Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson (screenplay), George Lucas (characters)
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill and John Boyega
Rian Johnson takes giant, often messy leaps in The Last Jedi, the eighth episode of Star Wars and the second in the (first) post-Disney trilogy. His take feels much more sporadic than the cautious nostalgia trip J.J. Abrams rendered in 2015’s The Force Awakens. It has higher highs and lower lows, hopping from its disparate plot lines with an often jarring inconsistency. While it has some of the series’ strongest set pieces, its clumsy narrative rhythm doesn’t allow it to breathe. As a result, its moments of visual splendor are sometimes lessened or cut short by sloppy pacing.
(No major spoilers, but the basic plot set-up is discussed ahead)
At the end of The Force Awakens, the series’ new hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) tracked its old one, the illusive Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), to a small, jagged island on a planet tucked away from the larger conflict. Skywalker, who went into hiding sometime in the 30 years between the conclusion of 1983’s Return of the Jedi and these new movies, is reluctant to give Rey the time of day, let alone join her in a new resistance movement against The First Order (a rebranding of the original trilogy’s fascistic Galactic Empire). Though there was a small victory against the Order in the previous film, The Last Jedi finds The Resistance in much more dire circumstances.
Outnumbered and on the run, The Resistance flees their old base in search of a new home while hoping to inspire a larger following. Returning as the young faces of the movement are the Stormtrooper-turned Resistance fighter Finn (John Boyega) and the charismatic, rebellious pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac). General Leia (Carrie Fisher, RIP) also returns as the group’s determined, war-weary leader. There are plenty of new faces too, including an energetic mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and a calm-under-fire purple-haired Resistance officer played by Laura Dern.
While the movie doesn’t lack for charismatic performances (hearing Dern deliver the series’ iconic recurring line “May the Force be with you,” is a real treat), Johnson stretches them too thin for too much of the movie. Much of the first half is a tangled slog, and it lessens the emotional payoff of the (still much better) second. Many of the most interesting elements introduced here, especially infighting within both the Resistance and First Order, are glossed over in favor of the overstuffed plot.
That messiness occasionally gives way to scenes that are truly dazzling, like a clash between the two factions on a planet that shoots up streaks of red salt whenever the ground is hit by blaster fire or glided over by a low-flying fighter. The editing here and in the movie’s other large action set pieces are big improvements over The Force Awakens. Johnson’s sense of scale is crucial to this; he has a knack for knowing when to pull back and survey a battlefield before cutting between key players.
Abrams’ first Star Wars movie (he’s also returning to direct Episode IX) was haunted by relics of Lucas’ old ones, forging a new mythology out of the ashes of the old one. Johnson takes this a step further in The Last Jedi. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Sith-in-training in the First Order and so far the new trilogy’s key villain, seems intent on eradicating the Jedi legacy established in those old movies. “Let the past die,” he says at one point. “Kill it if you have to.” Johnson seems to agree with that statement to an extent. Though this is filled with familiar elements of previous Star Wars films- lightsaber duels, roaring TIE fighters, an overwhelming John Williams score – his portrayal of the Force is a welcome, weird expansion. Much of the last movie was spent building up the myth of Luke Skywalker and the Jedi, and The Last Jedi attempts, with varying degrees of success, to destabilize it.