Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

After the last scene had finished, and the credits rolled, the first that which was on the screen was "Directed and Written by Rian Johnson." This wasn't a case where someone wrote a screenplay, hired on a director, and then a group of people went splicing different things into it. There isn't a story about the film that will never be when the studio changed tract halfway through the development process, or even during shooting. This was the vision and artistic rendering of a single individual. Love it or hate it, this entire film feels a piece of itself. That is not to say that it stands apart from itself. Johnson very much uses the Star Wars mythology and the same themes of light vs dark and Empire vs Rebellion. And it isn't a radical reinvention of the franchise. There are clear parameters that the film it working inside as far as what came before it and what is going to be coming later. Why make a film in the Star Wars saga if you don't want to make a Star Wars film? But it can lead to some not so great elements. The Porgs are kind of annoying and feel like some mandate to have some adorable creatures to sell toys. It doesn't feel necessarily to give BB8 a nemesis and having the droid coming to rescue in bigger and larger ways feels like an easy way out. There is a scene where Leia uses the force which is interesting in theory, but visually seeing it play out is clunky. But Johnson does play with some of the elements of the franchise to make a film which feels fresh and exciting.

His take on the force is really fascinating too. Where before it is this singular idea of encamped ideas of the Jedi at one end being the light and the Sith at the other end being the dark, this film muddies the waters a bit more. It shows the force overall being a balance of the both that light and the dark which are both connected together. And the idea of radicalism just offers up two opposing viewpoints which just end up cancelling each other out and a long running feud which others suffer in the balance. Kylo Ren and Rey offer up something different. They aren't so different from one another and have aspects of both sides swirling inside of them. They are both on different sides, but the reasons seem much more inline with their decisions and emotional place than everything. And the harmony with the force is more about finding a balance than picking a side. And that take on it allows for internal conflicts and soul searching which is so compelling and make for characters which end up going to places which are more interesting and leads them to growth. The force isn't so much some governing aspect as it is a tool which can be wielded by a person for reasons that coincide with the light and dark. It also deconstructs the idea of the force being this type of manifestation of destiny and allows the characters to be their own and decide for themselves.

Johnson also has the guts to let our heroes fail. Their plans don't exactly work out the way that they want them to. For a lot of the film they end up getting outmaneuvered and outsmarted by The First Order and exist in imminent peril. The tired and true formula of recklessly executing the ramshackle plan against the odds to achieve a victory right then and there. Instead it becomes a series of making the smart and tactical move to ensure that the rebellion will surrender. And how the fortitude of others in that situation to keep moving on and keep surviving no matter the situation or just how bad the peril is what gives them strength. And Luke, quite frankly, is also a failure. The spunky hero is gone and the old and broken down man that failed his nephew and his students is who remains. And he has no will to get back in the fight and questions what the Jedi even means. It is bold to see Johnson take such a radical move for a character, but one that just makes the path the next generation take that much more interesting. Because things endure. Rebellions and Jedi may be out and to the point where they seem lost and shattered. But things rise and are reborn out of hope. And we can just trust that those that carry the flag for the next generation do better and learn from the mistakes of those that went before them.

But the aspect of Las Jedi I liked the most is just how emotionally resonant of a film it is. Johnson gives us so many moments which elicit a swelling of emotions. And each one comes out of a character moment, the way the thematic material is build up or payoff to the plot progression. So often there is an action sequence or the build up to the plot progression which builds into these beautifully emotional moments which pays everything off. They aren't just put in the beginning of the film either. Constantly they are sprinkled into the entire story to make it feel like things matter. Decisions have an impact on our characters and what they choose to do has consequences and can effect others. Moments of loss, heroism, peril, nervousness or comedy come across fully and Johnson makes you feel those emotions. It is also pretty telling that the Rebellion is made up of a diverse set of faces. People of different races and genders, even aliens of different species, make up it's ranks. Woman also are very much in the forefront and in positions of power. Where the First Order are primarily white males, with an occasional woman thrown in. Not to mention the army of Stormtroopers whose faces are obscured under those masks.

Johnson also brings a much needed visual eye to the Star Wars film. They have always had exceptional set designs, special effects and world building which are continued in this installment as well. But none of the cinematography has ever risen above workmen like. Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin creates visuals which are beautiful and support the storytelling. Like the way he has the force capable characters point their lightsabers at the camera creates a wonderful cascade of light with focus enough to see the texture of the wave of light to get across their function as a deadly weapon. The scenes where Kylo and Rey are connected through the force and communicating allow them to engage in some elegant framing keeping one character occupy each side of the frame while cutting between them giving the idea of their communication happening together across time and space. There isn't a ton of action in the film, but when it is Johnson shoots it a clear and concise manner. You can follow each maneuver along with laying out a clear set of objectives in the scene along with giving us a feeling of the stakes.

Johnson uses colors in ways that enhance the storytelling of the film. Snoke's throne room is lined with blood red which has always represented the dark side of the force which he inhabits. But after what happens with Kylo and Rey where they reject such labels of the force it ends up being burned down and slowly starts to burn up with embers floating down around the two characters letting us see there is a whole world behind that red offering up a new set of possibilities. It is a wonderful visual representation of how the force dynamic has changed. Or how in Crait there are the white salt flats which have blood red crystals right under it. The idea of white being the light side, but there is red of the dark side which is lingering just underneath. Plus, it looks pretty damn cool to see those vehicles kicking up the red crystals and leaving a trail of red dust. There are a lot of visual details and moments like this which just enrich the film and get across it's themes and ideas it is trying to get across. And there are lots of ideas that it is playing with and making you think about. You can't usually say that for these films.

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