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MOVIES: Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Review



It's hard to believe that two years have passed since The Force Awakens, which had the unenviable task of revitalizing the Star Wars franchise for a new generation of moviegoers while simultaneously providing enough nostalgia to capture the imaginations of longtime fans. The very nature of balancing these two ideals led to a finished film that relied heavily on convention, and a plot that followed the same beats as the original 1977 installment perhaps a bit too closely.

But with the groundwork for this new saga firmly in place, audiences have been introduced to a host of new characters and reunited with old favorites, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson is able to build upon that foundation. Working from his own screenplay, Johnson is eager to explore new territory - both literally and figuratively - with an incredibly ambitious approach that has already resonated with Lucasfilm executives in a big way: he's recently been tapped to craft an entirely new Star Wars trilogy, and audiences exiting the theater this weekend should have no trouble understanding why, because The Last Jedi is absolutely fantastic.

Rather than picking up moments after the cliffhanger from The Force Awakens, which saw Rey (Daisy Ridley) locating the long-missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a remote planet, The Last Jedi opts for something much bigger: a daring assault on a heavily armed First Order dreadnought, led by the Resistance's best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). It's a thrilling and emotional sequence that showcases the ingenuity of the rebel forces as they face down the sheer military might of the First Order and their legions of war machines, while also conveying the sense of desperation that permeates the Resistance as their resources continue to dwindle.



Meanwhile, on the other side of the galaxy, Rey is quickly discovering that Luke, haunted by the events which led young Ben Solo to accept the dark side and become Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), has no interest in becoming the savior of the Resistance. "Do you think I came to the most unfindable place in the galaxy for no reason at all?" he asks pointedly. Luke's self-imposed exile is punishment for his perceived failure as a teacher, and the symbol for hope that Rey seeks has been replaced by a bitter old man, disdainful of the Jedi religion and the very notion of heroism.

But Luke also recognizes the burgeoning power that Rey is struggling to understand, much less control, and reluctantly acknowledges his responsibility as the last living Jedi master. "Three lessons," he promises. "I'll teach you the ways of the Jedi - and why they need to end." The idea of the most recognizable hero in the Star Wars franchise not only refusing to take up arms, but disavowing the very teachings that made him such a formidable warrior in the first place, is a bold choice that may prove to be controversial among certain subsets of the fanbase. But it also makes for a narrative that feels more creative, and thus more engaging, because it removes certainty from the equation. Past Star Wars films have shown us that when a powerful Jedi shows up on the battlefield, victory is all but assured - but without Luke to serve as the "get out of jail free" card for the Resistance, suddenly the possibilities seem endless.

In fact, The Last Jedi seems to take pride in defying expectations and giving audience members an experience that feels fresh and unpredictable. Plot elements that seemed like forgone conclusions play out much differently than nearly anyone will likely have imagined, and characters reveal new aspects of their personalities that will surprise, shock and delight - sometimes all at once. Johnson also stages a number of gorgeous and exhilarating action sequences, including a skirmish on a mineral planet where blaster fire pulverizes red salt crystals into crimson dust, and a jaw-dropping lightsaber battle that may very well be the best in the franchise.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the flood of raw emotion that comes from watching Carrie Fisher in her final onscreen performance as Leia Organa. Nearly every time she appeared onscreen I could feel the tears welling up, and during an especially heartfelt moment in the film's final act, they finally spilled over. She's such an integral part of the Star Wars mythology - both onscreen and off - that it's difficult to accept the notion that we won't see her again in the future, but the film handles all of her material with the utmost care and reverence.



The stumbles of The Last Jedi are few and far between, but they still exist and thus must be acknowledged. Chief among them is a subplot which finds Finn (John Boyega) and a maintenance technician named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) visiting a high rollers' casino to locate a gambler whose skills may benefit the Resistance. There's an attempt here to comment on the profitability of war and the disparity between the upper and lower class, but that message gets lost among the constant barrage of CG creatures and goofy action beats, leaving the whole thing feeling like something left over from the prequel films. Tightening this up, or excising it altogether, could have shaved a solid fifteen minutes from the film's running time.

There also seems to be a significant uptick in humor (or attempts at humor, as more than a few jokes fall flat) and an extraneous number of adorable critters that seem to exist only for merchandising purposes. Don't get me wrong, the Porgs are absolutely precious, but for creatures that don't serve the narrative in any way, they're given entirely too much screentime. And while The Force Awakens went to great lengths to create as many practical effects as possible, The Last Jedi relies more heavily on CG - much of it poor, and some of it absolutely terrible.

Flaws notwithstanding, Rian Johnson has delivered a tremendously entertaining Star Wars film, one that blazes a new trail and offers numerous surprises while still serving the fanbase. Rey's journey is still the core of the film, but Johnson finds a better balance between Rey and the rest of the cast, so it never feels like anyone is being shortchanged. Juggling so many stories means the film isn't quite as tightly constructed as its predecessor, but it's also not bound to a predefined structure designed to evoke nostalgia, and by that measure alone The Last Jedi comes out as the better of the two installments.


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