Following criticisms leveled at The Force Awakens over all the callbacks to the original trilogy it used, new writer/director Rian Johnson opts for some totally new ideas and approaches for Star Wars: Episode VIII- The Last Jedi. As the second chapter of this new story, we know it’s going to get a number of comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back.
But I’d say there are only a few analogies you could make to Episode V this time. For the most part, Last Jedi is its own film, with nowhere near the number of self-aware winks to the audience Episode VII used.
Much like the prior chapter, Episode VIII starts off at a relentless pace. The First Order are pursuing what’s left of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher)’s Resistance, and despite the best efforts of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his forces reach them through hyperspace using a tracking device.
While Finn (John Boyega) goes on a mission with a young mechanic named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to disable the tracker, Rey (Daisy Ridley) travels with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) to the planet Ahco-To and tries her best to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join the fight. Luke’s experiences with Kylo has left him reluctant to take on a new apprentice, but Rey insists on getting him to help enhance her Force abilities.
I enjoyed most of the character development in this film, which is the core of what makes or breaks any Star Wars film. This is easily the most interesting Luke has ever been, and thanks to some great acting from Mark Hamill, his transition from the plucky young man of the first trilogy to a brooding and reluctant master comes off very believable. Carrie Fisher is in peak form as Leia, and she has at least one moment in this film that’ll certainly be talked about for a while.
The villains in the film are well acted, but very hateable. Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke will probably frighten plenty of kids in the audience, and Domhnall Gleason’s General Hux Adam is an irritating weasel who you’ll easily want for the heroes to punch in the mouth.
Adam Driver has a more intimidating presence this time as Ren than he did in Force Awakens. Daisy Ridley’s performance as Rey is incredibly engaging, able to be heartfelt and shamelessly heroic simultaneously. Her chemistry with Kylo adds a lot of tension to this story, and Johnson directed it to where I wasn’t sure which direction it would take.
I think their relationship also marks a shift in how the Force has been represented throughout the series. Characters are revealed to have abilities I never thought were possible in Star Wars. To be fair, I could see how some people would see them as a little shoehorned, but they never felt like full-blown deus ex machinas.
Finn and Rose’s subplot admittedly feels a bit tacked on, almost like an episode from a Star Wars television series. Still, Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran have good chemistry together, and the two are such likable heroes that I felt their adventure was still enjoyable. Poe has an interesting angle involving the tension between him and an officer (Laura Dern), which hints at how impulsive the ace pilot can be. That personality flaw of Poe’s is something I’d like to see explored more (hopefully Episode IX will continue to expand on that), but its climax isn’t what you’d quite expect.
Last Jedi gradually looks more like a classic Star Wars film as it progresses, and it comes to a head in a visually rich and adrenaline-filled climax. John Williams’ usual epic and profound score compliments everything onscreen well, adding a sense of gravity to the space battles. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin consistently uses an interesting upward panning shot that always looked nice.
The new vehicles and technology look strange and unique, yet unpolished and rusty in some instances, making them seem more tangible. A lot of the aesthetic choices, with a focus on thick reds, feel unique to the series. I don’t want to give too much away when I say this, but the new planet Crait- which is something totally different from Hoth- and Snoke’s throne room look incredibly sharp.
As this is a Disney production, you know there’s going to be new creatures that can be marketed as toys, and this film brings us adorable bird-like creatures called the Porgs. They don’t have as much screen time as the advertising would imply, somehow they manage to feel like a natural part of this world. I generally thought they were fine, the movie never shoved them down my throat to the level Jar Jar Binks was in Phantom Menace. (Personally, I thought the ice canine creatures were much cuter.)
I can’t say The Last Jedi is without issues or a few aspects I could nitpick. After thinking about the film more, there are things I feel need more context, and the film slows down too much in the second act (even though the character development was still solid). But it’s a very sophisticated sci-fi fantasy that not only still has fun characters, but also contains some of the most impactful scenes I’ve seen in the series so far.
Some of those moments do come out of nowhere and provoke some new questions, but I thought it still flowed well as a cohesive story. In a sense, this film feels somewhat like a callback to Empire Strikes Back in how that film also challenged the initial assumptions of audiences back in 1980. Luke struggled with his identity as well back then, similar to how the other characters in Last Jedi have their own internal conflicts.
Rian Johnson is intently focused on subverting the audience’s expectations of this series moving forward- no other Star Wars film has ever felt quite like this one. But unlike in the way the prequels dulled my interest in the franchise, Last Jedi’s risks feel like they were fleshed out much better.
Coming in I was hoping for a film that made me excited for the next chapter, and it not only clears that bar but soars over it. Easily recommended if you’re a Star Wars fan, but I think even newcomers can find things to enjoy.