After seeing The Last Jedi, it’s easy to see why writer/director Rian Johnson is being given the reins to the future of the Star Wars franchise. We already knew he had a knack for stepping into genres and established worlds and lending his own creative vision to them, bolstering and broadening them at the same time as he cuts into insightful, human moments. And with this film, it’s no different.
Spoiler warning: I won’t be going into great detail of what happens, but people seem to be extraordinarily sensitive to information about this movie compared to, say, anything else. Turn back if you don’t want to know that lightsabers are involved and people are in space.
The Last Jedi picks up right after The Force Awakens, putting us right alongside the Resistance hauling ass away from the First Order after the General Leia Organa-led (Carrie Fisher) rebels blew up the Starkiller Base and inciting a malicious retribution. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is off on a distant world with Chewbacca, the Millennium Falcon, and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) while Finn (John Boyega) is still out of commission from his part of the climactic encounter with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Yes, it’s a lot, and that’s a good thing. There are a lot of moving parts creating a surprisingly complex story, especially when compared to The Force Awakens or Rogue One. And in a philosophical sense, it’s because it came after those movies that it can reach a little further.
Those films, more or less, weren’t made to be grand, ambitious projects that would revitalize the cinematic portion of a legendary franchise but more calm—maybe even quell—the fans worried over another prequel trilogy debacle. But with the foaming masses assured that Disney and Lucasfilm could be trusted to retread beloved ground while pushing it forward, the door was also opened to take strides. This includes making something that is both jubilant and exceptionally grave.
While there are fun parts to this story, it is not a fun movie. It takes the Resistance and smashes them, beating them to a pulp and plunging you and everyone you hold dear into a point so dark that you worry the dawn won’t follow. It’s a brave move for something filled with porgs and other adorable creatures that you’ll undoubtedly soon find on store shelves, and it works. This turns this from a great Star Wars entry into just a plain ol’ great movie.
Characters learn and change as they move from scene to scene and not just from the beginning to the end. You can see temptations being pushed aside by lessons learned, and when the traps are all that they can see, threads culminate and an alchemical product is created—a resolution greater than the sum of its parts. It’s present as we see a crack in Poe Dameron’s (Oscar Isaac) otherwise flawless visage working as a gear in a much larger machine and it’s there with General Hux’s (Domhnall Gleeson) every subjugation and instance of being subjugated.
Johnson manages to take all the returning characters, mix them with new ones, and keep all of their motivations and characterizations crystal clear. Take, for instance, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance mechanic who introduces herself as bumbling and incongruous with social situations but then immediately reveals her stripes. Her actions, her reservations, and her conclusion all make sense from one step to another despite being interwoven into many more plot points.
This is a testament to Johnson’s writing as well. It’s certainly the funniest Star Wars film thus far, but it also manages to capture so much of what other movies and novels and games take their entire duration to express in just a few words. One character pretty much lays out the entire ethos of Star Wars villainy while another, in the midst of a (highly anticipated) battle, almost brought tears to my eyes be distilling exactly what it means to be a rebellion.
It’s hope, it’s power, it’s needs, it’s wants—it’s precisely what these stories have always been about. It feels like the big themes of The Phantom Menace if they were done right, using the political facet to represent the greater desires and baser tendencies of people as a whole. The question of power, for example, is present throughout and becomes the crux of many characters’ existence.
Rey learns about the power of the Force and that it’s not the power that she thinks it is while Kylo Ren continually breaks down and reshapes his precepts of what he wants power to be. Poe’s understanding of power comes under attack as Luke’s relationship with his strength begins to shift. Not a single character doesn’t come under the influence of this and almost every theme of the movie.
Better yet, the subtext of these deeper, more satisfying quandaries don’t escape any element of the production. This is a truly stunning film. The vibrant, engrossing crimson that seems to drip from every scene becomes a sort of visual motif, using the psychological impetus of the omnipresent rouge to embellish the idea of brute force standing tall over subtlety and sacrifice.
The entire climactic battle is rapturous in this way, holding some of the most stupendous single shots caught on film this year. Even before that, there are entire scenes that could have only come from a director that has had masterful entries into neo-noir, time travel sci-fi, and dramatic television. There’s a scene with Rey that is unlikely to leave my mind for weeks to come. (This movie also has the best lightsaber battle to ever make it onto film.)
As much of this and so much more can be credited to Johnson and the tremendous production staff, the cast has a great deal of credit on their hands as well. Driver, while given less overt meat to chew than before, continues to be an emotional powerhouse, flitting between irreparable and terrifying like a nimble and agile hummingbird. Ridley similarly manages to express a prodigious number of multifaceted emotions over a shimmering—almost roiling—foundation of blinding optimism and resoluteness.
And of course Isaac and Fisher and Hamill are also continued treasures (stay after the credits for, well, you’ll see), but the newcomers deserve recognition, too. Laura Dern comes hot onto the scene as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo with a level and ease of intimidation we’ve never seen from her before. And Tran is absolutely something special. She’s able to sell every part of her unexpectedly deep character in remarkably short spans.
It’s obviously not all praise, though. The middle act meanders and the handoff of the baton to Episode IX is as brow-furrowing as it is intriguing (and not in a good way) and a lot of the humor comes at the price of bathos and logic that would only otherwise work in something explicitly a comedy. But for a rich and complex story with a symphonic and masterful last act, they’re nigh negligible—faults to prove the value of the shine.
And that, really, is what The Last Jedi is. It’s a shining example of what we want Star Wars to be. It’s referential while being reverential. There’s beauty alongside the brutal. It enraptures the eyes and the ears as well as the heart and brain all at once. It is what we’ve been hoping it would be, and given how much Star Wars is about hope, it just feels right.
Final Score: 9 out of 10