"...the best “Star Wars” film in a long time"

A Force to be Reckoned With

(122017) "This is not going to go the way you think,” Luke Skywalker says to… well, someone who needs to hear it. Someone whose arrogance is borne of shortsightedness and narrow expectations. And this is also Star Wars: The Last Jedi’s word of warning to the audience. To us. This is the Star Wars movie, after all, from writer-director Rian Johnson, the guy who gave us The Brothers Bloom, a tricky movie about con artists that knows we go into a movie about con artists with certain assumptions about what we’re about to see. (He also gave us the temporally twisting Looper, in which things did not go the expected way.) This is The Force Awakens’s Empire Strikes Back. We know it, and Johnson knows we know it, and he is going to play with every anticipation he knows we will be bringing into his little space opera action fantasy.

And, indeed, there are many callbacks to Empire here: the smallest ones are visual, and often clever (the rebel-hideaway planet that looks like Hoth is covered not with snow but with salt), but those are ultimately inconsequential. (The movie gets a bit ahead of itself with the Porgs, small, chickenlike birds, which are almost but not quite the sequel trilogy’s Ewoks, from Return of the Jedi.) The significant callbacks are the ones that tease our nerdy conjectures but pay them off in ways that make it impossible to call this a Xerox of Empire. The relationship of Rey (Daisy Ridley, 2017's Murder on the Orient Express), who is strong with the Force, and Jedi Master Luke (Mark Hamill, 2016's Batman: The Killing Joke), and her sojourn on the rocky water planet of his self-exile might recall Luke’s visit to Yoda on Dagobah — there’s even a forbidding tree where Rey makes a discovery about the Force — but this will be very different for both of them. Snoke (CGI’d Andy Serkis, 2017's War For The Planet of the Apes), who is strong with the Dark Side of the Force and is the galaxy’s new evil overlord, and Kylo (Adam Driver, 2016's Midnight Special), his apprentice, have a dynamic that might echo that of the Emperor and Vader, but that’s not quite what’s going on here either. We await what must surely be the inevitable confrontation between Rey and Kylo, and when it comes, it’s stunning in a way that upends everything we think we know about where this sort of story can go. And of course we’re all waiting for something on a par with “No, Luke, I am your father” as the reveal of Rey’s mysterious parentage… and it’s not like we were even expecting the parallel reveal in Empire: it came out of nowhere.

The truly surprising things here — don’t worry; I’m not going to spoil — are not moments of action or revelation but rather thematic in nature… and they are all reactions to that iconic mythos. Recall that in Awakens, Rey was astonished to learn that Luke Skywalker and the Jedi Knights were — are — real, not merely stories. And Luke here is very deeply concerned with the disconnect between the realities of how the Jedi order use the Force, and the fantasy of the Jedi of legend that Rey (and the Resistance, and the entire galaxy) has in her head. Luke’s concerns also serve as a commentary on the reverence that fandom holds Luke in, and Rian Johnson doesn’t give a whit what we might think Luke deserves as a continuation for his long character arc. Johnson also hints that the Force might be due for something of a Reformation, and that’s not going to sit well with some fans. Previously the series had been deeply concerned with matters of great bloodlines — princesses and priests — but Last Jedi centers characters who are ordinary people: Finn (John Boyega, 2011's Attack the Block), the deserting Stormtrooper who worked sanitation back on the Starkiller Base of Awakens, is back, and teams up with Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a maintenance engineer on a Resistance ship, for a grand subplot of an adventure in a casino planet that seems to be the galaxy’s Monaco. That takes the film through an exploration of the massive divide between rich and poor in the galaxy that feels very familiar. (We’ve never had much of a sense of the galactic economy before, and there’s not much escapist fantasy to it.)

The Jedi are not so amazing after all, and we shouldn’t revere them. You are not your parents, or your grandparents, and you make your own destiny. This is all a bold new direction for the Star Wars series (at least as represented by the movies), and audacity like this is precisely what was needed if it is going to continue without feeling redundant. But perhaps most astonishing of all is the lashing Johnson delivers to the very notion of stereotypical heroics, the stuff the Star Wars saga has been built on: Selfish heroics do not win the day. Real heroism is quiet and self-sacrificing, not boisterous and self-aggrandizing. Some of this is explored in the story thread involving Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, 2015's Ex Machina) and Resistance leader Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, 1993's Jurassic Park), who deems him a “trigger-happy flyboy.” If Poe felt like the Han Solo stand-in for The Force Awakens, the kind of stunts Han Solo once pulled are directly criticized here, and not only through Poe. All of the women of Last Jedi, here at what feels like a last stand for the Resistance against the evil First Order, have just about had it with men thinking they can get away with being jerks if they’re also “heroic.”

The only negative with the film is a bit of bloat. At 152 minutes, it is perhaps 15 minutes too long. But mostly, this is a terrific film, and truly exciting as Star Wars. It is full of humor and courage and often dazzling and even some poetic imagery. Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin create what might be the most visually stunning Star Wars adventure yet. An arresting, starburst of vitality that’d make Kurosawa weep. Heavy red colorization highlights the anger pulsating from Kylo Ren be it backlighting a mood-spiking lightsaber massacre in Snoke’s throne room or the Resistance’s salt-planet terrain with red dirt beneath the salt that mimics blood splattering. And in perhaps the best visual moment, a starship rams another vessel by going to lightspeed and suffers an explosive end, one single light beam splits the metallic hunker belly-up like a magnificent flash of abstract art. The scene is played out silently. Johnson’s visual aesthetic is breathtaking, dazzlingly hypnotic and so beautifully framed in a way that should excite even existing Star Wars fans – there’s more to sci-fi than just dogfights and laser swords.

The last appearance by Carrie Fisher (1980's The Blues Brothers) as Princess turned General Leia Organa is powerfully poignant, not least because it involves a passing of the torch to the next generation of badass women, characters who stand in for all the little-girl fans who took inspiration from Leia when she was even more of an anomaly than a robust female character is now. And as much as the film’s title — The Last Jedi — sounds apocalyptic, it’s eventually hugely hopeful. Though I’m still left with the same sort of sense of dread and terrible suspense I felt as a 19-year-old in 1980, flattened back into my seat by the ending of The Empire Strikes Back, worrying how I was possibly going to survive the whole three years before finding out how Han, Luke, and Leia were going to get out of their fine mess. Fortunately, it’s only two years till Episode IX.

The Last Jedi is not a film about easy answers. It shouldn’t be about easy answers. It is about letting the scars show and that solidarity matters, morals matter, kindness matters. Hubris has consequences. So does heroism. What’s perhaps most important is that Johnson has shown that he understands these characters and cares deeply about them, demonstrated through his emotionally-rich narratives that treat the characters reverently. There may be a few directions the film goes in that hard-core fans won’t like, but it’s a film that takes risks, instead of playing it mundanely safe like “The Force Awakens” did. What Johnson has done here is incredibly ambitious, and it’s paid off with the best “Star Wars” film in a long time, one that shows that there is quite a lot of potential ahead for “Episode IX”. It’s a shame that Johnson couldn’t simply move on to the next installment, but given that he’s now working on his very own trilogy, there’s more than enough reason to be excited for what’s to come. Simply put, “The Last Jedi” is a big step forward, one that we can only hope will light the way for the franchise’s future.

Directed/Written by:  Rian Johnson. Based on the characters created by George Lucas.
Starring:   Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill
Released:  121517
Length: 152 minutes
Rating:   Rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi violence and action

Review © 2017 Alternate Reality, Inc.