‘The Last Jedi’ takes creative risks in attempt to forge something new
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the seventh main episode in the immensely popular sci-fi opera, took pains to induce a sense of nostalgia for the original 1977 film that bordered on overwhelming. While that film, directed by J.J. Abrams, was fantastic in its own right, it clearly was an homage. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the eighth main film in the series, while still evoking memories of films past, tries something new. And what a refreshing change in the Force that is.
“The Last Jedi” doesn’t exactly break new ground. There’s the Rebels trying to escape the First Order, which has way too much firepower against a scrappy little rebellion; AT-ATs gunning down much smaller vehicles on a planet dusted in white; light-saber battles between master and student; its very own cantina scene, this time in a casino. But director Rian Johnson adds a distinct twist to his take on nostalgia, unafraid to flip expectations, to change the familiar script. Yeah, certain scenes will leave you feeling déjà vu, particularly in the film’s third act, but that sense comes off more as warranted rather than forced. It works brilliantly, to the point of being one of the best films in the franchise.
“The Last Jedi,” which clocks in at a touch-too-long 152 minutes, continues just about right after the ending of “The Force Awakens.” Rey (Daisy Ridley) is off on her quest to find Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (one scraggily looking Mark Hamill), who has sequestered himself on a tiny little island on a world no one can seem to find. The point: She wants him to come back to help the resistance, and to train her in the ways of the Force. Well, their introduction doesn’t get off to a great start, particularly since Luke still is tormented over his last pupil, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who’s fallen to the Dark Side, à la Anakin Skywalker.
But, as with other “Star Wars” films, that’s hardly the only plot line that matters here (through it’s by far the most interesting). In fact, for the most part, it may be completely secondary for the majority of the film. (It bears more weight once Kylo and Rey start connecting telepathically, creating some of the strongest scenes in the film.) Because, in all reality, Rey’s quest can only be considered successful if she can help the rebellion actually win against the First Order. Right now, the rebels aren’t doing so hot.
General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) and her crew on the run, slowly losing fuel. The First Order’s impressive deadly armada is right on their tail, just itching to blast them out of existence. So it falls to hot-headed pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to seek out a codebreaker capable of getting the latter two on a First Order ship to disable a tracker that prevents the rebels from escaping. It’s convoluted, admittedly, but when is it ever easy to save the galaxy?
This whole excursion is pretty chaotic, what with chases and explosions and animal rescues, but it’s Tran’s engrossing performance — an overly excited Rebel with the moral compass and internal fortitude of a hero — that transforms what could have been just a prolonged action sequence into something more, something emotional and alive. And thank goodness, because we need her excellent showing to even start to deal with Benicio Del Toro’s shockingly disappointing performance as the codebreaker. You get the feeling he thinks he’s way more clever than he actually is.
But never mind his performance, because you’ll likely be drawn to other actors’ screen time. Issac’s Poe gets some agency this time around, even if it’s mostly channeled in him arguing with his superiors over what should be done next. (It’s nice to know he has an opinion that can vary from just blowing things up.) Speaking of his bosses, Laura Dern has a great turn as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, a side character who proves her mettle more than once (and she tells Poe just what he needs, if not wants to hear, which was sorely needed). But it’ll probably be Fisher’s time on screen that will draw the most attention. The actress, who died prematurely last year, is subtle in her role as the princess-turned-Rebel general, and it’s clear that Leia was going to accomplish something spectacular by the trilogy’s end. It’s even been reportedly that the last film was set to feature her prominently, much like this film did with Hamill’s Luke and the last one did with Harrison Ford’s Han Solo. It’s tragic; her performance, though, is anything but.
The heart of the film, though, doesn’t revolve around Leia. Instead, the tense threads that bind Luke, Rey and Kylo together shine brightest (or darkest, depending on how you see it). After his shattering experience with Kylo, Luke is ready to die, and to take the last of the Jedi Order with him. What’s interesting, though perhaps unsurprising, is how each man views the events that lead Kylo to the Dark Side. In fact, “The Last Jedi” is drenched in rose-colored darkness; it shows a perspective of the Dark Side that’s alluring and understanding, that offers power to make things right. (There’s obviously some connection between this and the prequel trilogy and Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side, but let’s not talk about that failure.)
But while Luke is ready to call it quits, Rey and Kylo are not. Their film-long struggle to understand each other, communicating through a psychic link, contains a surprising depth, even if the outcome is a little more predictable. But their in-person encounter, under the terrifying eye of the First Order’s Supreme Leader, Snoke (a yet-again great Andy Serkis), blows everything else out of the water. It’s an important scene that reveals much about both characters, details perhaps they themselves don’t even want to know.
In the end, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a tale of conflict, between fighting for what you love and fighting to burn it all away, between wrapping oneself’s in nostalgia and throwing arms wide open to an unknown future. While the eighth installment in the storied franchise doesn’t branch out perhaps as far as it should, it’s clear it envisions a future that isn’t simply a rehash of the past. If the fate of Kylo’s Vader-like helmet, smashed to bits in a fit of rage by Kylo himself, is any indication, perhaps there’s still some unknown left to explore in this galaxy far, far away.
Four “rebel scum” stars out of five, and a critic’s pick.