Film Review: "The Last Jedi" Is 12 Parsecs forward for the Star Wars franchise
Star Wars: The Last Jedi picks up immediately from where its predecessor The Force Awakens left off, but its attitude and intent could hardly be more different. The Force Awakens had an almost slavish reverence to the past, but The Last Jedi elegantly unburdens itself from such reverence in order to stake out its own identity and explore the grey-er shades of war, failure, and the stories we tell ourselves and each other.
Writer/director Rian Johnson is a risk-taker. So when familiar beats happen, it's less like repetition and more like a carefully laid out trap in which the filmmaker can land a good sucker punch. Some will hate the creative choices made, some will love them – some won't know what the heck to make of them. Doubtless that The Last Jedi will reward or punish multiple viewings. And yes, it's still a sugar rush, it's a crowd pleaser, it's Star Wars at its Star Warsiest. Most remarkably, though, is that its subtle brilliance blooms the more you ponder on it. And all this without the film itself languishing in heavy-handed ponderousness.
Where The Last Jedi could have easily fallen to such a dreary, ponderous place is in Rey's storyline, in which the young adept seeks guidance from the exiled Jedi Master Luke Skywalker. Far from being the spirited hero we knew, he has been eroded by time, shame and regret. Mark Hamill is simply wonderful as this different Luke Skywalker, and it's difficult not to feel a huge rush of affection the few times Hamill drops the surliness and reveals hints of the bright-eyed young Skywalker who redeemed his fallen father and saved the galaxy. Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley, along with Hamill, make for a fascinating and psychologically troubled trio upon which an entire fate of a galaxy depends.
Due to some moving and gentle prodding from an old friend, Luke teaches Rey the ways of the Force. The first lesson is in getting Rey to open her senses to the interdependent forces holding everything together; the peace of a creature feeding its young and the crashing ocean waves that claim their lives; the hideous rotting carcass beneath the dirt nourishing sunlit fields of plenty: life and death. At the centre of this symbiosis is a gaping maw of darkness that beckons, which could be linked to the mysterious connection between herself and her dark rival Kylo Ren. It's the first of a handful of stunning sequences that communicates Star Wars' motifs in exciting new ways. Rian Johnson doesn't just push the larger story forward to uncharted territory, he elevates Star Wars' visually leaden slant to dizzying poetic heights at times. This scene is a microcosm of what makes The Last Jedi a unique standalone entity within the series. We're far from Liam Neeson explaining the Force in stilted scientific terms to Jake Lloyd, that's for sure. Look as well to a sequence, you'll know it when you see it, where a sacrifice is a silent scene rendered as cosmic majesty. A planet that bleeds as the setting for an intense final battle is the icing on the newness.
As Star Wars has always been about the interplay between light and shadow, tyranny and rebellion, so it is that for as operatic and dramatic as the series can get, it's often self-deprecatingly funny too. The impish sense of humour is a welcome aspect in this most violent instalment of the series yet. Whether it be Luke Skywalker sarcastically fucking with Rey, the twisted Supreme Leader Snoke cruelly chastising his broken-spirited apprentice Kylo Ren (“take off that ridiculous helmet”) or that the fascistic toady First Order General Hux is often the butt of a joke, The Last Jedi keeps a sense of humour amidst the carnage and desperation.
Though it's thematically necessary, a slapstick-y detour to a Casino setting undeniably hurts the film's almost perfect pacing and tone. Nonetheless, I loved The Last Jedi. I loved its willingness to go to places that will surely anger legions of fans, I loved that it deepened the charismatic archetypes by exploring their hurts and haunts with deftness and humour, and I loved that Carrie Fisher saved her best for last.