STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Directed by Rian Johnson, 152 minutes, 2017, USA)
BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC With Thursday’s release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson picks up the reigns of the space opera mega-franchise left by J.J. Abrams. Given the bleakness of Looper and cleverness of Brick, I was more than a bit curious to see what Johnson would do in the Disney® sandbox. Surprisingly enough not only did Johnson make it through making the film without being fired — no small achievement, that — but he turned in a film that feels very much like a Star Wars adventure while adding a much-needed layer of complexity to the characters we met all too briefly in The Force Awakens.
Since the decimation of the Republic’s capital at the end of The Force Awakens, the First Order has established dominance over the galaxy. When we catch up with the final remnants of the Republic — the de facto Resistance — led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), they are on the run from the ominously reptilian Supreme Leader Snoke and his terrifying star fleet of mega-destroyers, who are on the cusp of wiping out the Resistance once and for all. In a plot point that feels cribbed from an episode of Battlestar Galactica, The First Order now has the ability to track the Rebel fleet through their lightspeed jumps making it only a matter of time before the Resistance fleet runs out of fuel and is overtaken by the First Order. It’s a race against time as Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) cobble together a plan to sneak onto Snoke’s ship to shut off the tracking device just long enough for the Resistance fleet to slip away. In the meantime, Daisy Ridley’s Rey finds she has a much more daunting task ahead of her, trying to convince Luke Skywalker — who, fed up with intergalactic warfare, has self-exiled to the last redoubt of the Jedi on the oceanic planet Ahch-To — to help the Resistance and train her in the in the ways of The Force.
It’s very apparent Rian Johnson was having the time of his life here. The film is pure visual spectacle, with bigger space battles, more lightsaber duels and higher stakes; all barbed with a razor sharp humor. I can also see why Mark Hamill probably sat out the first film; he is a formidable presence on screen and here he often eclipses the young Ridley with his darkly humorous take on the exiled Jedi master. This dynamic plays into how we come to see this war between the Rebellion and the First Order and the conflict between Jedi and the Sith. It’s not simply black and white, but shades of gray. And sometimes the good guys do bad things. The film begins with a tragic example as Poe Dameron’s ego leads to the death of hundreds of rebels when he disobeys orders and takes on a massive First Order Dreadnought. These sentiments are later echoed by the career criminal DJ (Benicio Del Toro, who revisists the twitchy incomprehensibility of his breakout performance in The Usual Suspects) who lets our Resistance friends in on a little secret: there are those that have been profiting obscenely off of this war, selling arms to both sides, who have a vested interest in keeping it going as long as possible.
After that aforementioned spectacular opening battle sequence, The Last Jedi stumbles a bit trying to find its footing and advance the narrative all the while tying up all the loose ends left over from The Force Awakens. Once the film digs in however it delivers a story that proves to be more original and satisfying watch than its predecessor. It almost feels like Rian Johnson had most of the same issues with The Force Awakens we did — that it leaned too hard on the fan nostalgia crutch — and nowhere is this more apparent than when Snoke — who looks like a burn ward victim in a fancy bathrobe — berates Kylo Ren (the always excellent Adam Driver) for failing to vanquish Rey in the previous installment, belittling him as a Vader wannabe. J.J. Abrams is slated to direct the final installment in the Star Wars re-boot trilogy but after seeing how impressively Johnson course-corrected the series and cleared the board for the imminent endgame of the Skywalker saga, I’d rather see him finish what he’s started. The Last Jedi isn’t perfect but is easily everything a Star Wars fan could want that expands the SW universe into bold new realms while deftly invoking the films we love and remember from a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.