This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Daniel S’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
At the end of The Force Awakens, Rey has finally tracked Luke Skywalker to a secluded island and approached the legendary Jedi to hand him his own lost or forgotten lightsaber. The film ends on a cliffhanger, forcing fans to stew on this charged, enigmatic moment for two years until the next installment came around. Well, ladies and Gungans, the next installment is here; and how you feel about what writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) does with this moment may determine whether or not you’ll be on board with the rest of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
At this point I’m jumping straight into SPOILERS so if you haven’t seen the movie and you’re still reading this, consider this your final warning.
Luke extends his hand, takes the lightsaber, and immediately throws it over his shoulder and into the sea. He walks away from Rey.
I don’t know what I expected Luke to do upon meeting Rey, but that certainly wasn’t it! And frankly, thank the maker. Johnson and co. make many concerted decisions throughout The Last Jedi not only to subvert expectations but also to disregard certain things that have been set up as sacred cows. So much so that “kill your darlings” effectively becomes a major theme of the film. Characters as diverse as Kylo Ren and Yoda both espouse a version of this adage. Kylo opines that they should burn the whole order to the ground and start anew. The Jedi, the Sith, all of it. Perhaps even more striking, though, is Luke’s insistence that the Jedi religion is done. Beaten down by his knowledge that he failed Ben Solo while attempting to train him (in an echo of what happened when Anakin fell to the dark side under Obi Wan), Luke concludes that maybe the Jedi have failed the Force. Maybe, he thinks, their time is over, and the Force is now for everyone. Rey emerges as an embodiment of this ideal, a highly gifted Force user who – so far as we know – has no blood relationship to any major Jedi or Sith in the galaxy (whether Abrams follows through on this in Episode Nine remains to be seen).
And so Johnson proceeds to play fast and loose with Star Wars in a way that gives the movie an invigorating boldness. He takes what he needs from The Force Awakens and disregards the rest, bringing in new elements and characters that enlarge the universe. Snoke served as a way to bring Kylo Ren to power and when he was no longer needed, or when his presence would only have served to continue repeating story beats from the original trilogy, he was killed off. These are the kind of courageous story choices that open up new possibilities. Snoke was a copy of Emperor Palpatine, and the dynamic between him and Kylo closely resembled that one between the Emperor and Vader. Taking him out of the picture catapults Kylo Ren to the top of the First Order and propels the story into uncharted waters. Kylo Ren is a much more interesting character than Snoke, especially after he’s spent the first half of The Last Jedi being humiliated by his master and communicating with Rey via The Force. The conflict and uncertainty in Ren means we have no idea what his leadership will look like, and that’s a great thing! It allows us to wonder what will happen next, something that unfortunately we haven’t experienced in a Star Wars film since the 80’s. The prequels and Rogue One inevitably brought us to the beginning of stories we knew, and The Force Awakens was such a safe clone of A New Hope (a tired criticism but nonetheless true) that there was little to bring real fear or wonder.
I have lots of quibbles with things in the film. Leia’s floating through space looked ridiculous. Some of the humor indeed felt too irreverent and modern (though still better than the horrid comic relief in Rogue One). None of these new movies have figured out the tone and cadence of the OT dialog – we can admit that it had a recognizable style even if it was not always as polished or clever as it might have been - and they can’t seem to commit to the sincerity that made those films so endearing. I wish that the main ensemble of Rey, Finn, and Poe had been permitted more screen time together since their interactions were among the best joys of The Force Awakens. It’s also too long. By the time we arrive at the salt planet I was waiting for the movie to be over, but there was a whole act left to play out. That’s a problem that will impact future viewing.
However, these issues took a back seat to the larger picture which was of a grand entertainment packed full of excitement and memorable visual moments. What we lacked in Rey/Finn time we made up in Rey/Kylo time. Their relationship is currently the most fascinating one in the series. The throne room sequence, once it gives up on aping Jedi, is thrilling and satisfying. The movie also gives us images as fresh and indelible as anything in the OT. The big showstopper moment, the silent aftermath of a kamikaze jump to light speed, is something we’ve never seen before in a Star Wars film. And the trails of blood-red earth rising up behind the speeders on the salt planet is one of the most striking, gorgeous images in the saga (and immediately had me re-invested at a point where my energy was waning). Who cares about porgs when there’s so many lavish sights and sounds to relish? The film makes Star Wars fantasy tech feel tactile and real. You get the sense of the weight of Poe’s blaster, of the punch of cannons impacting the ground, of spacecraft crashing. As a visual and aural experience it’s terrifically immersive.
There’s also some great new characters introduced. Laura Dern in a Star Wars movie? And Benicio Del Toro? Yes, please. I found Kelly Marie Tran as Rose to be a welcome new presence and I was excited to see what all these characters who had no real analogs in the OT would bring to the proceedings. Del Toro’s and Tran’s characters are unfortunately stuck in the film’s least interesting sub-plot, but are enjoyable while they’re around. Dern’s Holdo of course leads to that spectacular lightspeed sequence as well as facilitating growth in the Poe character. Furthermore, Johnson finds more emotion in his existing characters than Abrams did and in less bombastic ways. The Force Awakens somehow managed to wring a sigh from the death of the series’ most beloved character. The Last Jedi made my heart swell simply by having Luke and Leia meet on screen. We’re dealing with a steadier hand here, someone who set out not just to remind us that Star Wars exists but to use it in new ways and find new drama in familiar places.
This is a flawed but tremendously entertaining film. It shows ambition and guts. I can only hope Disney and J. J. Abrams can match Johnson’s creativity in part nine and use his film as a jumping-off point for new adventures rather than reverting to the safest path. If Disney has really agreed to give Johnson a new Star Wars trilogy, I for one am on board. For the first time in decades it feels like Star Wars stands at the edge of a grand and mysterious future.