Depending on who you ask and what era they grew up during, any given entry in the Star Wars saga will either be fiercely loved or passionately hated, and no amount of persuasion from the opposite side of the argument will change the others mind. And while for the most part depending on who you ask, the least liked Star Wars saga films will be the same across the board. That is until the release of Episode 8 in the Star Wars saga unofficially titled the ‘Skywaker Saga’ The Last Jedi, splitting the fandom young and old right down the middle creating a civil war type rift that will alter the franchise going forward.
Age or era doesn’t matter when people vehemently express how they feel about The Last Jedi.
Picking right up where The Force Awakens left off, writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper, Breaking Bad) steps right into the cockpit to take over control of this middle entry in this new trilogy of films. After the explosive burst of John Williams’ score paired with the familiar crawl finishes catching us up on recent events or better yet, outlining whats to come, Johnson drops us in on the sinister first order coming out of hyperspace to capture the rebel scum off guard. In doing so, The Last Jedi immediately sets itself apart from others in the franchise. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin captures the horror of seeing a star destroyer magically appear out of nowhere from the perspective of someone on a planet racing against time.
There’s a sense of urgency to be had – time is of the essence as the chokehold of the first order is suffocating the resistance’s spirit down at an alarming rate. Rian Johnson’s skill as a director shines the brightest because the pace picks up and rarely slows down to let the heroes catch their breath. For 152 minutes, The Last Jedi becomes a story of survival by any means and the atmosphere (or lack thereof in the vacuum of space) from all angles keeps the thrusters at full power. In this moment, the only hope the resistance led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) has is to escape with as many people as possible.
They are the spark after all.
Once all surviving ships make it into space, the game is on – the resistance jumps to hyperspace only for the first order to follow right on their heels. They tracked them through hyperspace, something once thought impossible is now true, the first order is more dangerous than the Empire. The situation couldn’t be more dire for all involved and a simple game of cat and mouse subverts the expectations a Star Wars film carries on its shoulders making it the central plot device to push the story forward.
But for some like captain Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), simply flying on auto pilot out of the reach of the First Order’s cannons is not good enough – precious lives and fuel are wasted while the resistance fleet gets picked off one by one. Only Poe fails to see the bigger picture and instead takes matters into his own hands when Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) decide to embark on a side quest to give the resistance extra breathing room. They’ll need it. Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley) on the remote planet Ahch-To that famed Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) self-isolated himself on fails to recruit him for the fight. Luke in his grief for his failing Ben Solo (Adam Driver) has shut off his connection to the force.
Hamill and the late Fisher in their performances remind us all why they are the ones who started this franchise. Yedlin’s up close shots capture the emotions given through longing looks that stare into our souls. I don’t think I can ever get Hamill’s eyes out of my brain. If The Force Awakens was Han’s story to complete, The Last Jedi is Luke’s. Johnson writes Luke with added depth to him that only elevates the character beyond what has been done by the end of Return of the Jedi. This is a Luke who has let go of the all the anger and frustration of the past and instead reacts in defense – putting a stop to evil before it can fully take control. Luke in The Last Jedi is broken, willing to isolate to reduce the damage he caused. Tossing the lightsaber over his shoulder may have been a slick joke but its meaning goes way beyond our understanding of Luke’s frame of mind.
In doing so, Johnson’s screenplay digs deep into the mythology George Lucas created – the age of Jedi are no more and Luke transitions into the role of Yoda (Frank Oz), training Rey to control her connection to the living and breathing embodiment of the force. In many ways The Last Jedi mirrors its fellow middle film Empire in that regard. Rey faces several trials in her search for answers on the remote planet that don’t get answered fully. And those answers don’t make or break the film. But then more questions can be asked – one specifically that keeps repeating on me. Why does Rey need to be special? What is the point for her to come from a known linage? Will it make the fight easier for her and the resistance as a whole?
The question of who Rey’s parents are was first introduced in The Force Awakens which is her motivation for leaving Jakku in the first place. The last name of Skywalker comes with a lot of baggage. Kylo Ren is a Vader extremist, desperately clinging to living up to the name and those expectations of power and he fails remarkably every time he takes control. One family has been the center of this universe since the very first film in 1977 so being a nobody with extraordinary power is what will keep the franchise from getting stale. To Johnson’s point, the simplicity of Rey’s parents being Junkers who lived and died in the dessert of Jakku makes Rey infinitely more interesting as the lead heroine.
It’s a risk worth taking that sticks the landing if it contradicts what Abrams has set up with his installment.
The Last Jedi takes risks from a franchise that normally plays it by the book. For one, the way sound is utilized from a technical standpoint is outstanding. From the opening battle in which an expendable character barely does her job to the absence of it for a brief yet powerful moment during a turning point for the resistance gives the film that sense of urgency – this fight for control that has played out for decades has been full of sound. Taking the sound away and distorting it makes the impact of the moment when Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes action that much more memorable.
Anyone who’s anyone has an opinion on The Last Jedi. I for one see what Johnson does with all the risks as a step forward for the franchise, finding them rewarding while there are plenty who would happily disagree.
Far from perfect, Johnson’s script becomes too convoluted in the films second act making the 2 and a half hour runtime stretch itself beyond its limit. Characters are undervalued and underused in an ensemble that expands and manages to shift focus away from those previously established to new characters. That fast pace that begins the film loses some edge to it needed to carry over into the third act on a brand new planet full of white salt and a breathtaking display of bright color and action set pieces. In my books, John Williams is 8-8 with his scores while Rian Johnson gets the credit for delivering a Star Wars story that defies expectation. Hope doesn’t belong to the Skywalker name; hope can be found in unexpected places by those willing to fight for their destiny and make a name for themselves.
Screenplay By: Rian Johnson
Directed By: Rian Johnson
Music By: John Williams
Cinematography: Steve Yedlin
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern
Where to Watch: Disney Plus
Edited By: Bob Ducsay
Release Date: December 15, 2017
Running Time: 2 Hours 32 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 91%
Based On: Star Wars by George Lucas