Johnson can only push the Disney machine so far.
In the lead up to the Star Wars: The Force Awakens release two years ago, most excited fans ignored the studio’s chosen title for the film and just referred to it as “New Star Wars.” But it wasn’t. Not really. The Force Awakens was an artfully curated exercise in weaponized nostalgia designed to reintroduce a beloved mythology to brand new audiences. It mixed the old and the new well enough to function, but JJ Abrams was tasked with recontextualizing A New Hope more than he was with creating something brand new. Seeds were planted for the future, but revisiting the film now, it doesn’t hold the same power it did opening weekend.
The Last Jedi actually is New Star Wars. With the groundwork laid to rest in the previous outing, Looper writer/director Rian Johnson is free to plot a new course, resulting in a film that is very recognizably “Star Wars” in tone and scope, but executed with more sound filmcraft than its predecessor. Since it’s Act Two of the new trilogy, some expected this new chapter to rhyme with Empire Strikes Back and hew darker in tone with a more down-note cliffhanger conclusion. But Johnson has created a Star Wars film that balances heavy stakes with light hearted frivolity, that couches disturbing revelations within refrains of hope. Whether it’s the best film in the canon is sure to be a tiresome debate but it’s easily the most exhilarating blockbuster experiences of the year.
As everyone behind the film has gone to great lengths to protect the film’s plot details, a rundown of The Last Jedi’s narrative would be a disservice to anyone who wants to see the film blind. Episode VIII takes place not long after the closing moments of the last film, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeking out help from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). General Leia (Carrie Fisher) and The Resistance want Luke back just as badly as Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and The First Order want him dead, so the mystery of why he’s gone full hermit drives much of the film’s story. The other two thirds of the new trilogy’s holy trinity, Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) each have their own thrilling B-plots that run parallel to Rey’s quest, but another major player, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) emerges as a compelling lead equal to the others in emotional resonance, even if she receives less screen time than the conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Every single cast member avails themselves quite nicely, but it’s Tran who steals the show for the newer characters. She’s impossible not to fall for. As for the old guard, the realization that this is the last we’ll ever truly see of General Leia is disheartening, but Fisher is as great as she’s always been. However this trilogy ends up turning out, knowing the next film was intended to be her big showing (the way The Force Awakens was Han’s) will always be its greatest tragedy. This film’s core performance, though, must be Hamill’s. This man has waited years to get this shot and he knocks it out of the fucking park, delivering the best turn in his career and reinventing Luke as a man wrestling with his own legend. So much of the film is about burning down the past and forging ahead anew, and no one embodies that more than Luke.
This being “Star Wars” and not “Intergalactic Conflict,” the battle between good and evil, right and wrong, has to be writ large, all encompassing, with everyone in the cosmos choosing a side. More than ever, this outing seems the most concerned with each individual character’s fluid alignment for and against the central cause of resistance. In the macro, one of the film’s weaknesses is its inability to clearly define its villains and the real power behind their motivations, but on a micro scale, all the film’s central figures are given recognizable arcs that tie together thematically. Johnson’s script, while on the bloated side (especially the latter half of the third act), is remarkably character driven, with the prime players and their decisions informing the direction of the story, rather than shoddy plotting and the necessity for regularly timed set pieces.
But when there is an action sequence, and the film houses many, they’re immaculately arranged segments of cinema that make it clear why Johnson was the right man to helm this film. His prior work shows an artist with a shrewd appreciation for visual storytelling, so blowing up his style to the size of iMAX means his work retains its necessary clarity, resulting in one of the few big budget IP exercises that would function just as well stripped of its nostalgic brand recognition solely on the strength of its potent building blocks. It’s imperfect, yes, and there’s a few wrong notes throughout that will surely stick out across its two and a half hour run time, but this is a film that works. The writing, direction, cinematography, score, editing and performances are firing on all cylinders in concert. The Last Jedi runs like such a well oiled machine that its forgivable sputters and false starts stick out more than they might in a lesser film.
Upon first watch, few will find much to dislike about this movie, and the realization that Abrams is returning for Episode IX will make most long for this trilogy to be over so Johnson can come back and kick start the next one. But after a week or two of think pieces and countless writers trying to ascribe the film’s aspirational statements about the nature of hope and the necessity of resistance to our depressing reality will ignite any backlash this crowd pleaser ends up receiving. The Last Jedi has quite a few potent moments, the kind of heart soaring peaks pop art popcorn flicks so rarely seem to achieve anymore. Within the nebulous, somewhat ill-defined world of “Star Wars” morality, these cinematic aphorisms have weight, but those wishing to pluck them wholesale from a galaxy far, far away and into the all too chilling world we actually live in will find them wanting.
At its core, Johnson can only push the Disney machine so far. This is still a cash cow designed to sell merchandise. Anyone going in thinking someone has finally cracked the monoculture code and created One Film To Rule Them All will be disappointed. But for a damn good time at the movies, bolstered by a buoyant sense of hope for a darkened world, nothing else in 2017 will leave you feeling like there’s still a chance, even if life after the credits will do its damnedest to convince you otherwise.