(2017—Director: Rian Johnson)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“What do you know about the Force?” … “It’s a power that Jedi have that allows them to control people…and make things float.” … “Impressive. Every word in that sentence was wrong.” — Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Rey (Daisy Ridley)
Potential spoilers below
What can one say about Star Wars in 2017? Ever since the release of the first film back in 1977, this brainchild of George Lucas has reached such a degree of inescapable and well-entrenched awareness that its fans relish the freedom to theorize future story additions and character connections, revisit the classic original trilogy (1977-1983), and gripe on a daily basis at the ill-conceived prequel trilogy (1999-2005). The fans feel most protective of the brand in general, even after Disney purchased it from Lucas in 2012. Episode VIII—The Last Jedi (hereafter referred to as The Last Jedi or Episode 8), with little mercy or regret, tears through all of that. In doing so, it has become the first Star Wars entry whose favor from critics outweighs that of the fans. To that and to the excellent-as-usual technical crafts on display, I can only stand and shower writer-director Rian Johnson and company with a well-deserved applause.
In the immediate aftermath of Episode VII—The Force Awakens, the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, in her final role) rush to their new planetary base via hyperspace. They arrive with limited fuel left, but the First Order’s fleet arrives soon after, proving their ability to track the Resistance even at lightspeed. The ongoing space battle results in many Resistance casualties and renders General Organa incapacitated, leaving Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) with no choice but to let the dwindling Resistance fleet coast at a safe distance from the First Order. Demoted ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), his robot BB-8, former First Order stormtrooper turned Resistance fighter Finn (John Boyega), and mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) disapprove of Holdo’s passive action, so they hatch a plan to disable the First Order’s tracking device themselves.
Meanwhile, Force-sensitive scavenger turned Resistance fighter Rey (Daisy Ridley) confronts the aged Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on his remote hideaway planet. Rey seeks to develop her Force abilities under Luke’s guidance. The memory of Luke’s nephew Ben Solo’s conversion to the dark side to become the ruthless Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) still haunts Luke, however. His sullen outlook towards the Jedi legacy struggles to improve, especially once Rey starts sharing telepathic visions with the dangerous adversary.
As the longest Star Wars installment at 152 minutes (surpassing 2002’s Episode II—Attack of the Clones by ten minutes), The Last Jedi is a sprawling middle act to the saga’s sequel trilogy. Episode 8 is no mere nostalgic reorientation like 2015’s The Force Awakens, but it too has its fair share of visual callbacks to the original trilogy. Episode 8 is bookended with the hero faction evacuating in haste at the story’s start, while the ending occurs on a planet blanketed in white and involving trench warfare against the building-size enemy walkers—elements of the opening to 1980’s Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back (the original trilogy’s middle act). Rey and Luke’s screen time on his secluded island hideaway recalls his training with hermit Jedi master Yoda (Frank Oz) from Episode V as well. A throne room setting hearkens back to a similar setting from 1983’s Episode VI—Return of the Jedi.
Despite those echoes, The Last Jedi blasts the cinematic sense with a refreshing gust of mint. Much of that freshness comes from how Episode 8 takes each and every expectation of any given Star Wars fan sitting in an auditorium and tears them asunder. The movie does this on multiple occasions to stress the stark reality of disappointment, the loosening of ties with imperfect legacy, that patient resolve can outsmart reckless action, and that not every person is linked by fateful blood ties. These lessons catch heroes, villains, heroes with villains, and audiences unaware upon facing them. Even the plot segment in which Finn and Rose sneak to a casino resort planet in search of a codebreaker and instead return with a shifty Benicio Del Toro—admittedly the film’s least engaging part—serves those points while also commenting a bit on the galaxy’s military-industrial complex.
Beyond the sequel trilogy’s young stars and seasoned additions, The Last Jedi’s real revelation is Mark Hamill. His sobering performance first smolders opposite Daisy Ridley, before culminating in a spectacular, triumphant, and poignant showdown with Adam Driver. While open in his reluctance to take on the winter phase of his iconic character as it exists here, Hamill’s persevering commitment to writer-director Rian Johnson’s vision pays off beautifully.
I liken blockbuster franchise entries to hamburgers. Warren Beatty once remarked that many filmmakers secretly hope that the popularity of hamburgers would generate newer and bolder dishes. Instead, Beatty concludes, “it just finances more hamburgers.” J.J. Abrams concocted one of cinema’s more fulfilling comfort foods in 2015’s The Force Awakens. Next, Gareth Edwards deconstructed a classic dish with 2016’s Rogue One and compensated the course’s overall blandness with a heart-wrenching dessert (i.e., the movie’s last five minutes). Then, Disney permitted into their kitchen writer-director Rian Johnson—the man who delivered high school neo-noir with 2005’s Brick, reinvigorated cinematic time travel with 2012’s Looper, and directed three of Breaking Bad’s finest episodes. Johnson reemerges from the kitchen with a cinematic course that is as thoroughly subversive as it is deeply felt. As expected, some fans lack the acquired taste needed to appreciate it at once, and because this is Star Wars, they accuse his food of shaming the restaurant.
I, for one, refuse to stand by such accusations. Episode VIII—The Last Jedi is extraordinary and challenging blockbuster cinema from a source normally attached to the safe and familiar. It is for glorious and unforgettable spectacles like Rian Johnson’s Star Wars offering that I go to the theater.
Be prepared with Episode IX, Mr. Abrams. Come the weekend before Christmas 2019, the world will gather at their local multiplexes, hungry for an experience beyond mere nostalgia. Mr. Johnson has done his part, and now is the time for you to do yours.
(Parental Note: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.” It has also been rated 12A by the BBFC and rated A-II (Adults and older children) by the Catholic News Service for containing “frequent but bloodless combat violence, a scene of torture, a couple of mild oaths, and a few crass terms.” As for the Force, it is best to regard it as an imperfect fusion of western and eastern spiritualities that functions strictly as the Star Wars fantasy world’s vivifying source of life and of mystical powers in select individuals.)