With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the most signficant franchise in popular culture awoke from a deep slumber. However, it did so with a sense of familiarity that, while perhaps necessary, hurts the film in hindsight.
But Star Wars: The Last Jedi takes another necessary step, that of subversion of the very things that The Force Awakens hinged on. And in doing so, The Last Jedi breathes urgent purpose into the new trilogy, purpose it had yet to prove.
What’s immediately evident about The Last Jedi — through a nailbiter of an opening sequence, which includes an absolutely hysterical bit that tops Poe’s opening of “who talks first?” in The Force Awakens — is that this film is interested in people. While some large scale action films focus on the spectacle, writer-director Rian Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin’s camera situates us with the fighting, the sacrificing and the dying that fuel those battles.
When it comes to his focus on our main characters, Johnson succeeds in giving them all heavy, deeply personal character arcs. Finn needs to learn how best to fight for the Resistance. Poe needs to learn leadership that thinks ahead of the enemy, that thinks of everyone that a potential failure in leadership might affect. And John Boyega and Oscar Isaac inject the same kind of charismatic vigor into their characters that made them so lovable in the first place.
But Johnson’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker, this mammoth figure in pop culture, is the film’s most dynamic feature. And that’s because Johnson takes him out of the familiar, out of what we know him to be. Essentially, Johnson dissects “the legend” of Luke Skywalker, questioning that title by focusing in on Kylo Ren’s turn to the dark side years prior while at Luke’s Jedi school. It gives Mark Hamill new space to explore, as a rehash of pure heroism would’ve failed to be profound, and Hamill offers up a hilarious, pained, tired and tender performance. Though the trilogy jumps decades, we still get to feel the weight of those decades because Hamill bares it tangibly and beautifully.
Johnson intertwines Luke’s arc with those of Rey and Kylo in a way that challenges Rey’s almost original-trilogy-Luke sense of purpose, and in a way that cuts straight to the heart of Kylo’s light-dark conflict. It’s a brilliant framework, as the film adds new layers to Kylo, not only in the context of his turn but in the context of his purpose moving forward. Adam Driver ingrains those emotions deep into his performance, rendering him as one of the more complex villains in large scale cinema.
The framework also places Rey at the forefront, mainly through her search for identity now that she’s been thrust into the world of the Force. The film’s answer is decidedly feminist, fitting into Johnson’s overall idea of who heroes are, and Daisy Ridley capitalizes on the material, delivering a performance that is, appropriately, searching, yet also gripping in its painful anger and raw vulnerability.
The film is truly an ensemble piece, even more so than most typical ensembles as there’s a sense of individualized growth within nearly every character. And the performances of the rest of the cast are wholly committed, including vibrant work by newcomer Kelly Marie Tran, a towering presence from Laura Dern and a brave turn by the late Carrie Fisher.
This is, however, where the film slightly falters, as it becomes, at times, too stuffed with so much character work happening at the same time and in different places, which impacts the film’s pacing. Certain moments, such as when the plot needs to catch up, happen too quickly or conveniently and other moments, such as those of thematic significance, feel a bit too drawn out. The film also has four acts, which is not unusual, but it requires an extremely careful sense of flow and progression, perhaps exemplified by The Dark Knight. And while the flow from the third act into the fourth isn’t terrible, it’s unbalanced.
But the film, despite its flaws, is genuinely stunning. Johnson choreographs action — both in space and on the ground — with such rhythmic intensity and fluidity, but also with an underlying grit informed by the film’s humanism. And the settings within which that action takes place are so singular and transfixing, often due to Rick Heinrich’s spellbinding production design and Steve Yedlin’s soaring and awe-striking cinematography, especially in his long shots.
The story, while not perfectly executed, also holds beauty. As said before, this film is about people. And Johnson engages with the political, shedding light on the First Order’s impact on the poor and forgotten, on those that come from nothing but a little bit of hope. Fascinatingly enough, however, Johnson, while portraying the Resistance lovingly, doesn’t shy away from critiquing the larger notion of the “machine” of the Resistance.
But it’s those like Rose Tico (Marie Tran), someone who works alone in the dirty underbelly of a Resistance ship and is not really a part of any “machine,” who can embody a heroism in the face of tyranny that leaders of the Resistance have yet to fully understand. It’s heroes like Rey who can represent the greatest that hope can stand for.
In that sense, The Last Jedi is a new kind of Star Wars story. Along the way, the film challenges a lot of what we’re familiar with, especially in regard to the mythology of the universe. At points, the film almost feels satirical in how it critiques what we expect a Star Wars film to be.
Therein lies the film’s value. More of the same, especially in a wasteland of traditional, unengaging hero stories, would’ve been a shame. It was necessary for The Force Awakens, for that film to care about what we thought of it.
But The Last Jedi believes in a new kind of hero and, thus, a new kind of Star Wars.
Featured image via Lucasfilm.