OnScreen Review: 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

(This is an incredibly spoiler-free review of the film.)

Carrying expectations into a movie theater is a dangerous game to play. With the Star Wars franchise, this is practically unavoidable. Generations of kids grew up on these stories from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I have to admit that I was particularly susceptible to the expectations game with this film. Not only do I love Star Wars, but I am also a huge fan of Rian Johnson, a director I have been on board with ever since his first film, Brick, came out over a decade ago now. I made a concerted effort to avoid as much news and talk about reviews within the last week or so before seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Episode VIII in the Star Wars franchise. I tried my best to suppress the way I wanted things to play out and embrace the story that Johnson and others had brought to the big screen in this new entry in this new trilogy.

My best efforts were in vain, when the credits rolled, I was certainly on a high, but it was tempered with something I did not want, or perhaps did not expect: a twinge of the bittersweet. I didn’t expect to have to leave the theater trying to figure out how I felt about the movie. Maybe I was overthinking it, maybe I still am. But the more I thought about it and the movie I had experienced settled into my mind and replaced the ethereal idea of the movie that had been in my mind for the last two years, I really began to appreciate what Rian Johnson has made with this film and how he had subverted my expectations and gone in an interesting direction.

(I realize I’ve been using “I” a lot, and if you’re reading this you probably care less about my personal experience and want to know about the movie itself. I swear, going forward will be less about me.)

So what were my expectations going in? I bought into the notion with The Force Awakens that J.J. Abrams was laying a foundation, to play it a little safe, and make sure the new trilogy didn’t get off on the wrong foot. Being a rehash of A New Hope is a very fair critique of The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi, as best I can tell is not a rehash of any of the previous films. However, there are definite nods to several previous films, including A New Hope, certainly The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, and surprisingly Revenge of the Sith.

Some of these nods are lines of dialogue that are similar, such as Obi Wan telling Anakin, “I have failed you” on Mustafar in Revenge of the Sith. A desert/salt planet shares a lot of similarities to Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, and features a similar assault, though it doesn’t happen right at the beginning of the film. Still another is the royal guard around Supreme Leader Snoke; their stark red suits are meant to evoke the guards of Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi, though they are much more menacing and imposing. There’s also a particularly poignant nod to A New Hope involving the shot of Luke looking at the two suns on Tatooine and Leia’s message to Obi Wan.

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These nods to the past ground the story in the Star Wars universe, and are important because the new stories, really, are not about the old characters as much as the new characters. It is great to see the old faces again, and Luke and Leia get greatly expanded roles compared to The Force Awakens. Carrie Fisher gives a great final performance as Princess Leia, reminding us that she was the beating heart of the rebellion back in the day by leading this new resistance, a resistance that teeters on the edge of a knife for much of the film, and much of the plot is about their survival. Their survival rests partly on getting Luke Skywalker off the sidelines and out of self-imposed exile.

Luke is a very different person than he was at the end of Return of the Jedi; despite the pleadings of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Luke is adamant that he is where he belongs and that he cannot be swayed. Few people are the same person they were thirty years ago, and how his character has been aged and how Mark Hamill portrays that is really well done. In fact, how Abrams, Johnson, and company have believably aged the Han, Leia, and Luke characters over these two new films and how the actors bring that to life is really nice. We want to see the characters we love treated with the love and care they deserve, and that has been done here.

But one thing that Rian Johnson has successfully pulled off with this film is a fluid, definite, and full transition from the previous generation of characters to the new class. There is no doubt after this film that Rey, Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and, yes, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are the primary figures in the story now. And there are some fine supporting figures to round things out too, none less so than Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a resistance fighter who embarks on a risky mission with Finn.

One of the unavoidable things of The Force Awakens was that the new characters were scrutinized for comps to the old characters, similar to how a college basketball player is compared to another current or former NBA player for the sake of context. For instance, “Rey is a mix of Han and Luke.” For me, at least, that fell completely by the wayside here. These characters are their own established persons now. Rey, Kylo Ren, Poe, and Finn all get interesting and clearly defined character arcs that change them from the person they are at the beginning of the film to who they are when the credits roll. And that growth brings them into cooperation in some ways and conflict in other ways.

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One of the things Star Wars is known for is the interesting creatures and locations in these films. In the most minor of spoilers, the Porgs are not like the Ewoks, they actually reminded me of the Tribbles from Star Trek more than anything. There are some great little visual flourishes and glimpses of things that make planets feel like a fully realized place in the galaxy. There is one shot of Luke high up on the mountainside of the island he is on; behind and below him, the tail of a monstrous-sized creature appears briefly before submerging again. There is one visual in particular in space that has to be mentioned, it is one of the best visual moments in the entire saga, and it involves lightspeed; I almost got goosebumps in the theater.

Is there anything to be said against this film? A few details hold it back slightly for me. There is one scene involving Leia that didn’t quite work for me. The middle of the film gets bogged down a bit with Rey and Luke on his exile planet. Snoke is a mysterious figure that people had a lot of questions about after The Force Awakens. The lack of back story for him could frustrate some. And it could be argued that the story doesn’t advance the trilogy much, as it seems like it picks up right off the heels of The Force Awakens whereas with the original trilogy and the prequels felt like a significant amount of time had elapsed between films. To some, that could make it seem slight compared to the other films in the franchise.

However, once the final act kicks in, things really pick up and the last 45 minutes of this film are nothing short of a delight. And it should also be noted that the use of The Force in this film has been expanded in new and interesting ways that have not been depicted in previous films. I found this expansion exciting.

I had very little doubt going into Star Wars: The Last Jedi that I would enjoy it, but I came out of the film surprised at the way that I ended up enjoying it and why I wanted to see it again, and possibly for even a third time. It was a very different experienced than I expected. Rian Johnson has succeeded in making a Star Wars movie that is exciting, filled with some great action, and full of engaging characters. It also has some nice nods to previous films without being a retread. I could see it being a divisive entry in the franchise for some, but for me, pun fully intended, it is a force to be reckoned with.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars