Film Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

by Chris Piper on December 15, 2017

Ninth installment sticks to the script

A rebel X-Wing doesn't know when to call it a day

A rebel X-Wing doesn’t know when to call it a day.

“Every once in awhile I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie,” wrote a rapturous Roger Ebert in the summer of 1977 of Star Wars. Later that year a more skeptical Pauline Kael, writing about the same film, said, “the loudness, the smash-and-grab editing, the relentless pacing drive every idea from your head.” Never could the duality of responses to the Star Wars series of films be better predicted. They are either the greatest experiences in a movie theater since L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat, or the biggest waste of time since Birdemic: Shock and Terror.

Forty years have passed – like a light speed trip from Coruscant to Mustafar. Eight films have stampeded through theaters and gone to video and streaming pasture. With the series guide lanes very well established, the release of The Last Jedi would probably still satisfy Ebert much more than Kael. But, as with most things, time and age mellow us all, and under the ever watchful eyes of Disney and J.J. Abrams, these tales from that galaxy far far away and so long ago have settled into a somewhat predictable but still satisfying middle age.

In this ninth installment of the series, and the third since the Abrams reboot, we open on that same extremely bright John Williams brass, and see the familiar crawl of the opening prolog, and once again learn that the galaxy is not at peace. Gone is the Empire, the Death Star, Darth Vader, the rest. In their place has arisen the equally menacing First Order, in which the aging evil of Gran Moth Tarkin has been replaced with an arguably more horrifying spectacle of millennials running the empirical show, specifically Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux, and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren.

On the run still are the remnants of the plucky but woefully undergunned Rebellion, still led by the now impressively robed and statuesque General Leia Organa and her collection of multi-species subordinates. The First Order appears ascendent, the rebellion once again in its most desperate hour, holding on to a long-odds struggle for survival.

General Leia Organa, in Carrie Fisher's last performance

General Leia Organa, in Carrie Fisher’s last performance.

As with the other films in the series, our sympathies are bent very strongly toward the rebels. There is no time in the two-plus hours of the film for moral ambiguity. Too much evil must be thwarted. Too many narrow escapes by the good guys must be achieved. For our heroes, hope provides the fuel and ammo against the relentless pursuit of the First Order. Victory is measured not in defeating the enemy, but in escaping to fight another day. Characters do talk wistfully of restoring the New Republic, but, as we learned from The Phantom Menace, the Galactic Senate was no bed of roses.

As with The Empire Strikes Back (from which The Last Jedi is clearly lifting its structure) parallel stories emerge; the rebellion flees the First Order, and our unlikely and hesitant hero Rey from The Force Awakens seeks understanding and control from the very last Jedi left in the universe: Luke Skywalker. As Luke sought Yoda, so Rey seeks Luke.

From here the stories unfold in their very predictable ways: The Rebellion continues to flee. Rey struggles to contain her awakening power, and Luke struggles to contain Rey. Force Awakens characters Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), the addictively watchable CGI droid BB-8, as well as newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) duck, dodge, and dive their way through a barely believable plan to save the remaining rebel space ships. Meanwhile, by day, on the planet Ahch-To where Luke has been hiding out, Rey learns the ways of the Force. By night she engages in Force-assisted heart-to-heart discussions with Kylo, where she actually says things like, “I can still feel the goodness in you.”

As the film’s inevitable and predictable climax finally arrives, both Rey and Kylo’s powers are ascendant, the Rebellion is still on the run with the First Order hot on their heels.

But, of course, the story alone is not where you will get your money’s worth with The Last Jedi. The fun, as they say, is in the getting there.

Old Luke (Mark Hamill) is good Luke.

Old Luke (Mark Hamill) is good Luke.

In The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams gave us the biggest cinematic reboot since Christopher Reeve rode an ICBM in Superman. But in many ways Abrams saved the series from itself. He tightened up the sloppiness of the first three films, and dialed back the video gameiness of the second three. He understood just how much humor to insert, just how much mythology to maintain.

Last Jedi writer and director Rian Johnson understands that his job consists mostly of caretaking. But in that role he excels. The film is very liberally sprinkled with references to other films, from large and obvious thematic parallels down to the delightful way he shoots Rey manning the Millennium Falcon’s side guns, perfectly echoing similar shots of Luke in Star Wars. In many ways, this joyous pursuit of series breadcrumbs and Easter eggs is the best reason to see the film, if you’re a student of the series.

Additionally, Mark Hamill is a joy to watch, and gives what is easily the best performance of his career. His time-grizzled face staring out from under his hooded tunic is simply haunting. When the camera lingers on his hunched body, we can’t help but recall and relive the pain of Luke’s journey through the first three films, from restless farmboy to one of the galaxy’s most powerful Jedi Knights. Johnson is also careful to preserve in the older Luke some of the younger Luke’s impatience and petulance as he struggles to teach Rey, just as Yoda struggled to teach him. Not all of youth’s rough edges are sanded away by time.

Also worth noting are newcomers Benicio Del Toro, known as “DJ”, and Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo. Both perform adequately, but it’s always jarring to see any actor we’ve seen before appear in a Star Wars film. That’s why casting then unknowns Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill in 1977 was so clever.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) struggles to understand her powers.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) struggles to understand her powers.

And that’s why watching Daisy Ridley as Rey works so well. A virtual unknown in 2015, she seems to have gone into hiding until now. In The Last Jedi we see the obvious beginnings of time working on her. She’s a bit wider, a bit thicker, but still quick on the lightsaber draw, and able to hold that amazingly complex gaze of wonder, anger, and perplexion – clearly the best of her acting chops. It’s equally melancholic to see Carrie Fisher in her last role. Her Leia is written basically to reinforce the idea that hope overcomes all challenges. But her body is exhausted, her face locked in an expression of weariness. The damage done to our bodies and our spirits from hanging on to hope at all costs is indeed dear.

The Last Jedi is, at the very least, a worthy installment in the series. As a simple, formulaic, but very well-crafted entertainment, it succeeds with good writing, sturdy acting, and a predictable but satisfying story that pays tribute but also just does its job. Yet it’s also a delightful cinematic treasure hunt, and a reminder that though the glow of youth may be gone, and death ever present, time is both a patient healer and a cruel dictator, and hope and belief will always provide us with a reason to soldier on.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens today in select Bay Area theaters.

Chris Piper

Regardless of the age, Chris Piper thinks that a finely-crafted script, brought to life by willing actors guided by a sure-handed director, supported by a committed production and post-production team, for the benefit of us all, is just about the coolest thing ever.

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