When it opened, The Empire Strikes Back changed everything about what Star Wars was and would be. It represented a dramatic shift in tone from A New Hope and was a film rich with character development that focused less on punchy action scenes. It left the trilogy in a place of darkness and despair, but with the slightest glimmer of hope, with one of the most earth-shattering twists in cinema history to somehow attempt to digest. For these reasons, it is likely that it will never be unseated from the title of “greatest Star Wars” movie and is one of the few Star Wars movies that really does a lot to transcend the genre… not that The Last Jedi doesn’t try. Minimal spoilers ahead.
Writer/director Rian Johnson has delivered an utter powerhouse of a film whose sole identity isn’t just that it is a Star Wars movie… as Luke Skywalker says in the film, “it’s so much bigger.” Length be damned, it settles for long shots and long sequences and really dials in on the actors in their roles and, with a couple exceptions, really allows them to shine. Hamill and Fisher have never been better as Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa. The new cast, in this film, finally feels like it has stepped out of the shadow of their original trilogy counterparts and, for this reviewer, left a sense that was missing after The Force Awakens– that this franchise will be okay without them. Where that film, after a brief intro, really leaned heavily on the shoulders of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, this film heavily invests in its new cast, knowing- especially with the terrible loss of Carrie Fisher- that it must stand on its own. And by god, do they.
Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, and Oscar Issac really shine here, and this reviewer cannot emphasize enough the word “shine.” One feels the conflict tearing Driver’s Kylo Ren apart, still affected by his killing of his father and by the weight of the legacy that he desperately wants to live up to in Vader. Ridley is still a lost child, desperate to find her place in the universe, who grows to accept the legacy of the Jedi that she must inherit and develops an incredible strength of character. Issac remains steadfast and determined in the face of any challenge, and his Poe Dameron finally gets moments to shine in this new trilogy outside of an X-Wing cockpit. Boyega here remains a solid comedic element that this film desperately needs, but his quest to find out who Finn is and what he will become remains at the center of this character’s journey and bears wonderful fruit this go around.
The returning cast is also immaculate. Watching Hamill as Skywalker is mesmerizing and he truly knocks it out of the park, delivering what is by far one of the best performances of his career. The pain and torment that rips through him every moment he is on screen after what happened with Kylo Ren is real. It permeates through every scene he is in, even as the film drops in small nostalgic moments to send chills up the spines of every fan. After his failure with Ren, Skywalker has abandoned the Jedi way, believing that their time has come “to end” and even spending a few moments in the film to criticize the Jedi order of old, and it’s all so head-noddingly fantastic that maybe- just maybe- it’ll get people to watch the prequels again with renewed appreciation for the Jedi order it portrays as a bureaucratic organization concerned mostly with its own self-interest.
And Carrie… oh, Carrie. The entire world seemed a little more bleak when she passed a year ago, and watching her stellar performance in this film makes knowing that this is the last time we’ll ever see her just a little bit harder. Her strength of character as the steadfast leader of the resistance is just fantastic and unwavering, even in the darkest moments it has. Any fan who is a fan of Star Wars that doesn’t tear up just a bit when she and Hamill reunite on screen just misses the strength of these characters and the relationship that the actors and the characters have had for decades. It’s so bittersweet to know that she won’t be on screen in Episode IX, but it’s amazing that she got such a great last film and performance to go out on.
The Last Jedi isn’t perfect, though. In fact, in a lot of ways, it is far from it. One of the main complains of The Force Awakens– definitely from this reviewer- was that it was too reminiscent of A New Hope. That doesn’t mean that The Last Jedi is Empire 2.0, however; in fact, it’s not even close. It’s so far from what one expects in a Star Wars movie that it does have the same effect, however; it completely changes the game in terms of what to expect from a Star Wars movie, and it firmly allows Johnson to stamp his mark firmly on this universe. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Honestly, with a few exceptions, it’s good. It’s great, in fact. It is refreshing that Lucasfilm and Kathleen Kennedy had the faith in Johnson to really go outside of the box and deliver something that defies expectation, and this film does so at EVERY turn. There are twists one does not expect and moments that subvert not only expectations in a Star Wars movie, but any movie, at all, and that’s a welcome breath of fresh air after what the fanbase was delivered in Episode VII. Very mild spoilers to follow!
Still, though, it’s not perfect. Laura Dern is utterly wasted in her role, not because she doesn’t deliver, but because the script utterly fails her and because there’s no setup for her character at all. Similarly, after how little she had to do in The Force Awakens, many expected Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma to have much more to do this go-round, but she gets the short end of the stick again. Even Andy Serkis, who is deliciously evil as Supreme Leader Snoke, finds his character not really getting as many moments to shine as he needs. Lupita Nyong’o is basically blink-and-you’ll-miss-her. Entire scenes are excised at some point in the story that would or could have filled out important progression for the plot, and this in spite of the fact that the film is the longest Star Wars ever at 152 minutes. As a result the middle act of this film sags a lot, almost to the point where one might beg that something happens. Yet even as slow as the plot unfolds at times, a slow tension builds beneath the surface that really makes the final act that much more investing.
It will surprise. It will, if one allows, take you on an emotional journey as few other Star Wars films have ever done before. If The Last Jedi is a portent of what is to come in the final chapter of this new trilogy in episode IX, then it simply cannot come fast enough. It is a beautiful film drenched in more character depth than episode VII by a long shot, and stands head and shoulders above it and most of the films in the saga to shine as one of its absolute best. 8 out of 10 stars.