Movie Review - Star Wars: The Last Jedi
By Ben Gruchow
December 25, 2017
I didn’t much like 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens—or, rather, I liked it as much as someone can like an anodyne and likably forgettable bit of nostalgia bait. My opinion was not shared by humanity, and there was every reasonable expectation that Disney (the property’s owner since 2012) would produce a follow-up carefully engineered to appeal to a traditionalist fan base while broadening and updating the franchise to reflect a different cultural and political landscape (anyone who thinks that every earlier film in the series didn’t seek to do the same thing hasn’t been looking very closely; how well each of them do it is a different story, and beyond the scope of this review).
They’ve failed pretty miserably at fulfilling that expectation, judging from the divisive and downright icy reaction from moviegoers. I expect this will become known in the near future as the “bad” Star Wars sequel, before J.J. Abrams comes back in 2019 to make things right again. Of course, the same thing happened with The Empire Strikes Back in 1980, wherein a legion of fans (and critics) enthralled by an opening chapter came away from the first sequel irritable or indifferent, before the third movie brought everything home for them. It was only after time and some perspective that the second film gained its status (rightfully) as the best of the series, with the third film (rightfully) coming to be regarded as the weakest. The makers of The Last Jedi absorbed some of the philosophy that went toward making the 1980 film a different beast than its predecessor, with a similar result. This is a better film than The Force Awakens: more assured, more textured and driven in what it’s feeling and thinking, and far better-looking.
The movie coalesces around three principle themes: the failure of great expectations, the weight of lineage, and the folly of hero worship. These manifest in the main storyline: Daisy Ridley’s Rey, the protagonist of the first film (seventh? Last? Whatever), travels to the most remote planet in the galaxy to locate the self-exiled Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), to learn the ways of the Force and/or recruit him back for the good of the Rebellion Resistance fighters. In a separate plot, the remaining good guys are on the run from the Empire First Order antagonists, led by General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher, thankfully allowed to complete her arc without any of the horrific CGI augmentation from last year’s Rogue One); the Order decimates their planetary base in the movie’s opening, so much of their story is spent trying to locate a new planet to base operations from. Along is pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), prone to impulsive acts of high-wire risk either with or against orders, and Finn (John Boyega), sent on a recovery mission in order to exploit a flaw in the tracking system being used against their ships. Finally, there is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), student of the Dark Side of the Force, apprentice to Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis and a lot of mo-cap sensors, giving weight and menace to a thinly-written character).
There’s a lot going on here at the level of raw incident, and the movie skillfully cross-cuts between four different storylines—enough so that you don’t quite notice how hours of plot with the Resistance and First Order are made to coexist along with days (at minimum) of plot with Rey and Luke—up until a final hour that brings all of them to a head in the same place. Cross-cutting between simultaneous climactic setpieces is an underrated art, something that the Star Wars franchise has been good at even in their lesser entries. Here, we get something rhythmically new: the different plots run into each other, mostly resolve, and then the principal conflict for all intents and purposes restarts in a new location, with different stakes and different key moments. The last time I saw a movie cycle up again after this explicitly cycling down was over twenty years ago, in the final Lord of the Rings installment. Here, it arguably works more to the film’s benefit; there are notes and hints at character threads left hanging for Episode XIV which are given some degree of absolution here instead.
In setting its final sequences on a barren desert planet, with a light dusting of snow covering up plains of blood-red salt, it also gives us some of the most flat-out gorgeous imagery in a film already well-sated with evocative and painterly frames. I wrote about the 2015 film that it abandoned the photographic formality and poise of the earlier entries in the series; what I did not write about was how small it made everything appear. There was a weightless, workmanlike competence to the image. The Last Jedi avoids this, and is probably the best-looking film of the entire series on the level of raw composition and scale and use of color. Apart from the salt plains, there is the remote island Luke has retreated to, which seemingly possesses an endless series of alcoves and cliffsides and hidden paths, in addition to its ancient abandoned village Macchu Picchu-like in its stone construction and mountaintop location; there is a seaside gaming city that hosts the story’s most superfluous segments and mostly makes up for it by housing them within an intoxicating visual mash-up of Monte Carlo, Las Vegas, and an Irish townland. And the throne room of Snoke puts a slip of a villain against an red-and-black chamber so brutally clean in its lines and materials that the set itself—and the superlative action sequence that eventually takes place in it—worth the ticket price on its own.
If there’s a caveat to all of this, it’s that the movie still can’t escape the gravitational pull of its own DNA: not only is this part of a universe that traffics in color and action and shallow pop philosophy at the expense of deeper reflection, but it’s part of a sequel lineup that is manifestly and primarily a vehicle to ensure brand continuation—for all appearances, until the end of time. What we see here is a gifted filmmaker, cast, and crew taking the rudimentary concepts of this new sequel trilogy and infusing them with as much ambiguity and narrative weight as they can possibly muster. It pays dividends—every holdover here is, top to bottom, more fully considered and developed than in the last film—but we are still firmly in familiar territory by movie’s end.
Perhaps that’s as it should be, for this series. George Lucas, vocalizing his barely-concealed displeasure with the new direction of the series in 2015, articulated the main thematic thoroughline of the Star Wars stories as being about “the sins of the father visited unto the son”. The prequels, as problematic as they were, held the line on this. The Force Awakens reached for it, but got hamstrung by its greater imperative to be a cinematic homecoming party. The Last Jedi reaches further, ventures into bolder and more complicated crevices of its universe, and manages to inject some degree of unpredictability and dramatic feeling into this safest of cinematic investments (I have not mentioned the supporting role played by Laura Dern, who possesses almost without question the most layered character in the film and dual-wields its most effective payoffs of tension and of pathos). If this is not the best that we could see from this universe, it’s a decisive step in the right direction. And the Porgs are adorable.