That’s how you move a story forward.
I was apprehensive about Rian Johnson directing a major installment in one of Western cinema’s most iconic franchises (I had issues with Looper), but I needn’t have worried—despite sometimes packing in more stories and ideas than it can give careful attention to, The Last Jedi solidly improves on its predecessor by being one thing from start to finish: unpredictable.
Despite taking a nihilistic approach to The Force Awakens’ events—even without Starkiller Base, the First Order is just as dangerous as ever—the plot gets off to a simple but strong start with a newly relevant Poe Dameron commandering a bombing run against an overwhelming force, with some courage thrown in among recklessness and a lot of sacrifice. As miscellaneous heroes cheer a short-term victory, General Leia mourns her myriad losses. (On another note, the movie uses Carrie Fisher well, giving her a remarkable amount of screen time along with a dedication in the credits.) Part of the film’s credibility lies in it adopting a slightly smaller scale than some of the previous main entries, similar to what made Rogue One so poignant. The stakes have been lowered from destroying entire planets on a whim to throwing into question individual lives we see grow, argue, and mature.
The flip side of this is that while the film uses its characters (good, evil, and a mix of both) very well, it has so many threads and subplots that at times it can become slightly difficult to follow, especially since unlike Rogue One, all these various threads aren’t heading toward a previously established, unavoidable conclusion. The story is worth the effort of understanding it, though—ace pilot Poe Dameron feels more genuinely important to the story instead of taking a backseat to Rey and Finn; Rey herself is treated more realistically, being given time to actually sit down and learn advice from someone older and wiser, even with her powers and her anger still growing; Finn has a more careful plot arc (and a new friend) instead of quickly going from “what have I done” to “woohoo kill the bad guys.”
The villains are also interesting, from Domhnall Gleeson’s deliciously evil General Hux to a more conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, also from this year’s excellent Silence) and several other foes that make up for their lack of depth by simply being fun to watch. Poe is probably the most notable improvement, thanks to a bigger personal conflict that places him opposite a new superior whose actions and long-term plans are so inscrutable as to call their competence and even their allegiance into question.
The film’s willingness to toy with and even deconstruct established personalities is noteworthy: General Leia has let her caring side replace her sarcasm, and another returning character’s surprising cynicism about the galaxy around him and even about the nature of the central light/dark duality makes part of the story resemble a version of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, except here it’s arguably more palatable to a wide audience by being more conventionally exciting and less somber. The film is at its best when either side’s leadership and hierarchy are thrown into disarray, which happens more than once throughout the story, and taking place over a short period of time seems to help the plot stay focused. Despite a few surprising cameos, characters don’t feel shoehorned into the story, which usually helps previous deaths and disappearances stay relevant since the film rarely dips into “remember-me?” fan service.
Though the art design remains gorgeous, there is an odd mid-film scene that is best described as a visit to a casino (complete with cantina-style music) followed by an animal stampede, though the treatment of one particularly shifty character feels more realistic and less arbitrarily forgiving than I’m used to seeing in fiction, which was certainly welcome.
The action scenes look amazing, from the fast-paced but cleanly edited dogfights (easy to follow so long as you can remember what ship designs belong to which side) to the melee battles on the ground. Exchanges of blaster fire don’t usually get emphasized as much, though some later scenes take place on a planet whose unusual mineral composition makes the ground look like it’s bleeding whenever anything scrapes or abrades it, which is used for an impressive if somewhat contrived artistic effect. The mystical Force remains smartly used, and there’s more focus on acting skill than on fancy computer-generated graphics, similar to how various Marvel films have had to make magical gesturing not look silly.
Alien diversity has long been a highlight of the series, and the various animals are impressive to behold whether they’re a practical effect or not. The most interesting standout, possibly due to only being seen once, is a sort of ‘cow’ whose milk can be drunk right away. There’s a running gag regarding a cute animal species, but they’re never intrusive or annoying in their multiple appearances, thanks to never speaking and never looking out of place.
Audio and music live up to the series’ high standards but bring few surprises. There’s no repetitive Rogue One alarm, but weapon lock-on sounds still do a great job of bringing nostalgia, as do the iconic sounds of lightsabers. There is one particular scene in the movie that uses color and a near-utter lack of sound to produce one of the coolest effects I’ve ever seen. A lot of scenes like shoving large objects toward the camera, especially to shock (Star Destroyers are easy to intimidate with), or perhaps to placate viewers like me who paid extra for 3D glasses. There’s a really nice take on the classic “two suns” image.
The acting is excellent all around, doubly necessary when a lot of scenes don’t rely on noise or dialogue, though one very brief and easily missed moment has some kids whooping for joy like it’s Episode I all over again. It’s not jarring, and the film as a whole seems self-aware of its mood and atmosphere, never letting cute or comedic moments undermine the seriousness of the story.
Conclusion: A tremendous installment that honors its legacy without resting on it.
Even to the point of sometimes feeling overcrowded, The Last Jedi is one of the finest and most ambitious sequels I’ve ever seen, and it becomes such without feeling like a retread of The Empire Strikes Back or a story we’ve seen in large part before. Characters who felt underutilized in The Force Awakens often gain new significance (or at least more charisma) here, and even the title of that film feels more appropriate here than it did, especially in one inspiring scene at the film’s end.
“Resistance” has taken on a newfound real-world significance in the two years since we last had a main-series Star Wars entry, and while this film very wisely avoids any incorporation of real-world politics, the tonal implications still briefly appear, affecting the atmosphere of one character’s major speech early on. (Thinking of a few desperate heroes with the moral high ground reminds me—there is a compelling melee battle that makes me think of Revenge of the Sith’s climactic battle, only with the morality and the climate reversed.)
To say I had my doubts about Rian Johnson’s readiness for this series would be an understatement, but he and an excellent cast and crew handily surpassed my expectations, from the writing to the effects, and the acting. Despite a few odd design decisions and occasionally feverish pacing that arguably works better than it “should,” the film stays focused from start to finish and is a reward to behold.