Directed by: Rian Johnson || Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Ram Bergman
Screenplay by: Rian Johnson || Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benecio del Toro
Music by: John Williams || Cinematography: Steve Yedlin || Edited by: Bob Ducsay || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 152 minutes
Like fans of any storied, established franchise, followers of the Star Wars saga are hard to please. They are hard to please because they take their beloved property seriously — perhaps too seriously — as a pop culture milestone, an expansive artistic project, and a part of their childhood (… and/or adulthood). When properties, modern or otherwise, reach this level of reverence, respect, and yes, controversy, heated debate from casual fans to general audiences to super-fans are to be expected. It is difficult, if not impossible to please everybody, but I believe that is part of the fun of it all. Whether you love the brand or think it became overplayed thirty years ago, Star Wars and the cultural phenomenon it spawned are anything but boring.
I’ll spare little time to recap the previous 2-3 years of Star Wars and the goings-on of its parent studio, Lucasfilm, given one could produce a documentary on that subject, like many aspects of the Star Wars universe. Most of us were happy “the old-school Star Wars” returned for this age of super-franchises and fictional megaverses (why should Star Wars be left behind if Ant-Man  gets his own movie?), however much hyperbolic Internet backlash criticized the new direction of the franchise under Walt Disney as “too safe” or formulaic. I mean, has anyone sat through the 1999, 2002, and 2005 Prequel films (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, respectively) recently, with the benefit of hindsight? I’ll take a million Marvel Cinematic Universe cookie-cutter films over that shit.
More to the point, Kathleen Kennedy and fellow Disney executives seeing fit to bestow writing and directing credits onto a talented but relatively inexperienced feature film director, Rian Johnson (see, Looper ), for the second act of their flagship series was astounding. Add to that Johnson’s freedom — or risk, depending on how one sees it — of working within a storyline that was not pre-planned. I believe Mike Stoklasa’s observation during Red Letter Media’s analysis of the film best illustrates my thoughts:
“… to my shock, the end credits say ‘Written and Directed by’ [Rian Johnson]. Disney gave the second film of this major franchise to ‘some guy’ instead of ‘the committee,’ and to me, that was shocking. You can complain about The Force Awakens (2015) being too safe and committee-like and think-tank, and basically being a retread of A New Hope… and you can complain that they did that, but here, they did the opposite! They gave the movie to ‘some guy’ and said, ‘Make a movie, and just do whatever the fuck you want…’
“So, nobody has the right to complain now if you complained about The Force Awakens!”
In other words, us cinephiles are impressed (re: stunned) at Disney’s inexplicable decision to go full American New Wave-auteur with this latest trilogy’s Part II, but to what end, or rather, what kind of movie? Most cinephiles champion the visionary director with full creative control over their vision, as Stoklasa further explains, but is that sensible within the confines of a massive tentpole franchise? Some would say, ask Irvin Kershner, George Lucas’ former professor at the University of Southern California and mastermind behind The Empire Strikes Back (1980), while others would remind you, “Did you see the fucking prequels?”
The Last Jedi is as different from The Force Awakens as The Empire Strikes Back (henceforth, ESB) was from the original Star Wars (1977, henceforth, SW); given the aforementioned contrast in production strategies between The Force Awakens‘ (henceforth, TFA) committee-run, market-research project and The Last Jedi’s (henceforth TLJ) auteur vision, this is to be expected; what was not expected was how different TLJ is from ESB, given how similar SW was to TFA. In many respects, this is refreshing given how stale blockbuster formula has been in the Star Wars franchise alone, even counting the bizarre Prequels. I would be lying if I said I knew what was going to happen in TLJ from act to act or even scene to scene; TLJ is nothing if not unpredictable.
Unpredictability in a Hollywood blockbuster is admirable in theory, but how does TLJ’s uncanny storytelling hold up in practice? Johnson’s execution of his idiosyncratic space opera is a subversion of not just typical popular filmmaking narratives, but specific Star Wars mythology. This strategy is on the whole, successful, yet inconsistent. TLJ’s unconventional approach to developing both new and old characters deepens them in satisfying, dramatic ways, all while making sense with respect to their established legacies. That being said, TLJ is bloated, messy, and exhausting at 152 minutes (the longest Star Wars film yet), with questionable subplots and confusing supporting character motivations. All of this Star Wars matter/anti-matter is encapsulated within staggering production values, special FX, and versatile action, the sole predictable element of this latest Episode.
Let us start with the good: As intriguing as both Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver) were in TFA, they are deepened that much further with the help of an ingenious telepathic Force plot-device (more on that in a second) and the added ingredient of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. The latter is a bitter, cynical, disillusioned old man this time around, far from the benevolent, fatherly Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), the wise, introspective Yoda (Frank Oz), let alone the spry, optimistic Luke of old. His embittered distaste for all things the Force, the Rebellion/Resistance, and yes, the Jedi, clash with Ridley’s desperate search for answers for all the above, as well as her self-worth, which is intimately tied to her mysterious parentage. Driver’s petulant, untamed wrath evolves from his fireball character in TFA to an even more tortured, conflicted, miserable bastard fed up with the entire First Order, not to mention Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) demise at his hand.
Johnson establishes a psychic link between Ridley and Driver throughout TLJ, which is both logically justified within the story and allows for dramatic character growth upon which the entire narrative depends. I cannot overemphasize how critical this plot-device is to Ridley’s, Driver’s, and even Hamill’s character development, how it propels both plot and relationships between otherwise geographically and emotionally disparate individuals. Without this dynamic, the movie simply doesn’t work.
Moving beyond TLJ’s principle characters, the film is far less consistent and engaging. The secondary plot concerns the Resistance’s ambush by the First Order after establishing the latter can track enemy ships over light-speed travel. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron clashes with both Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa and newcomer Vice Admiral Holdo (a purple-haired Laura Dern) over various battle strategies, which generates a decent arc for Isaac despite confusing actions on the part of Dern. Altogether, I approve of Isaac and Fisher having a great deal more to do this time around, as well as how Dern’s character goes out with a bang. This part of the movie is decent, if not terribly exciting or always logical.
The weak link of TLJ concerns the side adventures of John Boyega’s Finn and fresh face, Kelly Marie Tran. Their subplot ties most directly to Isaac’s, with all three coordinating efforts to disable the First Order’s tracking capabilities so as to allow the Resistance to escape their ambush. Though Johnson writes a clever “ticking clock” out of this situation, whereby the Resistance ships must stay out of range of First Order fire while constrained by limited fuel, the misadventures on which Boyega and Tran embark are goofy at best and downright boring at worst. The stupid casino-country club planet they visit is sprinkled with cheesy, heavy-handed social inequality metaphors that would make Elysium (2013) or The Purge movies (2011, 2013, 2016) proud, and feels oddly reminiscent of the CGI-saturated Prequels. This subplot descends into Oliver Twist (1838) references, weird chase sequences atop alien-horseback, and eye-rolling asides to animal cruelty seemingly at random. Worst of all, little narrative consequence results from this bizarre side quest, save for how sloppily our heroes fail, resulting in further suffering for the Resistance. These details leave this section of TLJ, aside from a minor charismatic appearance by Benecio del Tor, thoroughly unsatisfying.
Aside from this non-insignificant section of the movie, TLJ is a formidable Star Wars movie and memorable blockbuster. As inconsistent as its B and C-plots are, its A-storyline, that of Ridley’s personal quest on Hamill’s lonely island, as well as her confrontations with Driver, are so interesting as to overcompensate for all the film’s weaknesses. Ridley and Driver are even better than they were in TFA, bolstered by strong dialogue, clever staging, and unorthodox editing.
These conflicts come to a head in TLJ’s memorable action sequences, whose buildup and aftermath are often as riveting and beautiful as the fantastical violence within. Ryan’s use of John Williams’ score is far superior to J. J. Abrams’ in TFA, while choreography of hand-to-hand combat, aerial dogfights, and various shootouts are also improved from the previous film, which were considerable in their own right. Of particular note are Hamill’s confrontation with Driver near the end of the film, prefaced by a touching scene with Fisher and set against a haunting backdrop of monstrous AT-AT walkers at sunset; my favorite sequence of the film, featuring Ridley, Driver, and Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke, is a throne room-showdown for the ages, and sports one of the better twists of the Star Wars saga yet, in my opinion.
All things considered, The Last Jedi is a messier, riskier, ballsier sequel than The Force Awakens, and that is not without good and bad consequences. It’s not wholly predictable like its predecessor, yet not as consistent or well paced. Its highs are arguably higher than The Force Awakens‘, and yet its low points are without a doubt lower. For me, Rian Johnson’s use of action, music, and drama, particularly with regards to the film’s best three characters (Rey, Kylo Ren, Luke Skywalker), supersede its weaker subplots, supporting character dialogue, and mediocre pacing. The Last Jedi is, in a way, everything I wanted from this new trilogy’s second act — a somber, dramatic, more character-focused piece that took chances like The Empire Strikes Back, but was not a clone of that film. Sacrificing narrative clarity for thematic boldness will never please everybody, but it gives the franchise room to breathe, and I am A-OK with that.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The emotional core of The Last Jedi, the three-way dynamic between Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, and Mark Hamill, is satisfying and dramatic, and thus the film works. Rian Johnson’s use of editing, dramatic staging, music, and action choreography are stellar, producing the most unpredictable, intense Star Wars film since 1980.
— However… The Last Jedi is also the wildest, most unpredictable blockbuster in some time, and often for the worse. An entire subplot (i.e. about 30 minutes of the movie) is lacking in excitement, creative set-design, and lines that aren’t cornball. Various supporting character motivations are nonsensical, and several plot developments defy internal logic.
—> RECOMMENDED. The Force Awakens succeeded more at what it was trying to be, which was a straightforward, throwback blockbuster, but I prefer this film and may remember it longer. Time will tell.
? We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.