REVIEW: ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ is a first step into a larger world

Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill star in  Star Wars: The Last Jedi , directed by Rian Johnson.

Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill star in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson.

The idea of making changes to Star Wars may be one of the most controversial concepts in all of movie fandom. The debate entrenched itself twenty years ago with the release of the Special Edition versions of the original three films, and rages on to this day. Anyone who knows the franchise knows the old sore spots: Han vs. Greedo, CGI additions, Sy Snootles and many others. Somehow, a certain sect of the fans decided that the trilogy was a holy text, and to modify or expand on it was utter heresy.

Then came the prequels – a crusade by George Lucas to overexplain the parts of the story that he (and only he) felt needed to be filled in. Fast-forward again to two years ago, and J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens. On the whole, people really liked it (including me). It felt like the spirit had been restored to Star Wars, that we were getting a big reset to what we loved and bringing in new blood (both in front of and behind the camera). Sure, some grumbled that it hewed too closely to the original film, A New Hope. But I believed that having a female Force-sensitive character and two people of colour in the lead roles was an excellent method to set a classic story in a new context, and to open up the series in a way that Lucas’ re-edits could only aspire to.

How satisfying, then, to see the follow-up to The Force Awakens deliver on that promise. The Last Jedi proves that the franchise is a lot more flexible than some may have expected. Oddly enough, one of its most significant themes is failure: last-ditch plans go awry, searches for information end up fruitless, and characters give up their faith. Events don’t follow a familiar path. All of a sudden, one of the most straightforward (and lucrative) film franchises in history becomes more challenging to interpret. And it’s one of the most exciting things the series has done in years.

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) becomes possibly the most subtly shaded villain in the franchise.

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) becomes possibly the most subtly shaded villain in the franchise.

The story picks up where we left off. The Resistance, led by General Organa (Carrie Fisher), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) are on the run from Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order after blowing up Starkiller Base. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has tracked down Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the remote planet of Ahch-To, in an attempt to both bring him back to support the Resistance and to learn more about her nascent Force powers.

I won’t divulge much more than that, because where director Rian Johnson goes from there is packed with surprises, red herrings and bold narrative choices. If you did a good job of avoiding spoilers, seeing it all unfold in the theatre is a pretty special experience.

Johnson correctly perceives that as comforting as it is to have grand battles between good and evil, there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had in the gradient in between. Star Wars has often locked us into binary notions of Jedi versus Sith, or in the idea of a underdog pulling off an impossible assault against an overwhelming enemy. This time, we see characters make huge decisions far earlier than we’d expect, and just when it seems like a new alliance is forming, the tables are turned once again. We see characters learn that unwavering bravery isn’t always the right move, and that suicide missions can be just as wasteful as they are admirable. And we’re encouraged to look beyond the usual Star Wars factions to consider the masses in the middle: the wealthy profiteers from galactic conflicts and the people they oppress in subtler ways.

Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) must learn that there are other tactics than flying into battle.

Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) must learn that there are other tactics than flying into battle.

In terms of the mythology, The Last Jedi evolves that as well. We see new (and rather awe-inspiring) types of Force powers, a development that makes plenty of sense if you consider how much time has passed in this saga. Johnson also experiments with visuals: Rey observes the Force in a rapid-fire, time-lapse fashion, and a jaw-dropping starship encounter is rendered in an almost soundless sequence for maximum impact.

If there’s one thing that did annoy me about the movie, it’s the over-frequent intercutting between plotlines. Sometimes there are upwards of four different threads competing for attention, and the film has a habit of transitioning to a different scene just as the tension in the one at hand is building. But I’m also writing that having only seen the film once so far – I suspect that knowing the full scope of the film may make this structure easier to swallow in future viewings.

As the film reconnects us with a timeworn version of our original hero, Luke Skywalker, I’m reminded of Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) telling him, “You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.” At the time, it might have been a throwaway line. But it holds more meaning now. The line was repeated during Rey’s dream in The Force Awakens, and it reminds us that Star Wars is at its best not when it’s doing what it already knows, but when it moves into uncharted territory, just like A New Hope did when it introduced the whole universe in 1977.

At two different points in The Last Jedi, characters are asked important questions, and in their overconfident attempt to answer them, they demonstrate how little they really know. In time, certain viewers of The Last Jedi may find themselves in similar shoes: proven wrong by something that required a little more patience and focus.

The Last Jedi gets three and a half stars out of four.

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Stray thoughts

  • At least once, I half expected Luke to mutter something about millennials while he was matching wits with Rey.
  • Johnson seems to be less of a spectacle-driven director than Abrams: whereas The Force Awakens had lots of big vistas and energetic space battles, Johnson is more interested in filling his frame with close-ups.
  • The porgs, funny as they are, were on the knife’s edge of having too many appearances for my taste.