*** out of ****
(for sequences of sci-fi action and violence)
Released: December 15, 2017
Runtime: 152 minutes
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro, Kelly Marie Tran, Gwendoline Christie, Anthony Daniels
A long time ago, George Lucas created the mythology of our time. Forty years later, Rian Johnson adds to the canon and even expands it, conjuring displays of the Force never before seen or imagined, yet this eighth episode stops short of truly fulfilling its destiny.
At 2 1/2 hours, The Last Jedi is the longest entry of the Star Wars franchise. It by no means should be. Fortunately, the film’s final act is its strength, an epic stretch that stands well with the best that the saga has to offer, but the first ninety-plus minutes often feel like they’re idling on thrusters.
Episodic in nature, with placeholder drama that lacks propulsive urgency, the plot-heavy threads often forget to explore the people in them, or to deepen their bonds in convincing ways. Too often, the characters are in service of the story rather than the other way around.
The big exception, thankfully, is Rey and Kylo Ren. Their growing connection (made passionate, kinetic, and unpredictable by Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, in the film’s two best performances) is the main through-line, just as it should be.
That duo is who (and what) Johnson is clearly most interested in – narratively, emotionally, and thematically – utilizing whatever’s going on between them to blur the line between the light and the dark, and wondering if that’s where the future is headed.
Johnson’s more misguided with the rest of the ensemble, first in believing they should be given nearly equal screen time. They shouldn’t, especially when the story’s gravitational, er, force so obviously swirls around its young Jedi and Sith. As constituted, this movie begs to keep going back to Rey and Ren.
Luke Skywalker is a central figure between the two, but Johnson belabors the recluse master’s cynical disillusionment. Mark Hamill doesn’t fit as comfortably back into Luke’s skin as, say, Harrison Ford did into Han Solo’s. More strained, he lacks the gravitas to fully embody Luke’s angst-ridden soul, although he does have his moments (particularly when feeling shame and regret).
Carrie Fisher is given a spectacular moment before being sidelined, suggesting intended potential for Leia in Episode IX that will now, tragically, go unfulfilled.
Johnson doesn’t seem to be particularly invested in Poe or Finn either, or the new characters they encounter, beyond the archetypes they can fit, how they can serve the plot’s mechanics, or the comic relief they can provide. Indeed, Rian tries too hard for laughs, taking the air out of moments that should remain sincere, or bated. At times, it borders on self-parody.
And Domhnall Gleeson‘s General Hux? It’s a thin comic caricature that makes one wish Eddie Redmayne could pull a Christopher Plummer reshoot and amp Hux with whatever Redmayne was doing in Jupiter Ascending.
Benicio del Toro has the most fun of the newbies, but Laura Dern’s character is needlessly mysterious and confusing. Our impression of her is largely filtered through the instincts of one of our heroes; when that can’t be trusted, it just feels like we’re being jerked around.
Speaking of plot, the whole story feels narrow, not expansive. In spite of all that’s going on, events largely stay contained in two or three small corners of the galaxy, not zipping and sprawling between various planets or across star systems.
Even so, there’s a lot of war in these star wars, and there are junctures where Johnson seems like he just might burn the whole mythology down. It’s fitting, perhaps, that in the same year of the Reformation’s 500th Anniversary, Johnson’s approach to the Force would be so, well, Protestant.
It all leads to some ballsy choices and satisfying surprises. Yet for as exciting as these risks are on paper, and to watch, they don’t resonate with nearly the power intended.
And here’s why.
Rian Johnson is a smart storyteller, but J.J. Abrams – who reset the Star Wars standard with The Force Awakens – is a gifted myth-maker. Abrams possesses the instinctive intangibles to effectively build mythos, to summon its overwhelming weight and vigor. Abrams wields the power of myth; Johnson merely constructs it.
It goes beyond plotting. There’s magic in Abrams’ execution. His strengths are in knowing when to use sentiment, how to earn it, create mystery, and provoke genuine awe.
For Abrams, myth is more than lore. It’s something spiritual. For Johnson, it never gets past philosophical.
Look, The Last Jedi is fun, it’s clever, it’s entertaining. It’s never prequel-embarrassing. Some turns are intriguing, others surprising, a few shocking. But it’s never inspiring.
It’s not enough for a Star Wars movie to offer thrills; it must induce chills. The Last Jedi offers plenty of the former but rarely the latter, despite many moments designed to.
As a Rian Johnson fan I’m glad we got to see his Star Wars. The strengths of The Last Jedi rise even more on a second viewing, and Rian should do well with the new trilogy that Lucasfilm recently re-hired him to create.
But I’m glad J.J. is coming back to close this one out. Daisy Ridley said she cried tears of joy when she learned that Abrams was returning for Episode IX. Girl, hold my beer and pass the tissues.