Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Big Screen Review)

(Disclaimer: Although I am going to refrain from going into any true spoiler-territory, plot details will be discussed. If you don’t want to hear any details of the movie then first of all, what the heck are you doing here? And secondly, those things will be discussed so get out, watch the movie, and then come back.)

During a contentious moment Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) pleads with Rey (Daisy Ridley) that “It’s time to let old things die”. This is a bold statement, not just in the context of the movie but in the context of a multi-billion dollar franchise spanning five decades, eight films’ worth of mythology and world building, and generations of die-hard fans ready and willing to tear to pieces anything that resembles a drastic change to their status quo. When J. J. Abrams made The Force Awakens he had the then unenviable task of reintroducing a sullied franchise to the public in such a way that it felt familiar and yet novel at the same time. The Last Jedi’s writer and director Rian Johnson arguably had a harder task of taking the Star Wars franchise somewhere new. And this is precisely what he did, and depending on how much you embrace or reject change, you will either love this or hate it with all your being.

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Plotwise, the movie picks up exactly where The Force Awakens left us. The central driving plotline finds the First Order ambushing the escaping Resistance fleet. Much like The Empire Strikes Back most of the thrust of this movie comes with this unending chase but with much more dire and tragic stakes. The Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher) and aided by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is desperately trying to survive as they are picked of one by one by Supreme Leader Snoke’s ships, and this feeling of everything falling apart permeates the entire movie. Poe and Leia find themselves at odds as they try and figure out the best course of action, with Poe seeking the more hotshot-pilot reckless actions that we’ve come to expect so much from the series. But in a sobering turn from Leia (and Fisher’s best run at this role yet), she pushes back against Poe’s reckless heroism that may create legends but cost lives.

Elsewhere Rey finally meets Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), which is reminiscent to Luke meeting Yoda all those years ago in only the most superficial of senses. In a brilliant performance from Hamill, it is clear that the years have left him a broken man, lacking any of the certitude of his youth. He only agrees to teach Rey if his lessons comprise of showing why the Jedi order is flawed and why it must fade away. He seeks not so much to preserve the tradition as to be its executioner, taking its secrets with him. But rather than being cowed by Luke’s cynicism, Rey steps up and goes toe-to-toe with him. Their scenes are the most compelling and bristle with energy as Rey’s pragmatism crashes against Luke’s broken dogmatism leading not just to explosive disagreements between the two but a fundamental expansion and deconstruction of everything we have come to assume about the Force and the Jedi. Aiding the dissolution of long-held beliefs is Rey’s interaction with Kylo Ren, which does so much to muddy the conflict between light and dark that has been Star Wars’ forte from the very beginning. These two are easily the most interesting new characters of the new trilogy as neither one of them are truly beholden to the theological lines in the sand the old guard of Jedi have drawn even as they find themselves on different sides of the equation.

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Completing the sense of shifting sand is the story arc of Finn (John Boyega) who is joined by welcome newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) as they embark on their own quest to save the Resistance by trying to find a hacker who can break the tracking technology of the pursuing First Order fleet. This brings them to the new planet of Canto Bight which can be best described as the Cantina scene but for the one-percenters of the galaxy. For the first time in Star Wars lore we are given a glimpse of a class of people who are repugnant because their lives and wealth are built by profiteering of the violent wars of the central ideological forces, questioning the very foundation of the conflict in the first place. And on the way the two bump into hacker DJ (Benicio Del Toro) who is the most morally complex character introduced into the universe, akin to Han Solo in the original Star Wars but with a much firmer resolve to neutrality.

If this sounds shocking for a Star Wars plot, it is because it is shocking. The Star Wars universe has for so long existed as a binary mythological world where evil is obviously bad and the good are clearly good too. To suggest complexity, nuance, and shades of gray into this conflict of light and dark is nothing short of universe-shattering that was initially disconcerting for this long-time fan, but the more I think and reflect upon it I think this is a revolutionary and invigorating direction for Star Wars to go. It suggests that the passing of the baton from the generation of the original trilogy to this next one will be more than just inheriting familiar roles and tropes but will reflect an actual generational shift where the lessons, morality, and values of the elders don’t necessarily get passed on and might instead be roundly rejected. In suggesting gradations of good and evil and the naivety of believing there are innocents in war, The Last Jedi propels the franchise into a much more complex unknown. And it is all the more invigorating for it.

This of course is not to say that The Last Jedi completely discards everything that we’ve come to love about the series. For one, this instalment restores most of the humour that we lost in the prequels and might even be the funniest one yet. It also still gives us the basic thrill of discovering new worlds as each of the new places we see (Luke’s isolated island of Ahch-too, the gambler’s paradise on Canto Bight, and a further location I won’t disclose here) add to the rich diversity of worlds we have been fortunate enough to encounter in this series. And the true calling card of the series is the frantic action and adventure that enthralled us when we were kids The Last Jedi enthrals us again in The Last Jedi as we are treated to some exceptional set-pieces which are more than enough to make this one-hundred and fifty-two minute runtime fly by.

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And yet, this is not a perfect film. The three major storyline threads often feel disjointed from one another and our main characters often disappear for long stretches of time, only to reappear instantly. For such a localized film setting, it’s a little bit disappointing that I had such a hard time trying to figure out where our major players were in relation to one another. This is to say nothing of the enormous amount of characters that appear in this film, many of whom flit in and out with nary a story arc (Captain Phasma is again underused here). Needless to say, the movie comes dangerously close to becoming overpacked, even if it never verges on being exhaustively so.

The other major issue I had with the film is not really a criticism, but the fact is that there are many twists to this tale. Perhaps this is entirely part of Rian Johnson’s strategy,  the twists happen so fast and frequently that the viewer has little time to absorb their impact let alone process how they have irrevocably shifted the Star Wars universe. And after spending most of the runtime deconstructing this mythological universe, Johnson spends little time piecing it back together at the end. The end result is something that is truly rare in the realm of modern franchise blockbuster filmmaking in that I have absolutely no clue as to where the franchise goes next. It is an exciting and refreshing thing to experience, if only for its rarity, but it also frustratingly had me leaving the movie with very little resolution.

As a result, The Last Jedi is easily the most interesting film in the Star Wars canon which makes it exceedingly hard to pinpoint in terms of where it stands in relation to the other movies in the canon. It is safe to say that traditionalist legacy fans and those generally allergic to tension and change are going to be uncomfortable with this movie, if not outright hostile to it. But ultimately The Last Jedi promises an uncertain and wide open future to the series that left this viewer desperate to see where it goes next. J.J. Abrams has a tall task making Episode IX fulfills the incredible promise that this iconoclastic instalment has created. And I wait with bated breath.

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Also all hail the Porgs!

Rating: 9/10

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