family, the Resistance, The First Order, The Sith, The Jedi. He wants it all turned to ash, but has no ideas what to replace it with. Watch Ren lead an army battalion is fascinating because for all his powers and rage driven adrenaline, he hasn’t the slightest idea how to lead or how to devise tactics. His subordinates follow his commands out of fear, not respect. His bluster, his piques of anger and rage driven tantrums, and his lack of any foresight draw parallels to a certain orange walrus that occupies the Oval Office at the present moment.
Of course, Mark Hamill’s return as Luke Skywalker is just damn wonderful. This is a very different Luke than the wide eyed farm boy staring out at the twin suns of Tattoonine. Luke has exiled himself to the Jedi Island Ahch-to after failing Ben/Kylo and the destruction of the Jedi training temple. He has not only given up the ways of the Jedi, but has closed himself off to the Force itself. While the Legend of Skywalker and his exploits still fill the galaxy with awe, the man we meet is broken, tired and ready to die. Hamill gives a fantastic performance here, and every moment he’s on screen it just shines through how much this character has meant to him, and how much he just loves being Luke.
What Rian Johnson manages to do with THE LAST JEDI is set the stage to close out the Skywalker Saga with Episode IX and to expand the playing field for whatever comes next for the Star Wars series. Don’t get me wrong, even after eight entries into the Skywalker story, I feel I could watch eight more. That said, I’m looking forward to this Universe getting blown wide open with new characters from all walks of life. The Johnson promotes a Star Wars universe where the every man is just as important as the mythological figures. In no way does it reduce the space operatic grandeur of Lucas’ vision to street-level fare. Instead, it raises the platform, and makes it a more inclusive, and more exciting galaxy for everybody.