Film Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Roughly one third of a great film

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Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the second installment of the modern trilogy of films that started with The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi is an uneven film that has lower lows than its predecessor, but also higher highs. The film is saddled with dull subplots and wheel-spinning, but a rollicking and completely unpredictable third act revives an otherwise limp entry in the Star Wards canon. Mild spoilers ahead...

I'm not going to lie, going into Star Wars: The Last Jedi, my expectations were in the stratosphere. This is usually an unfair mindset to enter a movie theater with, but how could my expectations not be sky high? Director Rian Johnson can only be described as a visual and storytelling auteur: everything he touches turns to cinematic gold. The man is known for the indie charms of Brick, the mind-bending time travel thrills of Looper, and the devastation of Breaking Bad's "Ozymandias" - arguably the best episode of the best prestige drama of all time. So you can imagine my bewilderment and indignation when I asked myself halfway through Star Wars: The Last Jedi: "Wait, am I watching a...bad Star Wars movie?" Fortunately, the answer is no. No, but with an asterisk. The Last Jedi is not a bad Star Wars movie. But it does have its fair share of deep-rooted problems that undermines what could have been an all-time classic. 

The story of The Last Jedi picks up roughly right after the events of J.J. Abrams' safe yet thoroughly entertaining The Force Awakens. The First Order, led by the menacing and enigmatic Supreme Leader Snoke, has the remnants of the New Republic on the run. General Leia Organa Solo (the late Carrie Fisher, carrying a fitting gravitas missing from her fleeting appearance in The Force Awakens) leads the ragtag resistance and struggles to evade the closing grip of the Order. While the First Order tracks the rebel fleet with new technology that renders hyperspace escape impossible, Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to persuade the hermit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to aid the struggling rebel cause.

One of my favorite television episodes of all time is "33", the pilot episode of 2004's Battlestar Galactica revival (spoilers for a 15 year old episode of television ahead). In that series, a robotic uprising by a race of mechanical beings known as Cylons has decimated humanity. With only 50,000 souls remaining, humans flee the planet with the Cylons in pursuit, hellbent on finishing the genocide they started. Like the Last Jedi, the humans of Battlestar Galactica repeatedly escape the clutches of their pursuers with untraceable faster-than-light jumps. The conceit of the brilliant "33" is simple: the Cylons, like the First Order, have devised a method to track the human fleet even when they jump away, making permanent escape impossible. The machines attack with robotic precision, every 33 minutes, and the episode delves into the effects of such relentless assault as the crews increasingly suffer from sleep deprivation and impaired judgment, ailments that their inhuman pursuers do not share. Halfway through the episode, one of the civilian human ships goes missing during a jump, and the attacks inexplicably cease. When the missing radio silent vessel eventually makes its way back to the fleet, the attacks suspiciously resume, again every 33 minutes. The episode ends with the gut-wrenching decision by the human leadership to destroy the unarmed vessel with over a thousand innocent lives aboard. In approximately 45 minutes, this 2004 episode of sci-fi provided thrills, political intrigue, sprawling space battles, and difficult moral quandaries. In contrast, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which has almost exactly the same scenario with an infinitely larger budget, can do no better than a slow-as-molasses chase where The First Order takes the occasional potshot at the rebel fleet while lethargically trailing behind it for over an hour and a half. I never knew space opera action could be so...tired. This prolonged chase is the biggest issue with The Last Jedi, and an almost fatal mistake in which the film's least interesting storyline acts as a narrative black hole, sucking in more than half of its cast and runtime into a dull and uninteresting B-plot. Even worse, this B-plot branches off with a misbegotten diversion of what amounts to a cheap video game fetch quest. The casualties of this completely superfluous mission, unfortunately, are Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), tasked to find a hacker that can disable The First Order's tracking device on the casino planet Canto Bight. 

The entire Canto Bight sequence just seems like a desperate maneuver to give Finn something to do when his story really should have ended with The Force Awakens. It's quite a shame the writing for this part of the movie is so drab, because both John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran are very charming in their roles. Rose, in particular, is a delightful addition to the Star Wars roster, and Tran does all she can to imbue her performance with the perfect balance of compassion, wit, and pathos. Unfortunately, the material just isn't up to par with either actors' talents, and while watching the film, I actually became annoyed whenever we cut back to Finn and Rose - the tone-deaf whimsy and wheel-spinning of Canto Bight just completely halts the momentum of the far superior A-plot.

But boy, is that A-plot great.

Undoubtedly there will be a subset of people on the internet that loathes the new direction the story takes, particularly when it comes to Luke Skywalker, but I for one believe it is absolutely the right path for the new canon of films. When The Last Jedi isn't too busy making its characters ride strange animals on a pointless casino planet, it actually has a lot to say about one of the most common human experiences: failure. In fact, The Force Awakens was about failure as well, and The Last Jedi continues to explore that theme with daring and aplomb. 

Haters will accuse this film of murdering their childhoods, but this is precisely what makes the new trilogy so fresh. In their minds, the ending of Return of the Jedi is the purest and most unassailable conclusion to a great story: Palpatine and Vader are dead, the Empire is crumbling, Luke has embraced his Jedi calling after redeeming his father, Han and Leia are happily together, and the New Republic is ascendant. However, the new films continuously tear down the old guard with no regard for the optimism of Return of the Jedi. By the time The Force Awakens rolls around, the New Republic is in dire straits: Luke Skywalker is in self-exile, Han and Leia are no longer together because of the corruption of their only son, and by the end of the film Han Solo is dead. So how do you build a new exciting direction for this beloved universe while keeping the status quo established in 1977? The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi make it abundantly clear: you can't. As Kylo Ren says after the jaw-dropping climax: "Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That is the only way to become what you are meant to be." The Last Jedi does exactly that. It's impossible to elaborate on that without spoiling the entire film, so it's just easier to say that almost everything with Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren's storyline works. Adam Driver's second outing as Kylo Ren is better than ever, playing a conflicted Dark Sider way better than Hayden Christiansen ever did in the prequels. But what elevates The Last Jedi as a whole is Daisy Ridley, or more specifically, Daisy Ridley's charisma and chemistry with almost every other cast member. This was obvious with her interactions with Finn in The Force Awakens, but even more clear in The Last Jedi. Rey's interactions with Luke are on the quiet side, but paint a complicated picture of a tortured teacher/warrior wracked with guilt; and from their psychic connection to a thrilling action set-piece in the third act, the Kylo Ren/Rey scenes are without a doubt one of the biggest highlights of the film.

The Last Jedi continues a bold and exciting momentum for the new trilogy of Star Wars films, but in the end, it's the most uneven of the new spate. A large chunk of the film just did nothing for me: a waste of talented actors and valuable screentime in its most tedious plotline, it seemed for a long time that The Last Jedi wouldn't be able to pull things together. However, the dynamite third act injects a whole new life not only into the film, but the franchise itself.

GRADE: B