Note: This is a spoiler-free review.
I’ve been a “Star Wars” fangirl since I was 4 years old, which means I tend to set astronomically high expectations for films in the franchise. There’s a certain level of storytelling and excitement that I expect from any movie that shares the name, and I often reserve a massive amount of healthy skepticism towards any and all sequels. To that end, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” may have seemingly insurmountable hurdles when it comes to pleasing diehard fans, once again splitting us into two camps à la “Rogue One” vs. “The Force Awakens.”
For me, “The Last Jedi” is not a colossal disappointment like “Rogue One,” but it’s also not an all-out expectations buster like “The Force Awakens” either. It’s as good as you’d expect and it’s as good as it needs to be, and that’s more than enough to appease discriminating fans from both ends of the spectrum.
This go around the talented Rian Johnson, a man well-suited to the Star Wars universe, steps in as the writer and director. I’m happy that Johnson brings his own style to the story and several of the large scale, eye-popping set pieces are executed with deft precision, but I left the theater unable to shake one clear opinion: he’s a great fit, but he’s no J.J. Abrams.
Numerous scenes are clouded with an aura of apprehension, giving the overall impression that Johnson was nervous about being handed the reigns to this project. Much of the film feels like he’s trying too hard not to disappoint fans or living in trepidation of taking one false step, often overloading parts of the story with unnecessary excess in an attempt to ensure we all ‘get our money’s worth.’ There’s a confidence that I feel is missing direction-wise, especially for a film with this level of significance.
All of this nervous energy manifests itself through awkward humor, adding fuel to the fire of the unwelcome Hollywood trend of trying to turn everything into a “wink, wink” comedy. Some of the one-liners are funny enough to stick but the humor doesn’t feel organic and comes across as stiff and its self parody out of place. The series of uneven wisecracks sets an unpleasant tone for the dark places the story eventually goes, and I think that hurts the movie overall. A little appropriately placed humor is fine, but I’d rather be given a Star Wars film that takes itself seriously.
Comparisons to “The Empire Strikes Back” are inevitable, as are the folks who are going to start a verbal tug of war over this “new direction” for the Star Wars saga. It may serve to advance the mythology of the story, yet it doesn’t quite nail the attempted fan-friendly homage to the original on which it is based.
It can prove to be a real challenge to craft a film review without revealing any specific plot details or spoilers, but never fear: the secrets are safe here. I can tell you that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) returns with a major role in this story, a grizzled man burdened with his existence as a legend and one who is increasingly unable to cope with his own failures. Luke lives like a human version of Yoda and Obi-Wan rolled into one, a wise old hermit with a daily routine that’s a bore for the man who may very well be the last Jedi.
There’s a satisfying balance between the back and forth chapters of each character’s story (although some are almost totally ignored and given little to do), with Luke and Rey (Daisy Ridley) partnered up for most of the first half, and gung-ho appearances from trigger happy flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), conflicted villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), scenery chewing Genral Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), heroic ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and Mr. Personality himself, BB-8. The story seamlessly introduces potentially iconic new characters to the galaxy, with the very best being Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and petty thief hacker DJ (Benicio Del Toro). I was most disappointed in Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), a throwaway part for an actress who deserves better.
The movie starts out in a grand Hollywood fashion with a deliciously over-the-top (and CGI-heavy) opening action sequence that gradually unfolds into a fundamental character study between those on the Dark Side and our heroes leading the Rebellion. There’s a lot of jumping back and forth between multiple story lines and the rapid-fire reintroduction of our favorite big names from “The Force Awakens” builds excitement with a breakneck speed.
The plot is fresh and new yet remains faithful to the Star Wars films of the past but for the most part, this film is going to prove to be a frustrating exercise for Star Wars enthusiasts. While you are going to get answers, they may not be the answers you’re hoping for. (Is that nonspecific enough for those of you worried about spoilers)?
Johnson aims high with his screenplay and tackles heavy themes like the crushing business of war and the shattering sorrow that can come from losing all hope, but he ends on the idea that we should abandon fighting what we hate and instead focus our attention on saving what we love. It’s a great message that serves the story well.
The film is disappointing in its overuse of CGI rather than practical effects, creating cluttered visuals that may be sleek and modern looking yet sometimes feel choppy and disjointed (especially towards the beginning of the film). Even worse is the downright weird decision to intersperse pointless computer animated characters like big-eyed fluffball Porgs and “crystal critter” wolves who serve no purpose except to look cool and sell toys. It’s a not-so-subtle attempt to keep kids interested (hello, circa 1983 Ewoks!) because just when the film feels like it starts to lag, it becomes a case of “Hey, look over there! More doe-eyed Porgs!”
While it’s much easier to point out the film’s faults, there’s still a whole lot to love about “The Last Jedi.” The characters are strong and well-written, especially Rose (seriously, I am fangirl crushing so hard on her right now). Carrie Fisher’s untimely death sometimes overshadows her character but is handled with great grace and dignity, and the fact that she’s gone in real life makes many of her scenes as Princess Leia haunting yet eerily appropriate. There are lots of fun Easter egg surprises for longtime fans that are bookended with a handful of trademark stand up and cheer moments. And get ready to hang on to your hats and lightsabers because last third of the film is particularly strong when it becomes a nearly edge-of-your-seat, nail biting display of joyous blockbuster escapism.
It may be a tad too long but overall this is a solid entry in the Star Wars lineage that should please fans of all ages.