The Last Jedi is the latest entry in the Star Wars saga, and a direct continuation of 2015’s The Force Awakens. While Force Awakens was widely praised as a return to glory for the franchise, it was impossible to ignore the very deliberate ways it repeatedly referenced 1977’s A New Hope. But where that nostalgia trip was a deliberate attempt to remind audiences of their love for the franchise while priming them for new adventures (think Jurassic World), The Last Jedi would have to stand on its own for the series to continue in any meaningful way.[/whole] [/row]
The Saga Continues
The story begins in much the same way as 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, with our heroes under pursuit by the sinister agents of the First Order (this generation’s version of the classic evil Empire), the latter is hell-bent on punishing the Resistance (led by Carrie Fisher as the indomitable General Leia) for the destruction of their planet-destroying super weapon in the last movie. At the same time, the First Order leadership is determined to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in order to end the Jedi once and for all.
Unbeknownst to them, the self-exiled Skywalker has already been located by Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express), in hopes that the legendary hero will reclaim his position in the fight against oppression. With time running out, Poe (X-Men Apocalypse’s Oscar Isaac), Finn (Attack the Block’s John Boyega), and new ally Rose (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) must embark on a desperate mission to save the Resistance, with the fate of the entire galaxy hanging in the balance.
A New Director
Watching The Last Jedi, it would seem that writer-director Rhian Johnson (Looper) took The Force Awakens’ criticisms to heart: “Let the past die,” intones the villainous Kylo Ren (Girls’ Adam Driver) at one point. “Kill it, if you have to. It’s the only way to become what you’re meant to be.”
Between that line and Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill, back in his most famous role) admonition that, “This is not going to go the way you think,” one can imagine similar sentiments running through Johnson’s head. This isn’t to say that The Last Jedi isn’t without its own callbacks (mostly from Episodes V and VI this time), but in those instances, Johnson doesn’t settle for just echoing what’s come before. Instead, he twists them around in new – and even shocking – ways.
The Stakes are Higher Than Ever
Where Last Jedi succeeds is its willingness to play with the pieces and characters we’ve grown to know and love, subjecting them to events and circumstances with genuine stakes, underscored by a palpable sense of impending dread. Indeed, the film is at its best when it goes out on a limb, taking chances it probably wouldn’t get away with if the audience wasn’t already invested. Last Jedi seems specifically designed with no shortage of scenarios for us to fear losing characters along the way.
Duel of the Fates
Like last time, Ridley and Driver are the standouts, their natural charisma imbuing their diametrically opposed characters with intensity, gravity, and personality. As Rey, Ridley’s portrayal of an orphan’s inherent goodness and belief in the best of humanity stands in direct contrast with Kylo’s struggle for his soul. As a former student of Skywalker, Driver effortlessly embodies his character’s inner turmoil and fall from grace in a manner more effective than any we’ve previously seen in this series. Suffice it to say, some of the film’s most thrilling sequences involve Rey and Kylo in a battle of words and wills that manages to rival any number of lightsaber battles.
Of the new cast members, it’s Boyega as Finn who gets the short end of the stick, saddled with a somewhat pointless side quest to a casino planet that, to be perfectly honest, could quite easily have been left on the cutting room floor (the less said about that section’s heavy-handed attempts to present the evils of capitalism through war profiteering, the better). Throw in a stampede/chase scene and a truly bizarre turn by Benecio Del Toro, and we just have to wonder what the filmmakers were thinking here.
Farewell to a Princess
Special mention must be made of Carrie Fisher as the recently-widowed General Leia Organa Solo. While the actress’ unexpected passing away at the end of 2016 was tragic, her signature character gets much time in the spotlight here, with the veteran performer convincingly conveying Leia’s strength and resolve in the face of adversity.
The end credits contain a dedication to Fisher and, if the producers keep to their promise never to resurrect her via CGI (as they did with Peter Cushing in last year’s Rogue One), then The Last Jedi is a fine tribute to the former princess.
Return of the Master
With three decades having passed since audiences last interacted with the wayward Jedi, Hamill’s return is a welcome one. Hamill makes up for his virtual absence from The Force Awakens with aplomb, playing Skywalker as alternately stubborn, remorseful, and tortured. Regardless of his emotional state, Hamill owns your attention whenever he’s onscreen, having appropriately aged into the grizzled old “master” he must now be for Rey, and when he finally makes the decision to go full badass, believe me when I say the moment is one well worth the price of admission.
Visually, the film is beyond reproach, packed with the kinds of imaginative production design and shots you’ll find seared into your memory long after you leave the theater. While the quality of said shots does falter in some sections (I’m looking at you, casino planet horses), it’s impossible to fault the ambition of the filmmakers. There is one space battle shot, in particular, that is outright haunting in its beauty, rivaling anything we’ve seen in this series thus far.
The Torch has been Passed
If Rey attempting to hand Luke his lightsaber back at the end of The Force Awakens was her trying to pass the narrative torch back to the (former) hero of the series, Last Jedi sees that torch irrevocably entrusted to the new generation. Where the series will go from here is anybody’s guess, but after what we’ve just experienced, we can’t wait for Episode IX.
2019 can’t get here soon enough.
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