Star Wars: The Last Jedi is like no other film before it.
I think that is the only statement I can make about the eighth episode in the Skywalker saga upon which everyone will be able to agree. Writer/director Rian Johnson, of 2012’s Looper, has crafted an expedition into mysteries of the Force and the fate of the galaxy that will leave fans debating for years to come, about both the questions it raises and the way it tells its story.
Personally, I loved it. Where does it fall on my ranking of Star Wars films? At the moment, I’d say that’s a bit like asking me to rank a cupcake on a list of favorite fruits; although delicious, it’s so different as to defy comparison. But this film is no dessert; this bittersweet epic has more substance than its 2015 predecessor, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, leaving my appetite more than whetted.
Okay, enough food metaphors…you’re hungry for details (sorry, last one). The Last Jedi delivers on Johnson’s promises of a character piece, which casts each member of its pantheon of protagonists (with legacy characters returning alongside the stars of The Force Awakens while three key new faces enter the fray) into a crucible of moral trial in ways we haven’t quite seen from Star Wars before. Where The Force Awakens was a fun romp but somewhat predictable, The Last Jedi takes risks. The punchy dialogue, even more humorous and plentiful than The Force Awakens, pervades even the tensest scenes, but that’s not to say The Last Jedi lacks appropriate gravitas when necessary. Just ask the Disney security guard who had to ask the sobbing mess that was this writer if he was okay at the end of the screening. This film hurts, and it hurts so good.
While the film is certainly well-written, it is the acting by the core cast that takes The Last Jedi to new heights. With heightened stakes for each of these characters, we get into their heads more and more. Supporting roles in the previous film, like Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron and Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux, play more pivotal roles this time around, while our beloved late princess Carrie Fisher gives perhaps her strongest performance yet as a significantly more prominent General Leia Organa, at the helm of a Resistance not sure how to proceed without its Republic backing following the destruction of its capital during The Force Awakens. Equally responsible for the emotional weight of the film is Mark Hamill, returning as Luke Skywalker (visually and verbally this time). As the titular character, Hamill portrays a broken, troubled Luke Skywalker with beautiful nuance along every inch of his complex character arc.
Let me answer the ubiquitous question now: it is not a rehash of The Empire Strikes Back. Sure, trailers showed us Jedi training, speeders racing towards walkers, and other familiar visuals, but apart from scattered, momentary story beats, the similarities end there. Where it was said that The Force Awakens needed to revisit the 1977 original Star Wars: A New Hope’s Campbellian hero’s journey structure as a springboard from which to dive into a new story, we are now in the freefall, with all its flips and twists. The Last Jedi is as careful to preserve its mythic foundations as it is to break new ground, with characters taking unexpected but ultimately logical progressive steps towards the story’s stunning conclusion, upon which I can’t wait to see Episode IX, to be helmed by J.J. Abrams for a 2019 release, build.
I can, however, think of one area in which The Last Jedi fell short. As was the case with the Jakku wildlife in The Force Awakens, some creatures, including the porgs, are occasionally accomplished with practical effects where CGI might actually be more believable. I’m not sure if this is for nostalgia’s sake or to continue setting the film apart from Lucas’s prequel trilogy (I’m inclined to believe the former, as this film acknowledges its predecessors in dialogue more overtly than the last), but a questionable alien creature, accomplished via a practical effect, it would seem, actually broke my immersion during what, as written, should have been my favorite scene of the film, but could have passed for a high-end fan film were it not for the human cast. Regarding the porgs, the issues are infrequent, and I am still firmly #TeamPorg. The vulptices, crystal foxes featured in promotional material, are stunning nonetheless, perhaps the best creature effect of the entire film.
Where visuals may be lacking in terms of the animatronics, the stunning worlds of the film more than compensate, while keeping smooth the journeys between them. From the salt wastes of Crait, rich in whites and reds, to the verdant island temple of Ahch-To, to the warm corridors of the Resistance fleet and the stark halls of the First Order’s war machine, The Last Jedi makes certain we know exactly where we are at any point in the action, despite a steady flow of creative transitions and smash-cuts. This is, of course, underscored masterfully by an eighth virtuosic score by John Williams. While new themes are understandably less abundant than in The Force Awakens, it is new arrangements and experimentation with the most familiar themes that perhaps best represent The Last Jedi’s fusion of old and new.
I think it is safe to say that I adored The Last Jedi, despite a few flaws. I think it is also safe to say that the film will provoke much debate, including as to whether or not it broadens or shatters the definition of a Star Wars Episode, whether that’s a good thing or not, and whether Rian Johnson deserves the helm of a new Star Wars trilogy, such as he’s been granted. Not everyone will love such a strange, bold, risk-taking, new kind of Star Wars story. But I believe this discussion is to the credit of The Last Jedi, as while it would have been impossible to deliver the sequel to please everyone, it certainly delivers a fast-paced and engaging adventure that is, in the opinion of this writer, worthy of the Star Wars canon. Just go in with a mind as open as the maw of a sarlacc (pre-Special-Edition-beak), and heed the words of the last Jedi: “This is not going to go the way you think!”
Star Wars: The Last Jedi releases in theaters across the United States on Friday, December 15.