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There were those who felt that The Force Awakens was too much a retread and homage of A New Hope. There were those who complained that the veneration of the Star Wars canon present in the movie hindered it. There were those who did not find anything particularly revelatory in the themes of that film.
They will be hard pressed to level those same sorts of criticisms at The Last Jedi.
Like all Star Wars movies before it, The Last Jedi opens with the sounds of John Williams and a terrific space battle. Unlike many of the Star Wars movies before it, The Last Jedi defies expectation at almost every turn.
Writer/director Rian Johnson has put his stamp on the Star Wars universe in a way that no director (outside of George Lucas) has been willing (or allowed) to do. And let it be said that it is clear that Johnson owns and loves animals… the Porgs and the Vultpex (the so-called “crystal critters” are delightful creations and, while they may take up the same space as the Ewoks before them, they are not as silly as those tiny teddy bears. No. This is not George Lucas’ Star Wars, nor, for that matter, is it JJ Abrams’. This is a Star Wars we have not seen much of before (save, perhaps, in Rogue One): a Star Wars where simplicity and black and white morality are eschewed in favor of complexity and thematic exploration. Some of the choices Johnson made surprised me. Some of them unsettled me. Some I will have to think about before I know how I feel.
The Last Jedi challenged me in ways I did not expect, in ways I did not know a property with which I have been familiar my entire life could challenge me.
Johnson does remarkable work with the four, core new characters and Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren (calling him just “Kylo” does not quite cut it for me). Each undergoes an arc of development in the film and each of those arcs is fulfilling. He also introduces a new Rebel in Rose and both the character and Kelly Marie Tran, the actress who plays her, are great additions to the Star Wars universe. Both Laura Dern and Bencio Del Toro deserve mentions, too. To mention more about their characters might spoil the movie, so I will refrain. Both are terrific if not quite as central as Rose.
Daisy Ridley is, again, terrific as Rey. John Boyega shines as Finn and it is his character that provides the most energy to the movie. Oscar Issac’s Poe has much more to do in The Last Jedi than he did in The Force Awakens and that is a very good thing. And Adam Driver is magnetic, surprising and, ultimately, incredibly powerful as Kylo Ren. And he is shredded (did Johnson include a specific scene in The Last Jedi because of a certain Saturday Night Live sketch?).
Yes, Johnson does wonderful work with the new characters, but it is how he handles Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa that really impressed me. These are characters with 40 year histories and characters about whom many in the audience have deep opinions. Johnson makes them fresh and new and takes Luke and Leia in directions I did not anticipate.
We know this is Leia’s last appearance as, following the death of Carrie Fisher last winter, the Star Wars filmmakers have said they will not digitally recreate her for the next installment of the saga. The Last Jedi is a fitting send off to a beloved princess and Fisher seemed to relish her role as wise, but not stolid, leader.
Relish, too, is what Mark Hamill brings to his return as Luke Skywalker. It is possible he is the best thing in the movie. Rumor has it that he was unhappy with almost every choice Johnson made with Luke. If that is the case, it does not show. He embraces his return to Star Wars and imbues Luke with pathos, grandeur and a dash of humor.
The movie itself is surprisingly funny and Johnson balances the stakes (stakes that feel quite high) with more than enough humor and almost enough Porgs (and “Crystal Critters”) to please adults and children alike. There are laugh-out-loud moments sprinkled throughout The Last Jedi and it is a very good thing, too, because the movie overall is dark in tone and in content. While no Empire Strikes Back homage (it actually angles a bit closer to Return of the Jedi, in fact), it does share a certain bleakness with that second Star Wars sequel – and it keeps the audience in similar suspense throughout.
The Last Jedi is a more than worthy addition to the Star Wars canon. It treats its characters and its context with the appropriate respect while moving them forward into a new and unknown future. It pays just enough – and never too much – attention to fan service including moments that simply thrilled me. It inspires the audience to ask “what comes next?” We can only hope Episode IX will be as daring…
THE LAST JEDI receives FIVE Wide-Eyed Porgs out of a possible FIVE.