I must confess, dear viewer, I did not expect to find myself in this position with this film. A new Star Wars film has graced our presence once more, but the reaction online seems…divisive at best. I’ve heard everything from people calling this the “best entry since The Empire Strikes Back” to “this is WORST than the prequels” to “this is the worst film of 2017.” Now you goddamn know that the latter was likely bullshit, but I will caution that this film is definitely not in my Top 10 of the year material either. So let’s break it down in concrete, good ol’ fashioned critical terms to figure out if Star Wars: The Last Jedi is worth a look.
Following mere seconds from the end of the last movie, we find that the evil First Order, an enormous military organization led by the powerful Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), is hot on the trails of a fledgling resistance movement led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). After a desperate last minute effort by hot shot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the Resistance is barely keeping the First Order at bay in a trip through space leaving everyone involved desperate for salvation. This leads ex-First Order storm trooper Finn (John Boyega) to team up with a Resistance mechanic named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a last ditch mission to save the Resistance. Meanwhile, prodigy user of the mystical and powerful Force, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has finally discovered the location of the legendary Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), to rally him to the Resistance’s cause. Too bad he doesn’t much care to take part in the latest galactic civil war; and worse still, after years of regret in creating the monstrous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Skywalker is determined to die as a hermit and allow the ways of the Jedi to finally end.
There. I have given you a basic synopsis without diving into spoilers or exposing anything that hasn’t been shown in trailers or revealing anything that wasn’t discussed in The Force Awakens. Now let’s all take it deep breath, and just talk about the movie presented. Not how it ranks among the other Star Wars films, let’s just talk about whether this is a good movie to watch. The answer is yes, BUT the reasons I like it so much are practically guaranteed to cause controversy among critics and fans of the source material. And don’t get me wrong, this film does have issues that I will address head on, but I’ll also explain why they do not merit a lower rating. So let’s do this thing.
First of all, I’m a big fan of character development in film series. It’s why I adore the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s why I genuinely have fun with the Fast & Furious series, and why I appreciated other franchises like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings. And this new batch of characters in the “Sequel Trilogy” are no exception. I found Rey to be a great central protagonist with a genuinely unique arc who finds so much more intriguing things to this installment than previously. I find the villain to be genuinely fascinating because he’s conflicted about what he’s doing, you understand why he’s doing all these horrible things, but you also see the flaws in his logic that separate him from our heroes. Finn is a solid comedy relief type character in that “being goofy” isn’t his only trait. Like Sokka from Avatar: The Last Airbender, he’s both the butt of jokes but knows when to throw down to protect his friends. Also, the new character of Rose was a welcomed addition to the cast as she serves as both a fan girl of the heroes and one with clear motivation following the death of her loved ones to protect her new friends.
Honestly, the only character who disappointed me in this installment was Poe. And not because Oscar Isaac was bad in the role (he’s every bit as sexy and charismatic as he’s always been), but because the film contrives a character arc for him in a very sloppy manner. You see, he ends up butting heads with another Resistance commander named Holdo (Laura Dern), but the drama between the two feels genuinely forced (not a Star Wars pun). There was some decent set up for their confrontation, but both characters act…for lack of a better word: clumsily. Like, there were a dozen ways this same confrontation could have occurred and have a harder hitting emotional resonance for one of these characters by film’s end, but the film takes a contrived route instead. Disappointing? Yes. Deal-breaker for the film as a whole? Hell no.
And the reason the film as a whole works is through the combined efforts of watching the stories of Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, Rose, Luke Skywalker and General Organa have fully-fleshed out narrative arcs that pack plenty of solid surprises and genuine introspection. I won’t go into detail as to why these arcs work to avoid spoilers (I’ll save that for a separate article this week), but they each begin the film as one character and change drastically by the end of the movie. They evolved, they grew, they learned things about themselves and others they never knew before, and some of them have a clear goal going forward…if they make it. Do bear in mind, not all of these characters make it out alive and the ones that do suffer deep physical and emotional scars. Hell, the body count on side characters is staggering compared to even Rogue One. It’s great because it keeps the stakes high, and the tension palpable just the way I like it.
Much of this comes down to director-writer Rian Johnson, taking over for JJ Abrams. And thank God in heaven that a devious director was given the reins to the Star Wars franchise, because his script takes some major and significant turns without the bullshit teasing JJ Abrams was so bloody proud of in The Force Awakens. I’m aware people are “fond” of this “mystery box” coined by Abrams, but I freaking hate that. It’s pure marketing guile and nothing more. Worse still, it does not lead to satisfying narrative pay offs (see the Khan “reveal” in Star Trek into Darkness). I also do not appreciate set ups for future installment that may or may not lead to something special (hello Batman v. Superman, turns out that stupid dream sequence didn’t mean jack after all). Johnson, instead, opts to tell you concrete and definitive stories for each of his characters while also delivering impressive visuals you truly haven’t seen in a space opera before. It was bold, it was unique, and above all, it was fun as hell.
Which brings us to the really solid writing that hits about 95% of the time. The remainder I didn’t think was solid due to a very, very unconventional second act. You see, this is the point the film diverges in three plot lines. Two of these story lines were entertaining to watch and have satisfying pay offs by the end of the movie. The third one (yep, the Poe one), has a decent conclusion but it doesn’t feel as earned as the other two were. Again, this is because there are elements to this story that were very distracting that they deeply distracted me. But even then, the third one doesn’t have as much dedication to it as the other two (it takes up about 15% of the very lengthy run time), and at least ends where it supposed to without dropping the ball completely. Side note: I’ve heard from multiple critiques that one of these plot lines goes “nowhere;” I very much disagree with that assessment. The film very clearly shows its hand as to what the point of this plot line was, to the lengths that a character straight up says what the point of said plot line was.
And weak plot line aside, Johnson at least gave the character plenty of good lines to make him stick out in your mind all the more. Honestly, I was really impressed with how deftly the film handled its dramatic moments and its comedic moments. I’ve heard other bemoan that this film was too funny, and to these people I ask “did you not see the Original Trilogy?” There’s a ton of choice one-liners and dry jokes the characters lob at each other in those films, so it’s not unexpected. Hell, I practically welcome humor in big budget movies because they remind you how human these characters can be. If this was a dour affair the whole way through, we would be knocking around Batman v. Superman‘s dreary neighborhood again, and there’s no way I’m going to be okay with that. Further, the writing knows how to pace itself so when shit gets real, you feel a genuine sense of emotion.
Most of the big emotional scenes belong to Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, and credit to the veteran actor is due because this is easily his finest live action performance to date. He’s impressed me for years with his impressive voice work over the decades; but here, Hamill made me give a shit about Luke Skywalker in a way that I hadn’t before. He was complex, he made some seriously difficult choices, and he’s forced to confront these choices again and again. Once again, I’ve heard others criticize what was done with his character the loudest out of all the other critiques. Well while I can’t convince you that I prefer this different character interpretation, I won’t stand for anyone calling Hamill’s performance unaffecting. He got me good and he’s impressed me in a way few actors accomplished this year.
Finally, Carrie Fisher delivers a fine swan song of a performance. So much so, that I’m deeply sad that we lost her, as I not only saw her potential in future Star Wars films, but also other movies in general. She knew how to give you the goods for comedy and she knew how to pull back and give you a quietly amazing character moment. May she rest in peace…and swimming in all the praise she so badly deserved.
Of course, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and Kelly Marie Tran all act amazingly in this. Tran is a genuine find of an actress, Boyega continues his streak of charismatic roles, and Isaac is once again the object of my man-crush desires. But the film has some amazing moments thanks to Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, particularly their interactions with each other. Once again, no spoilers, but goddamn did I see something truly amazing when these two acted.
Surprise surprise, I enjoyed a Star Wars film. But again, given my love of character-driven narratives, balanced humor and drama, great action set pieces, impressive narrative decisions, and combinations of all the above….that’s not really surprising coming from me. Again 15% of this film could have been improved, but that didn’t distract from so many other great moments that are leaving a lasting impression on me as we speak. I’m giving this film a low…