Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review: Rian Johnson Wows While Still Searching for Support

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The Last Jedi is so focused on being a surprising film—at which it succeeds in spades—that it almost forgets that surprises have to be satisfying and emotionally resonant. It’s a good film, with soaring set pieces and a grand, sweeping message of hope, both requirements for any Star Wars film. It’s also just so eager to be everything The Force Awakens wasn’t, with its breakneck pace and genuinely shocking twists and turns, that it sacrifices too much of its emotion to really land on two feet.

With J.J. Abrams’ Episode VII as its launch point, The Last Jedi takes its time to resolve that pivotal cliffhanger at that film’s end, instead opening with a wonderfully structured space battle that shows the First Order doing their best to eliminate what remains of the Resistance after the destruction of Starkiller Base. General Leia (the late, endlessly great Carrie Fisher, to whom the film is dedicated) leads the escape, with her reckless flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, given far more meat this time around) doing much of the “blowing stuff up” legwork. But Poe is soon challenged as Leia’s successor, with the arrival of Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, limited but powerful).

Elsewhere, Rey (Daisy Ridley, still great) is trying not only to get Luke (Mark Hamill, showing more depth than ever before) to take that lightsaber, but to help train her as well. The scenes on the island Force Awakens ended on are the best of the film, with Rey, in her frustration, forming a telepathic communication with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, also still great), who’s having his own frustrations with his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). The Last Jedi’s greatest asset is the link it forms between these two, as their arcs converge in perhaps the film’s most pivotal scene to inform us of both of their purposes, though what those purposes end up being will certainly divide fans and may be unsatisfying in the long run depending on how Episode IX turns out—or at least until that film re-adjusts their purposes again into something more satisfying.

Finn (John Boyega), meanwhile, has a new companion in Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on his journey to Canto Bight, a gorgeously rendered casino planet that, while serving little in terms of the overall plot, is among the most fascinating Star Wars planets ever conceived. It’s here where Rian Johnson tries to propel his themes forward a bit. He explores war profiteering, classism, and how endless conflict might benefit those willing to sell to either or both sides. But like Rogue One before it, The Last Jedi introduces all these ideas that attempt to bring the good guys and the bad guys closer together, but then ends the film in a big showcase of heroism with those ideas gone unexplored. It’s maddening: Star Wars is a place where creatives could find something to say about war at large or the state of modern society while the country is so divided, and The Last Jedi gets so close to doing that and then cuts itself short to deliver an admittedly spectacular battle sequence.

To be fair, lots of moments throughout Johnson’s film made me emotional, none of which I dare reveal here to preserve spoilers. But something here seems off, as if we’re rushing from iconic moment to iconic moment with the skeleton supporting them barely holding them up. Watching The Last Jedi for the first time is what I imagine watching one of the rushed but effective Harry Potter films is like having not read the books. Those films gave great weight to all the book’s mini-climaxes and standout moments, and for a person not already well-versed in them, they might seem erratic in tone and general story progression. That is to say that The Last Jedi feels like an adaptation of a beloved Star Wars novel I didn’t read. It’s so excited about the big plot points that it forgets to slow down and let the characters experience them with us before jumping to the next big plot point. Such is the case, Empire Strikes Back this is not, but it certainly doesn’t feel like any other Star Wars movie. That’s a good thing, but man does Johnson make that good thing feel so unnecessarily complicated. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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