A film review by Craig J. Koban December 21, 2017

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI jj
 

2017, PG-13, 152 mins.

 

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker  /  Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa  /  Adam Driver as Kylo Ren  /  Daisy Ridley as Rey  /  John Boyega as Finn  /  Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron  /  Benicio Del Toro as DJ  /  Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke  /  Lupita Nyong'o as Maz Kanata  /  Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux  /  Anthony Daniels as C-3PO  /  Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma  /  Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo  /  Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca

Written and directed by Rian Johnson

SCREENED IN
3D

Reviewing any STAR WARS movie has always been difficult for me, mostly because I have a painfully thorny task of placing myself within a tightly sealed critical bumble apart from my obsessive fandom of this series, which began as soon as I was relatively out of diapers.  

Part of my vocal disappointment for the first Disney helmed entry in this iconic space fantasy saga - the J.J. Abrams helmed STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS - was that this seventh episode played things achingly safe with the inherent material.  Instead of boldly and intrepidly catapulting audience members into a STAR WARS film that traversed uncharted territory, Abrams and company seemed to be lazily riffing on series troupes, motifs, and storylines of old.  Even though I thought that THE FORCE AWAKENS was a STAR WARS film of modest pleasures, it mimed George Lucas' first film in 1977's A NEW HOPE almost to the point of plagiarism; the lack of conceptual imagination in it frustrated me. 

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI seems like an answer to my prayers.  With J.J. Abrams out, in comes writer/director Rian Johnson, a filmmaker that I've greatly admired (LOOPER and BRICK), and to his and this new film's credit we have a STAR WARS follow-up episode that does what good sequels should do in terms of propelling its story and characters in new directions, new surroundings, and new uncertain predicaments.  The obtrusive throwback vibe of THE FORCE AWAKENS is largely gone and in its place is a revitalized approach to this cinematic universe that's anything but safe and pedestrian.  Johnson, much more so than Abrams and perhaps even Lucas before him, has frankly made some brave choices with the core STAR WARS canon and mythology that, superficially at least, is welcoming.  Unfortunately, the longer THE LAST JEDI progresses the more readily apparent it becomes that Johnson has so radically altered some of the DNA of STAR WARS canon that it will inspire potential alienation from many fans.  Count me in among one of them. 

Paradoxically, the sins of Johnson's creative choices here are opposite of Abrams' with THE FORCE AWAKENS.   Discussing them in any great length or specificity would result in ample spoilers, which I'm endeavoring to avoid.  Johnson's untamed passion for the STAR WARS brand can be felt throughout THE LAST JEDI, not to mention that he's refreshingly not aiming for his space opus to be a slavish retread of what's come before (even though fan servicing callbacks are painfully inevitable).  No, the real issue with Johnson's polarizing handling of the material he inherited is that it doesn't seek to expand upon and/or embellish many of the tantalizing questions and dramatic cliffhangers that Abrams set up.  In many instances, many are either casually dealt with in a frustratingly oblique manner, whereas others are all but abandoned without any clear rationale or clarification.  More damning is that THE LAST JEDI infuses in its narrative far too many twists and turns that are obviously aiming for maximum shock value while radically turning up Lucas' franchise upside down on its head, almost to the point where you begin mentally calling out plot holes and characters motivations in previous STAR WARS films that never existed beforehand.   

 

 

I've been purposely vague thus far, but some cursory explanation of main plot details here are warranted.  The final moment of THE FORCE AWAKENS was a juicy, if not a bit of a frustrating, cliffhanger (also a literal cliffhanger, since the final few seconds took place...on a cliff), during which time we found former desert planet residing junker turned Resistance fighter Rey (a headstrong Daisy Ridley) journeying to Ahch-To to finally locate self-banished Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, triumphantly more vocal in this film) to plead with him to return with her and Chewbacca back home to Resistance HQ so he can assist his sister, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, her last film appearance).  Unfortunately for them, Luke is carrying far too much emotional baggage to willingly acquiesce to her request.  Concurrent to this is the rise of the Nazi-like First Order from the ashes of the original trilogy's Empire, which has perplexingly grown stronger than ever despite having their planet-sized weapon in Starkiller Base being destroyed in the last entry.   

Led by an ever increasingly cruel Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the First Order are close to destroying the Resistance once and for all, and all under the watchful eye of Kylo's dark Jedi master, Supreme Leader Snoke (finally appearing in the flesh - sort of - via Andy Serkis and motion capture VFX).  Realizing that her twin brother may not be returning in a timely fashion to help her cause, Leia decides to lean back on the resources she has, like the brave piloting skills of Poe Dameron (a charismatic Oscar Isaac) and the recently healed Finn (an equally charming John Boyega), who finds himself teaming up with series newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a covert mission to infiltrate and destroy Snoke's largest flagship that's raining down hellish bombardments on the last of the Resistance fleet.  Kylo, in the meantime, is dealing with his own feelings of inadequacy with Snoke while trying to hunt down Rey and Luke, the former of which oddly bested him in lightsaber combat in the head shakingly perplexing finale of THE FORCE AWAKENS, despite having virtually no formal training in the Jedi arts. 

It has almost become somewhat redundant to comment on just how epically scaled and lushly immersive the STAR WARS films have been over the years, but THE LAST JEDI is yet another consummately realized visual odyssey, even though it sometimes - like THE FORCE AWAKENS - doesn't have the expansive sense of universe building that Lucas' previous six films conjured up.  Nevertheless, THE LAST JEDI may be the most opulent looking of all the STAR WARS installments, and Johnson has certainly spared no expense in giving us a silver screen fantasy world that feels lived in and tactile.  Some imagery does elicit gasps of awe and wonder, especially one awesome moment of a kamikaze crash between a Resistance ship and a much larger First Order vessel that's positively breathtaking.  Then there's the stunningly envisioned planet Crait, entirely covered in salt that - when stepped in or shot at - spews out thick clouds of burgundy red dust into the atmosphere.  This thrilling climatic set piece - showcasing new versions of the THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK's AT-ATs that are bigger, beefier, and resemble lumbering gorillas attacking a predictably under-protected Resistance army - is a bona fide showstopper. 

Because STAR WARS has always been a space opera that's thrived on remarkably otherworldly sights and sounds it's now regrettably easy, I think, to overlook the strongly delineated character dynamics and performances contained within these last two episodes.  The acting in THE FORCE AWAKENS and THE LAST JEDI are among the finest in the entire series, led in part by Daisy Ridley, who has grown and matured into her layered and complex role with a gutsy confidence that's infectious.  Adam Driver continues to cement himself as the largest casting coup of the entire STAR WARS saga with his evolving villain that shows more hidden layers of intrigue with each new film.  He's not only a figure of palpable menace and almost childish fits of rage, but he's also a deeply conflicted antagonist that grows to question his own villainy and relationship with the film's main heroes in Rey and Luke. 

That three way dynamic between master, former apprentice, and potentially new apprentice is easily THE LAST JEDI's most fascinatingly rich and textured element.  Rey is driven to Luke's mythological stature in the galaxy as a warrior hero, whereas Kylo has deep seated emotional wounds that have never healed from his time as Luke's student.  He also senses in Rey a possible ally that he can turn against Luke, whereas Rey sees light buried deep within Kylo that could be used against Snoke and the First Order.  Luke, on the other hand, is haunted by bad decision making in the past, which has precluded his decades of isolation apart from his family and the Resistance.  The Luke in THE LAST JEDI is not the Luke we've grown up with, and seeing this more broken down, withered, and cantankerously hostile version of the character makes for some solid dramatic conflict in the film.  Hamill has never been better as his former galactic savoir than he is in THE LAST JEDI; his tour de force performance is almost a meta deconstruction of what defines movie heroes and how they're are perceived. 

This brings me, though, to many of the nagging issues with THE LAST JEDI, first of which is a staggering number of characters - far too many for this film's own good - that are all vying for attention and have subplots that Johnson awkwardly and sometimes haphazardly segues between.  At a sometimes watch checking 152 minutes (the longest STAR WARS film to date), THE LAST JEDI is nearly brought down by its own narrative bloat.  This film simply drags too much with too many redundant subplots during its middle sections that distract from the more tantalizing triumvirate of Luke, Rey, and Kylo.  In particular, there's the aforementioned and far too lengthy storyline involving Rose and Finn on a faraway planet that houses a casino (think the Mos Eisley cantina from A NEW HOPE, but for the one per cent tuxedo clad high rollers of the galaxy) that's as pointless as it is meanderingly confusing.  It also begs the question as to why Johnson never felt the need to team up Finn and Poe on this mission, seeing as they - alongside Rey - forged a dynamic new trio that THE LAST JEDI seems to have no faith in exploring further. 

Johnson also does other characters a huge disservice in THE LAST JEDI.  R2-D2 and Chewbacca are delegated to ineffectual cameos.  First Order General Hux (a stiff and hammy as hell Domhnall Gleeson) has morphed from being a pretty cardboard cutout villain and into a near caricaturized buffoon this go around.  New characters are hastily introduced to the mix and into an already crowed film, with intermittent levels of success (Laura Dern's appearance as a new Resistance higher up that clashes with Poe over leadership direction is somewhat welcome, albeit superfluous, and Benicio del Toro appears in a largely throwaway and unnecessary role as a mysterious stranger with a murky past that aids the Resistance).  Then there's the backhanded manner that Johnson deals with a couple of key characters that were established as major entities in THE FORCE AWAKENS, only to be exasperatingly thrown to the side like table scraps, never to be seen or heard from again.  That's a horrendous creative missed opportunity, and THE LAST JEDI has this annoying habit of providing non-answers to years of fan questions while posing all new ones to their eye rolling incredulity. 

And what of the Force as a all powerful spiritual entity that cascades through everyone and everything in this universe?  Johnson joyously tinkers with that as well, but my main misgiving with that is how it unceremoniously turns a blind eye to much of the entire saga's own internal logic and rules as to how it works.  Two particular moments stand out for me, the first being an early scene that - for the purposes of being hazy - involves a character in space that is more unintentionally funny than moving, and the latter taking place during the film's massive third act altercation between the Resistance and First Order, which once the particulars of how it's really being played out are revealed it almost feels like one large cheat.  The mistake with fundamentally altering STAR WARS mythology is that it's so entrenched in our collective subconscious; retooling it opens up a whole unwanted wellspring of scrutiny that this franchise doesn't need.  And how certain characters act in relation to the Force and its teachings in THE LAST JEDI nearly undoes and betrays their established arcs in all previous films.  It was enough to make me stare at the screen in stunned disbelief and silence at times. 

THE LAST JEDI has infinitely more nerve than THE FORCE AWAKENS, probably more than any other STAR WARS film that came before it, and Johnson deserves some props for going clearly against the grain for this series and not backing himself into a corner and relying on old franchise conventions.  He clearly loves STAR WARS' massively popular legacy, but is unafraid to contort it to his own dramatic means.  That's ballsy.  But too much of this inescapably ambitious STAR WARS film is disjointed, messy, rambling, and is replete with so many shocking scripting detours that it feels like it's trying to cram multiple episodes into one.  By the time THE LAST JEDI irises out to its end credits I was left with nagging and uneasy feelings as to where this series is headed in the untitled EPISODE IX.  THE EMPIRE STRIKES back felt like a compliment to A NEW HOPE while intrepidly pushing STAR WARS into darker new areas of intrigue.  THE LAST JEDI neither sincerely compliments nor enhances THE FORCE AWAKENS, because both come off like the product of two filmmakers having divergent and opposing creative end games without a previously established plan of attack and cohesive follow through.  In its initial form moving forward, there's most definitely a creative disturbance in the Force with the STAR WARS saga.

 

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