STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI * * * *
Starring Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac and Carrie Fisher. Written and directed by Rian Johnson.
“This isn’t going to go the way you think it is,” snarls grizzled old hermit Luke Skywalker halfway through writer-director Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, which for a Statement of Purposes makes a clever contrast with Max Von Sydow cooing “This will begin to make things right” at the start of J.J. Abrams’ gently placating The Force Awakens.
The ninth Star Wars film –which is somehow still only Episode VIII because they make these things all out of order and nobody can figure out how to number them anymore—is the most thrilling since the second (or fifth, depending on who’s doing the counting.) It’s a funny, rousing space adventure that sends the saga in surprising new directions and is by far the most elegantly crafted of all the films. Here’s the first Star Wars movie since Empire that you don’t have to make excuses for enjoying.
Taking structural cues from that beloved second (or fifth) installment, The Last Jedi finds our rebels on the run and scatters the cast into separate storylines which are nimbly crosscut throughout. But whereas The Force Awakens was content to be an almost beat-for-beat remake of the 1977 Star Wars (we do not call it A New Hope in this household), this sequel sets up familiar scenes from The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi only to subvert and upend the expected. As demonstrated in Johnson’s previous pictures – like the nifty teenage noir Brick or the tricky, time-travelling Looper – he’s got a big affinity for sleight-of-hand, occasionally indulging in a twist or two too many to keep catching the audience off-guard. In short, nothing goes the way you think it will.
Johnson (literally) burns the Jedi temple to the ground, walking back a lot of Abrams’ more regrettable storytelling choices from The Force Awakens while approaching the material with considerably less reverence and quite a bit more artistry. The last film ended with John Williams’ music swelling as Daisy Ridley’s plucky heroine Rey formally presented old Skywalker with his long-lost lightsaber, so this one begins with Luke callously tossing it over his shoulder and going about his day. Moments later we see Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren removing that stupid Spaceballs helmet he wore for no reason in the previous picture and smashing it into a thousand pieces.
It’s a movie very much about itself, interrogating the outsized role this mythology plays in our culture, from the shots of little kids playing with makeshift Luke Skywalker action figures to Mark Hamill’s revelatory performance as a broken-down Jedi Master haunted by his failures. Like any astute viewer of the Star Wars series, Luke has come to the conclusion that his ancient religious army’s batting average ain’t exactly great, and maybe this whole Jedi thing should be retired once and for all.
On a similar note, since the First Order is basically a Galactic Empire cover band with Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke a poor Palpatine poseur, Driver wrecking that silly helmet is the first step in Kylo Ren becoming more than just a cosplayer wearing his grandpa’s clothes. The former Ben Solo has already killed his father, and now seeks to wipe out the past entirely so he can claim the future as his own. The central thematic preoccupation of The Last Jedi is how much of that past should we let die and what about it should we fight to preserve?
It’s a conflict that’s even cooked into the film’s aesthetic choices, as Johnson films familiar Star Wars hallmarks from new and unexpected angles, departing from the series’ “house style” to incorporate impressionistic slow-motion sequences and Kubrickian silences. Shot on crisp 35mm by cinematographer Steve Yedlin, The Last Jedi is a movie of sometimes staggering beauty. You’ll gasp at a set of deep red curtains that later burst into flames, creating a rain of embers before a field of stars. Even better is a mining planet where a top layer of white salt covers crimson sands beneath, so during battle the ground itself appears to be bleeding. There’s real visual poetry here.
Johnson embraces and extends George Lucas’ original Akira Kurosawa fetish, incorporating visual nods to Kagemusha and Ran while borrowing a bit of Rashomon for the most important backstory reveal. (He also lets Oscar Isaac quote The Wild Bunch and Princess Leia paraphrases Rio Bravo, in case you were wondering why the film spoke so specifically to me.)
I’ll never begin to comprehend Abrams’ insistence on keeping the original trio of Luke, Han and Leia apart for The Force Awakens, a dopey miscalculation that feels even more egregious now that Carrie Fisher’s gone. But I’m relieved to report our princess is just terrific in The Last Jedi, putting a whiskey-voiced, sardonic spin on General Organa’s lines (the best of which Johnson has admitted Fisher penned for herself.) She shares a bit of banter with Vice Admiral Laura Dern that made my heart briefly soar, and then break all over again when noticing how obviously the next film was being set up as a showcase for Leia.
Much like The Empire Strikes Back, there’s not a lot of winning in The Last Jedi. It’s a movie where victory often means escaping by the skin of your teeth, and an old friend reminds us that there’s no teacher better than failure. Johnson’s revisionism extends even to the heroics, positioning impetuous flyboy Oscar Isaac at loggerheads with Fisher and Dern’s cooler-headed tacticians. (I loved when Leia tells him to “get his head out of his cockpit.”) Hotshots tend to come up short here, which isn’t always a crowd-pleasing dramatic choice but feels like a refreshingly necessary one in a movie so concerned with the after-effects of pop myths.
What a treat it is to have a giant-scale franchise blockbuster executed on this level of craft and care, with a story that’s actually trying to be about something more than just selling toys and spinning off sequels. The Last Jedi reminded me of Creed in that it finds a ridiculously talented young filmmaker infusing a familiar series with fresh ideas, honoring the past but not bound by it, bringing a beloved saga thrillingly into the present.