(It’s been way too long since I last reviewed movies—happily, it’ll be business as usual going forward. Also, be warned that there are lots of spoilers in this review.)
“The Last Jedi” is not a crowd-pleaser in the vein of “The Force Awakens.” It’s something very different indeed: a Star Wars movie that moves the saga forward without relying on nostalgia or high-dollar action scenes. It’s not the Star Wars film I would’ve made if given the chance, but that’s because Rian Johnson is far bolder than me, and “The Last Jedi” is all the better for it.
Picking up only moments after its predecessor’s conclusion, “The Last Jedi” opens with a dramatic space battle as the Resistance flees its home base. Meanwhile, our heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) confronts long-lost Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the monastic world of Ahch-To, determined to find the truth about her dark-side counterpart Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The supporting characters—arrogant pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), renegade stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and shy mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran)—all have plenty to do, but at bottom this isn’t their movie: we’re all here for Rey, Kylo, and the truth behind Luke’s mysterious words from the trailer: “It’s time for the Jedi to end.”
That’s not to say the B-plot (the Resistance’s flight from its enemies) isn’t entertaining, because it certainly is: indeed, one of the film’s best scenes takes place on a casino planet that simultaneously adopts and subverts the saga’s longstanding cantina tropes. Benicio Del Toro turns up as a lowlife “codebreaker” and Laura Dern does solid work as a Mon Mothma-lite figure. There’s a sense, though, in which at least some of this feels like padding: every time the camera cut away from the Rey/Luke drama and jumped back to the Resistance fleet, I found myself itching to get back to Ahch-To. (I still have about a million questions, but maybe that’s for the best; good worldbuilding means never giving away all the answers.)
On other fronts, there’s a lot to like here. Johnson’s visual style—a medley of dramatic pans and dives and striking close-ups—is a pleasant change from J.J. Abrams’s more conventional approach. John Williams’s score is similarly great, although I do miss the bombastic choirs of “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes.” And the effects—including one great particularly great use of puppetry—are everything one could hope for.
That said, the ending of “The Last Jedi” is bound to be controversial. There’s a part of me that wanted the film to end in a giant, glorious, propulsive revenge-of-Luke-Skywalker moment: don’t we all secretly want to see our legendary hero wipe out a whole army with the power of the Force? Or at the very least, beat Kylo Ren to a pulp in a brutal lightsaber duel?
On balance, though, I think the understated elegance of the film’s finale is perhaps its greatest strength. When “The Last Jedi” begins, Luke has lost faith in the Force and in the Jedi ways. That much was obvious from the firs previews: in the leadup to this movie’s release, some commentators speculated that Luke would shepherd in an era of “Gray Jedi” committed to walking a path between the light and dark sides of the Force. But that’s not how this story goes. Instead, in choosing a path of self-sacrifice and nonviolence, Luke fully manifests the power of the light side in a way never before seen onscreen; crushing armies might look cool onscreen, but doing so would be fundamentally inconsistent with Luke’s character and the philosophy he stands for. Johnson understands this, and the ending of “The Last Jedi” accordingly reflects that.
If Rotten Tomatoes is any indication, this may be the most polarizing Star Wars movie of all time. That’s because it’s something truly different from what we’ve seen before—there’s not even really a straight-up lightsaber duel. The way I felt leaving “The Force Awakens” was very different from the way I felt leaving “The Last Jedi”: exuberant and energized in the first case, contemplative and reflective in the latter. But that doesn’t mean “The Last Jedi” isn’t a success. In fact, it may on balance be the most masterful installment of all, even if it doesn’t leave audiences with the warm nostalgia fuzzies they crave. This is a movie about losing and regaining faith, about the dangers of separating dogma from discipline and praxis, and about loss and failure and the risks of mentorship. It is not your typical blockbuster, and not the Star Wars experience audiences expect, and that’s what makes it great.
A profoundly satisfying film that doesn’t just retread old ground, but pushes the saga forward in stirring ways.