Film Review: Bold and spectacular THE LAST JEDI comes up (just) short of being a masterpiece
Courtesy of Lucasfilm
While it may have been two years since JJ Abrams transported us back to the galaxy far, far away with “The Force Awakens,” the waiting game has been ever so prominent since. You could cut the anticipation with a knife at the trifecta of fandom which has flooded the gates of the internet and ticket sales everywhere. It truly is an event, and one that almost feels like it should be a national holiday. “The Last Jedi” is that trifecta. A blending mix of everything that’s made “Star Wars” the greatest franchise in cinematic history. For the film’s brisk-yet lengthy 150 minutes, Rian Johnson oozes his frames with a plethora of spectacular images, proving that his earlier, smaller, studio films (“Looper” and “Brick”) were simply a jumping board for his ambitions. While “The Last Jedi” can’t compete with the tier of “Empire Strikes Back” paranoia, for the record it ranks higher than “The Force Awakens” in my book.
When Abrams set out to deliver the first “Star Wars” film in over a decade, some of us gaused over the play-it-safe plotline in “The Force Awakens” that felt like a carbon download of “A New Hope.” It borrowed similar elements, and set out to reconstruct a broken franchise after the three prequels somewhat failed to keep consistency. Whatever the case, Abrams delivered closer to a “Star Wars” greatest hits album, then it’s own thing and I was completely okay with the final product - but it left the next installment wide open to take risks and chances. Johnson’s new film does take the calculated measures, but it drags in the second act. It’s hard to seperate my own personal attraction to the material, but in my professional standard, the film comes up just short of being a masterpiece.
As every “Star Wars” film must - and because it’s genetically superimposed into our DNA to feel our goosebumps flare up when we see “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..” - we get a lustrous opening crawl detailing how The First Order reigns supreme. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his Dark Side apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and snobby punching (or choke) bag General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) have withered the resistance down to a few inkling insurgents. Things aren’t looking too good for the rebels. But under the wiseful General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher - in her last on screen appearance), they rage on against the machine. Their last hope in survival is to convince the reluctant Jedi Master Luke (Mark Hamill) to come out of hiding.
If this all sounds like deja vu, with how it parallels the rebels against all odds at the end of “Empire Strikes Back,” it’s because it is. Except we have a newly minted renegade of rag-tag next generation newbies to help spruce up the action this time. For instance, the hotheaded fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) John Boyega’s awol, coma stricken, storm trooper-turned-resistance hero Finn and Daisy Ridley’s Rey, the new poster child who is just starting to understand her place in this wide realm of possibilities. The type of interplay and cosmic energy between these three was so hot the last time around, it's so unbecoming seeing them split for most of the film.
They’re all cast off on separate “side-quests” if you will, all working towards a grand mission. While Dameron is busy having issues with the plans Leia and her second in command (the purple haired Laura Dern) have put together, Finn teams up with a Resistance mechanic named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to help thwart the first order even more, which may involve tracking down a codebreaker (Benicio Del Toro) and sneaking aboard the First Order’s main ship. Meanwhile, Rey is just where we left her, tracking down and standing toe to toe with the hermit, Luke on the desolate and remote jedi island of Ahch-To hounding him not only to return, but also to be her mentor with The Force like Yoda was for him so long ago. This is the most satisfying dynamic of the film, not because their energy and tension is so electric it could produce fireworks, but because we know this is the heart of the film. We know this is where the meat and potatoes are going to be delivered. And the symbolic passing of the, ahem, lightsaber will take place.
Johnson takes an ample amount of time cutting back and forth between the three ongoing narratives, and he splices them together very well that it connects just the way it should. As the stakes grow more and more desperate, so does our heroes. Which means by the time we’ve reached the point of rising exposition, the movie stalls a tad. At times, it really feels like Poe and Finn were sidelined in favor of Rey’s aspiring “Karate Kid” like premise. Finn and Rose end up on a casino planet called Canton Bight (basically this Star Wars cantina scene) and I had a hard time justifying its existence other than it had gooey eye candy and bubbly characters that were throwaways. Kylo Ren and Rey also have back and forth telepathy conversations, that can sometimes feel a bit awkward. It’s even more ironic to use the word “last” in any iteration of this series considering there's about nine more films set to be released on the docket.
But Johnson is able to get so much right that even beyond its flaws, “The Last Jedi” still rings true. The climatic third act of this film is, beyond a reasonable doubt, the best of what “Star Wars” is capabale of. Including a mano a mano showdown guaranteed to make any fan smile. So despite a rare misfire in the second half and some slimy CGI critters that aren’t really that intriguing - save for the Porgs with their sad goopy eyes and expressions - “The Last Jedi” is top notch. There were so many moments that will be catnip to fans young and old, it’s like saying hello to a family member that’s been absent for 40 years. And with this being Fisher’s last performance, we cling to every syllable she says, never wanting her to leave.
And while Hamill has been fortunate enough to live on in pop culture because of his Luke Skywalker roots, the man’s never been a great actor. But this is easily the best performance of his career. One that is soulful and doused in reality. Likewise for Driver playing Ren, who really pushes the boundaries of his layers here (I’m serious when I say the Best Supporting Actor conversation needs to include him). And, like “The Force Awakens,” Johnson manages to end his movie on just the perfect note.
There are so many moments that I wish I could share with you, but that would be doing a disservice. But I will say nothing, and I mean nothing, beats the excitement of seeing “The Last Jedi” in a theater packed with fans to the teeth, ready to take the journey together. As I told some of my readers prior, via Facebook, I choose to opt out of the advanced press screenings in favor of a more traditional public viewing with fans and friends. That gamble paid off.
With that said, I’ll end with this: there was one moment during my viewing that I was so hooked on what the build up and payoff was going to be. Everyone in the sold out crowd was quiet and tuned in, anxious to see where this moment was going. Let’s just say, this scene ended with a wave of enthusiastic applause, and I was overwhelmed with nostalgic joy. It’s my favorite scene and moment of the year. Not just because it was a stellar scene in an otherwise amazing film, but because it brought together a room full of strangers, as we all felt the same emotion in sequence. Now that’s special, and something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life. A-