Until last night, my Star Wars fandom rank merited no title. I’d never shared an impassioned connection with Lucasfilm’s phantasmic universe. Chewbacca and Luke Skywalker were mere fantasy characters and nothing more to me. Until last night, I’d never left any Star Wars film projecting outward enthusiasm or wishes for an immediate return to Jakku, Kashyyyk, Hoth etc. – then Star Wars: The Last Jedi happened.
Rian Johnson lightspeeds into his first franchise entry with more energy than a supernova explosion; an astounding exemplification of what moviegoers will forever consider “epic.” Each frame bursts with complexity and detail without ever sacrificing a majority stake in keeping us delighted by the most richly ridiculous space oddities. You’ll get your “Chewie and the Porgs” lightness while also bearing the brunt of darkness that weighs upon conflicted warriors who’ve yet to choose their destinies. Whether navigating a duplicitous story or leaning on a squadron leader who likes to blow his problems up, Johnson exudes comfort – and confidence – when furthering one of Hollywood’s longest-running legends.
On a plotted side, just remember this is a continuation of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Rogue One kickstarted Disney’s spinoff slate, so it’s back to modern-day Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) leading her Resistance against Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) itches for more X-Wing combat, Rey (Daisy Ridley) begs a recluse Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to impart his Jedi wisdom and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) still has some anger issues to work out. The Resistance flees, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) maintains close proximity and Finn (John Boyega) embarks on his own mini-quest to save the day – you know, amidst the whole interplanetary warfare currently tearing the stars asunder.
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Spoilers do no one good, so vagueness will remain key to my assessment – but in appreciating Star Wars: The Last Jedi, one must acknowledge Johnson’s multifaceted storytelling strengths. More than a glimmer of modern politics urge viewers to never quit fighting; to always rebel against corruption as Resistance leaders like Leia and new-to-screen Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern in her cosmic majesty) refuse to flinch under the First Order’s pinning boot-heel. Johnson blurs no metaphor or cloaks intent, yet that’s only one single dimension to his film’s scope.
Rey and Kylo’s force-bound relationship engages duality as neither presence reveals their true allegiance (leaving us in a state of scripted bliss), teasing and prodding the vast curiosities between Force capabilities. Both Empire-inspired governors and Resistance command squabble internally as if either faction may disband. Whether it’s Poe – the blast-first decision man – trying to maneuver around Holdo’s stonewall tactics, Finn and Rose Tico (a ship mechanic played by Kelly Marie Tran) bonding over [redacted] or Snoke puppeteering as only an almighty Force-wielder can, Johnson is always able to expose complexity in character despite a wide-ranging ensemble. Personas are rarely lost and arcs are mapped to completion.
I’ll admit – my take on Star Wars: The Force Awakens amounted to “glorified fan-servicing.” A pox on many decade-spanning franchises. But The Last Jedi? Luke Skywalker is no longer the pure, hope-stuffed Jedi who once saved the galaxy. Leia is weathered and ready to pass her commanding torch. Star Wars is priming itself for a new generation to take over – with Han Solo already out of the picture – something an old face prepares us for during his/her unexpected “appearance.” It’s not as a note of sadness, but reassurance that an end to familiarity doesn’t spell the franchise’s doom. Quite the opposite, in fact. We have Rey, Poe, Finn – the faces of a new Resistance with years of uprising left – and us, accepting and optimistic of what’s to come.
Actually, for a second, can we address how astounding it is that Disney allowed Rian Johnson the freedom to experiment with formula so cheekily? The beginning of Star Wars: The Last Jedi has more in common with Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs than it does any previous Star Wars, and comedics don’t stop there. Johnson serves up the absurdity of interdimensional world-smashing on a silver platter, be it birthing little penguin chicken nugget creatures or letting BB-8 remain the film’s most consistent hero. Johnson doesn’t just preoccupy himself with advancing namesake characters – he builds upon George Lucas and company’s wondrous playground with vibrant, stand-alone success. From nun-lookin’ caretaker aliens to class-clashing rich vs. poor dichotomies. Laughs are so unexpectedly plentiful in a way no other Star Wars can boast, somehow without sacrificing even a microscopic morsel of rebellious resistance.
Points of contention do exist – Snoke’s “memorable scene,” two suns setting in the distance and what they witness, Force freedoms – but my argument defends that questions are better left unanswered in these cases. Not all may agree, and that’ll be a dividing point. My experience nary weakened in the least come these better-left-unsaid pieces.
Getting back to inarguables, Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin project what might exist as the most stunning Star Wars adventure yet. An arresting, starburst of vitality that’d make Kubrick blush and Cuarón weep. Heavy red colorization highlights the anger pulsating from Kylo Ren be it backlighting a mood-spiking lightsaber massacre (SO. GOOD.) in Snoke’s throne room or the Resistance’s salt-planet terrain that mimics blood splattering. Hux’s cruiser fleet are no longer just tin-can hallways and grey steel bay doors. As a certain starship suffers an explosive end, one single light beam splits the metallic hunker belly-up like a magnificent flash of abstract art. Johnson’s visual aesthetic is breathtaking, dazzlingly hypnotic and so beautifully framed in a way that should excite even existing Star Wars fans – there’s more to sci-fi than just laser dogfights and neon particle swords.
As *hopeful* leader of a new Jedi class, Rey’s determination is still a performance strength of Ms. Ridley’s. Bettered this time around by Hamill’s return as Luke Skywalker, who pushes Rey while reliving the torments of his mentorship past. Darkness corrupted his star pupil – Kylo Ren – and it’s a mistake he refuses to make with Rey. Their encounters stitch a chequered Jedi history that’s heavy with masterful failures equal to tide-turning successes. Fully charged and capable of propelling Star Wars: The Last Jedi, it’s easily noted that scenes are just better with either Ridley or Hamill.
Not to be outdone, Isaac’s dashing space cowboy Poe Dameron ribs Laura Dern with flyboy impatience, Boyega and newbie Tran sacrifice gainfully, Carrie Fisher bows an honorably tasteful goodbye – but, with no hesitation in my words, Domhnall Gleeson is the film’s most emphatic performer bar none, no matter how audacious. Driver angsts and emos his way through crooked feelings as the universe’s most tantrum-prone evil villain, but it’s Gleeson who outshines all with his maniac facial expressions and famished scene chewing. No one is ever on his level, nor should they be. Having Gleeson rave and whimper while other officers stand stoic in response paints a deliciously mad picture of power. All parts lend to magnificent players, yet Gleeson is the powerhouse trump card played from the most unsuspecting hand. How devilish.
Thrills, most importantly, strike in the form of dialogue, action and experience. Marvelous set dressings cue cheer-worthy signatures like Finn proudly wearing his “Rebel scum!” badge with pride or Luke’s fulfillment of foreshadowing after telling Rey something along the lines of, “What’d you expect to happen? I’d walk out and face the First Order alone?” Lightsaber spectacles and catastrophic vehicular warfare still blast away with the same neon-lit wildness, but Johnson taps a more human conflict as displayed when Kylo, Rey and some First Order guards dance a brutal – expertly choreographed – dueling tango (my favorite saber-slashin’ battle?). Excitement builds, snowballs, and sustains *all* 152 minutes with remarkable stamina. This, my friends, is any filmmaker’s greatest achievement.
With my highest compliments, Rian Johnson has made a Star Wars believer out of this previously unenthused outlier. That is the power surging through Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Herculean world-building expands an already massive universe in such an excitable, wide-eyed culmination. There’s so much more story to tell, and the precise talents are heading the process with wickedly ambitious, steady and nurturing hands. I can’t begin to fathom where Johnson will rocket us next – but I’m on board no matter the destination (as long as there are Porgs).
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is striking, stunning, visually hypnotizing, thrilling - everything "epic" about the famed franchise rolled into a tremendously overcharged start to Rian Johnson's Star Wars career.