The sounds of war open The Last Jedi. TIE Fighters chase Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who aims to overachieve and attempt the total destruction of a large, weaponized First Order ship ready to crumble the Rebel’s last outpost. This film opens on such a high note that director Rian Johnson (Looper) somehow tops scene after scene. Episode VIII never lacks goosebump-inducing moments, coupled with the heaviest emotion in a Star Wars film to-date.
The Last Jedi‘s premise is simple enough on the surface: the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), is beginning to strangle the Resistance, led by none other than General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). This film reeks of your classic underdog tale … at first. The amount of uncertainty moving forward plays to what’s so special about this film. I was shocked at almost every turn and holding my breath during others. I was in awe at the spectacle unfolding before my eyes. Sure, nostalgia is strong with this one, but the callbacks are not heavy-handed enough to drown out what’s on-screen.
The acting in The Last Jedi is aces, and it’s due in large part to actor Daisy Ridley. In The Force Awakens, Rey is a mysterious character that holds back her emotion until the last half of the film. That script is flipped here, as Ridley allowed me to feel for almost three hours her loneliness, vengeance and kind soul. Couple her with Adam Driver, who returns as Kylo Ren, and the parallels between the characters make for some of the most memorable moments of this saga. Ren was an upset kid full of angst towards the Jedi. His life’s purpose leading up to this point is to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and kill the last of the Jedi. On the surface, that’s all good and well for his role, but I wanted to see another dynamic added to Ren, another conflict he could be wound up in. And, boy, did my wish get fulfilled.
As for the other main characters, Poe was given a larger role which Isaac took and ran with. There’s humor, charm and emotion that makes him more than just another pilot. In Finn’s (John Boyega) case, he often took a backseat to Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance engineer who stole nearly every scene she was apart of. While Kelly Marie Tran had chemistry with John Boyega for the entirety of the film, and The Last Jedi is better for it, I was a bit let down that Finn’s character remained stagnant and was not built upon from The Force Awakens. Here’s to hoping there’s something special planned for his character in Episode IX because Boyega is good enough to not be relegated to a great role in just one film in the New Trilogy.
As for our favorite Jedi Knight, Mark Hamill — who’s arguably in the most important role in VIII — excels as an old, battered and bruised Luke Skywalker. The tolls of war and fighting the Empire/First Order wear deep onto his face. The plight of Luke in this film is heartfelt and layered, so I am happy to see further depth added to the iconic character. I also appreciated the humor given to Luke, who surprisingly provided proper comic relief in many scenes. The comedic elements in this film feel right. It’s fun.
When it comes to the supporting cast, however, we’re treated to a multitude of personalities, and I was wowed by the chances each received. Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), the sly DJ (Benicio Del Toro) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) all were among those that provided gusto and spiced up the age-old saga. Just when I thought there might’ve been too little of the supporting cast, Johnson allows them one more moment to solidify their place in my mind.
I loved Johnson’s approach, giving characters their own sequences and never allowing me to feel overwhelmed. This is due in large part to wonderful editing and transitions. The wipe fades we know and love return, but there are sequencing of shots that have Johnson’s name written all over them. One particular scene with Rey honing the Force and Luke looking on displayed something I’ve never seen before in Star Wars. The shot selections went back and forth with nature on the island and utilized time lapse. I felt immersed in this scene and so many others, including one that played to deeper science fiction elements, thanks to fresh direction unlike anything I’ve seen in this saga.
There are wonderful technical aspects to The Last Jedi, as well. John Williams’ score is compelling, providing high intensity when moments call for it and lingering ever-so gracefully in the background during emotional scenes. It’s near-perfect. The CGI in this film is, also, nearly flawless. Snoke’s presence is never distracting, and the destroyers are by far the best designed ships I’ve seen in recent memory.
Cinematographer Steve Yedlin (Looper, Brick) is no stranger to working with Johnson, and the vision of this film is better for it. I found my jaw on the ground when Rey is on the island with Luke, for instance, with the camera sweeping wide to get a sense of scale. There’s a beautiful moment of serenity when focusing on Leia scanning the vast, empty galaxy. The beauty of The Last Jedi is due in large part to Yedlin’s eyes.
The world-building Johnson in The LastJedi is also something special, but the film never commits. While serving its purpose for just a single casino sequence that’s a bit more hectic than most Cantina instances, we’re teased with an ever-expanding Star Wars universe that surely sets up future films. I loved it while it lasted.
Continuing with the trend of things chugging along nicely: Johnson’s ability to not only helm the director’s chair but also write the screenplay is nothing but grand. There’s a reason Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy is trusting him with Star Wars’ new trilogy after Episode IX. This is the deepest Star Wars story in four decades, with so much turmoil, happiness, sadness, triumph and closure. It’s different and never once did I feel The Last Jedi was a rehash of Empire Strikes Back. Barely anything is predictable, adding to its mystique. What’s more is the seamless dialogue between characters, like Poe and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo’s (Laura Dern) back-and-forth. The dialogue is serious, fun and witty, which balances the film.
In the face of so much good, the lack of BB-8 and Chewbacca — along with Finn — was obvious. The forgettable Porgs and ice foxes aren’t terrible, but if I had to choose, I’d get rid of that fodder. Also, there is a certain amount of cheese in the first half, including an almost unforgivable scene with Leia. Honestly, the film doesn’t always take itself seriously, so I snapped out of it sooner than later.
As Williams’ score crescendos and the iconic transition to the end credits rolls, I was left floored. My inner Star Wars fan was a good mess, while on the outside I was found saying things like, “This is quite possibly the best Star Wars film to-date.” But it’s true — this is the most complete Star Wars film to-date, and it’s what pushes Episode VIII over the other installments. This is Star Wars at its best, and it is truly the strongest in the saga.
Take a bow, Rian Johnson.
I was treated to a press screening for purposes of this review thanks to Disney and Sly Fox. ❤
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is rated PG-13, runs 2 hours and 32 minutes and opens in theaters on Dec. 15, 2017.