Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi ★★★

Much like its main characters, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” wavers between the light and dark sides of the Force. The eighth chapter of the beloved space saga and the second in a new trilogy boasts spectacular visuals, great performances and jaw-dropping moments, including some that will make fans want to stand up and cheer. But the film’s ambition to break out of the traditional “Star Wars” mold is hurt by its structural and storytelling issues.

“The Last Jedi” picks up where 2015’s “The Force Awakens” left off. After destroying the First Order’s weapon of planetary destruction, Starkiller Base, the Resistance is targeted by a regrouped First Order and left in disarray. A change in leadership causes a power struggle that pits members of the Resistance against each other. With the First Order hot on their trail, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) sends Stormtrooper-turned-rebel Finn (John Boyega) with aircraft mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a special mission to aid the Resistance.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley), an up-and-coming Jedi of mysterious origin, finds legendary Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in isolation. But the grizzled, weary Luke is not interested in helping the Resistance. While he reluctantly trains Rey, she is communicating through the Force with her nemesis Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). As the two grow closer, which side will each choose: the light or the dark?

In “The Force Awakens,” director J.J. Abrams charted a thrilling and comfortable return to the “Star Wars” universe after the much-maligned prequel trilogy. Under the reins of director Rian Johnson, the darker “The Last Jedi” plots a new course for the franchise, with mixed results.

“The Last Jedi” has some of the best visuals and special effects in the franchise. Its expands upon how the Force can be used, seizing upon its mystical nature and how far it can affect the physical world. The space action is stunning, with aerial dogfights between X-wings and TIE fighters, blaster showdowns, and imperial walkers, cannons and of course, lightsabers. There’s an exciting and exquisite lightsaber battle that will leave you breathless.

With a mix of fan favorites and new characters, “The Last Jedi” inspires excellent performances from its cast and brings together heart-warming reunions.

Thirty-four years after he last stepped into the role in “Return of the Jedi,” Hamill masterfully returns to the robes of Luke Skywalker. As a hardened Luke, Hamill plays a much different version of the iconic hero, reaching emotional places we’ve never seen the character go onscreen. Hamill and Ridley play off each other very well as Luke’s pessimism encounters Rey’s optimism.

Ridley and Driver do a great job of mining the conflict within their characters. Ridley taps into Rey’s yearning to learn the Force just as much as she wants to know the truth about her identity. Driver reveals the inner turmoil swirling inside Kylo Ren, who wants to be the next Darth Vader but can’t quite stop being Ben Solo, the son of Princess Leia and Han Solo. In her final movie role, Carrie Fisher shines as the tough-as-nails General Leia.

While “The Force Awakens” echoed the story beats of 1977’s “A New Hope,” “The Last Jedi” includes elements from 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back” and 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” But Johnson takes the tropes Star Wars fans have come to expect from the franchise and subverts them. This allows the film to go in unexpected directions as it finds new ways to tell the story of the Skywalker saga. But as a result, the character and plot decisions in “The Last Jedi” don’t always make sense, and the bold risks that Johnson takes don’t always pay off.

From a structural standpoint, “The Last Jedi” feels disjointed. The Finn-Rose storyline is far less interesting than the Rey-Luke-Kylo Ren storyline. Their mission, including their journey to the casino planet of Canto Bight, hurts the movie’s pacing and really drags down the plot. Boyega and Tran are fine in their roles, but the relationship between Finn and Rose feels forced.

“The Last Jedi” doesn’t do a good job of integrating most of its new characters into the story. While the film fleshes out Poe, who had little screen time in “The Force Awakens,” his character development comes at the expense of getting to know Resistance official Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), who has a key role to play. The awkward hacker DJ (Benicio del Toro) serves as a discount Lando Calrissian whose loyalties are always in question.

The biggest problem with “The Last Jedi” is that it doesn’t follow through on the story threads and questions set up in “The Force Awakens.” Though “The Last Jedi” takes place directly after “The Force Awakens,” it doesn’t connect smoothly to its predecessor. The disparity between Abrams’ and Johnson’s visions is troubling because it indicates there might not have been a plan in place for how this trilogy is supposed to turn out.

“The Last Jedi” struggles to find a balance between its highs and lows. However, as it attempts to marry the past and future of the franchise, the film is certainly worth seeing. Perhaps the impact of “The Last Jedi” will be better understood once “Episode IX” comes out in 2019 and wraps up the trilogy.

To read my writing partner Tamara Dunn's view on "The Last Jedi," check out her take on Take 2 Blog:

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