A few days ago, I saw The Last Jedi, the newest installment of the Star Wars saga–the ninth major film, if you’re counting–that opened recently. Although fan reaction to the film has been sharply divided, if you give any credence to my opinion on movies, I will say unequivocally that The Last Jedi is not only an excellent film, but it’s the best Star Wars movie of them all with the exception of The Empire Strikes Back. I think it’s the franchise’s finest hour.
Spoiler alert. There is no way to do this material justice without giving away significant plot and character points. If you haven’t seen the film yet and don’t want to know more, stop reading here.
On some level I’m a bit puzzled by many fans’ negative reactions to the latest film. But on another, understanding what The Last Jedi does and the risks it takes, I guess I’m not that surprised. Some negative reactions have been petty, while others, like the reasoned analysis by my friend Derek Smith, are quite thoughtful. Personally I found The Last Jedi to be a daring leap into the beyond of what Star Wars always should have been. It’s deep, it’s introspective, it’s character-driven, and it takes pleasure in breaking open many of the tropes that have been associated with the franchise. Director Rian Johnson has shows us what Star Wars can be, and probably not everyone will like it.
The story picks up where The Force Awakens left off. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has appeared on a craggy island on a distant planet, where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has gone to hide from the universe. She wants him to return and help the Resistance fight the evil First Order by training a new generation of Jedi, but Luke refuses. He’s been burned by his failure to prevent Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, from going to the dark side. In the meantime, a space battle goes badly for the Resistance, and their ships are on the verge of final destruction by the First Order unless they can get to a hidden base. Several machinations by other characters like Poe (Oscar Isaacs) and Finn (John Boyega) are aimed at pulling the Resistance’s chestnuts out of the fire. Unfortunately, things don’t go as planned.
The Last Jedi is much more introspective and character-driven than The Force Awakens. It’s principally a movie about characters figuring out who they are. Rey, a budding Jedi in need of training, must come to grips with who her parents were, or, as it turns out, who they weren’t: Kylo tells her they were junk traders on a distant planet with no cosmic significance. Luke, who is revealed in a moment of weakness to have considered murdering Kylo, must come to terms with his own failures as a Jedi master. Kylo Ren, who finally ditches the ridiculous mask in which he spent most of the first movie, also finds out who he is: his destiny is one of evil, but he also has a kindred connection with Rey. There are some space battles and one particularly awesome lightsaber duel in the film, but the movie’s centerpiece is not, thankfully, yet another attempt to blow up another Death Star, which has now been done three times in the films and is frankly getting old. Rian Johnson was prescient enough to notice this.
Because the film is so new, there aren’t a lot of clips of The Last Jedi out there, but there is plenty of promo stuff with some revealing things–like this series of interviews with cast and crew.
If The Last Jedi sounds like a slog from my description, surprisingly it isn’t. There’s a lot more humor in the picture than in The Force Awakens. Much has been made of the “porgs,” the cute furry birds that pop up in various places, subtly mocking the fulsome toyetic Ewoks of Return of the Jedi, but this is a minor point. The film is quite long, 152 minutes, but never drags. The direction is tight, the writing prescient and generally insightful. It seems like more care was taken with the story and characters, in contrast to the cynical short-cuts taken in the worst of the other films, like The Phantom Menace or Return of the Jedi (which I would rank as the worst of all the films except for Phantom Menace).
Criticism has centered around some aspects of the story that aren’t explained. For example, Snoke, the leader of the First Order, is snuffed in a pretty perfunctory way without giving any of his back-story. I honestly did not find Snoke a very interesting character; why do we need to know more about him? Derek, in his critique, argues that the characters and situations don’t change much from beginning to end of the film: the Rebels are beleaguered at the opening, and again at the end; Kylo Ren is an “angry teenager” at the beginning, and also at the end. I disagree. It’s the subtleties of the characters that are interesting, and subtlety and character development have been sorely lacking in the Star Wars franchise up until now. George Lucas was never good at characters, and even J.J. Abrams, given a choice between developing a character or showing a space battle, usually erred on the side of action. Rian Johnson goes inward instead of outward. That is exactly what the franchise needs.
The performance of Adam Driver as Kylo Ren is a major strength of The Last Jedi. Here is the actor being interviewed by Stephen Colbert.
The Last Jedi also contains the best acting of the franchise. Mark Hamill in particular turns in the best performance of his career, showing us–at last!–something substantive of the conflicted nature of Luke Skywalker, who (at least with the exception of his careless treatment in Return of the Jedi) was always fighting his own incompetence, impetuousness and unsuitability to be the savior of the universe. Adam Driver is especially good, and the chemistry between him and Daisy Ridley brings great richness to their on-screen interactions. The late Carrie Fisher, in her last role, goes out on a fine note. I was surprised to see Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro pop up in a Star Wars film. Overall, the cast is superb.
In short, The Last Jedi is a mature and multi-faceted look at the Star Wars universe, one that prefers character drama to giving us yet another spin cycle of X-wing battles and explosions. Not since 1980 has Star Wars dared to be so…substantive. The Last Jedi is excellent in every respect. The dislikes of the hard-core fans may sink its reputation, but it deserves to be recognized as some of the very best Star Wars has to offer.