A note to the spoiler averse: This review contains general spoilers for the previous Star Wars film, The Force Awakens. Plot details for Star Wars: The Last Jedi are limited to anything that would be found in the film's opening crawl
There’s been a trend in Hollywood of hiring young, up and coming talent bred in independent pictures to helm huge tent pole blockbusters for the big six studios. Sometimes it works, like when Ryan Coogler leaped from Fruitvale Station to Creed (and Black Panther next year), and sometimes it doesn’t (see the mess involving Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four). When Disney acquired Star Wars and announced the new trilogy, the choice of filmmakers seemed to follow that similar trajectory, with steady hand J.J. Abrams tasked with relaunching the franchise with The Force Awakens, and smaller names Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow signed up to make episodes VIII and IX. Trevorrow had already made the leap from Safety Not Guaranteed to big budgets with the disgustingly successful (and nauseatingly bad) Jurassic World, but Johnson had no such claims to fame. He’d done more work than a lot of the other independent directors that made the leap, having made three features (Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Looper) and directed some very well received episodes of Breaking Bad, but it’s hard to imagine any of that adequately prepared him for directing the middle chapter of the new trilogy in biggest franchise in movie history for the biggest studio on the planet. Not to mention that the middle chapter of the trilogy means it will immediately have to contend with comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back, perhaps the most well-regarded film of the original trilogy. And he gets to follow on the heels of The Force Awakens hitting huge, grossing nearly a billion dollars domestically and breaking every record it could come near.
So no pressure, right?
For Star Wars: The Last Jedi, things pretty much kick off right where The Force Awakens ended. Despite losing their ultimate weapon, the Starkiller Base, the First Order has crippled the resistance led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher in her final role) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), prompting General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to go for the kill, egged on by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). The ragtag group of fighters led by Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) are penned in by dwindling resources as the First Order’s armada closes in. Desperate times call for desperate measures, leading Poe, Finn and mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a wild goose chase across the galaxy in search of something that could allow the resistance to survive, to fight back, to do something that lets them continue on. And somewhere on a remote planet, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has tracked down the reclusive last of the Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) intent to learn his secrets and implore him to come back to his sister and tip the scales of the battle against fascism.
In restarting the Star Wars juggernaut, The Force Awakens sought to marry the old with the new, utilizing the heroes from the original trilogy to bridge the gap to a new generation. With The Last Jedi, Johnson (who also wrote the script) is tasked with completing that transition, setting the table for the Finns, the Reys and the Kylos of the world to fully embrace their own destinies leading to an Episode IX where they are the sole focus of the action. The old guard still has their parts to play here, with both Fisher and Hamill having larger, more substantive roles than they did in Episode VII. But this is a young person’s game, and The Last Jedi fully embraces its youthful edge. The 150 minute behemoth of a movie has plenty of room to give all of its new emerging stars their due, but the force of the story is clearly focused on Rey and Kylo Ren. That shouldn’t come as a surprise; they are clear corollaries to Luke and Darth Vader, after all, but they succeed in bringing their own baggage to the table that makes them feel distinct. Ridley remains almost preternatural in her movie star poise, with the sort of face made to be projected on a giant screen and a spirit to her character and delivery that has inspired a new generation of Star Wars fans. She can generate so much from her expressions that it’s a joy to watch her work. She gets to have quite a bit of fun sparring physically and mentally with a more than game Hamill, the sort of firebrand Luke once was, just as eager to prove herself and just as susceptible to the pull of the Dark Side.
Driver arguably has the tougher of the two parts to play, caught between the light and the dark in his own intrinsic way, the wright of his genealogy versus an innate thirst for power, all played out through the prism of a man barely in control of himself. This makes him come off as a bit of an emo Darth Vader on the surface (that was the line when The Force Awakens was released, at least), but Driver brings so many layers and shades of meaning into his portrayal that turns it into so much more than that. The way he hides behind his mask, the way his lightsaber arcs and crackles with barely contained energy that reflects his own simmering rage, the way you see his heart break in his eyes whenever he’s reminded of his parents, it’s all so delicately manicured to make Driver perhaps the most alluring character (let alone villain) in blockbuster movies today Driver is the secret weapon of these movies, part of a career that has shown a consistent desire to challenge himself that makes him one of the more exciting actors of this generation. The rest of the cast generally holds up well, with a special mention for Laura Dern. She’s arguably the biggest addition to the cast, getting to sink her teeth into a small, but juicy role, and we’re all the better for it.
So the character work is good, and the technical merits of The Last Jedi are peerless, as one would expect, but there are some stumbles along the way. Once all the pieces are in play, the film’s lengthy second act must contend with juggling half a dozen disparate plot lines and settings. It makes for a pretty choppy viewing experience as the script tries to keep all of its balls in the air, zipping from place to place with barely a moment to breathe. There are good moments to be found here, character beats and interesting set designs and small spectacles alike, but some of it simply falls flat. It doesn’t help that the second tier of characters don’t particularly get a chance to advance themselves all that well, which is especially egregious in the case of Snoke and Captain Phasma. Clearly, Johnson is only interested in the (admittedly incredibly fun) odd couple interplay between Hux and Kylo Ren, and the rest of the First Order leaders are left to rot on the vine. Benicio Del Toro, the other big addition to the cast alongside Dern, gets to play a kooky side role, but his entire subplot feels like it’s doing little more than marking time, making the film drag every time it returns to him from other, more exciting prospects. Things do come together quite well for a rousing third act with an excellent battle sequence that benefits from wonderful use of color and cinematography, but it’s hard not to think that a good half hour or so of the movie didn’t serve enough of a purpose to merit its inclusion, which ends up dragging the good bits down quite a bit.
It is entirely possible I came into The Last Jedi with too high expectations. I have a deep love for Brick and Looper and "Ozymandias", and the prospect of seeing Rian Johnson put his spin on the Star Wars universe was something to get excited about. But as is so often the case, this feels like a LucasFilm/Disney property first and a Rian Johnson film second, bogged down by its extended second act. There are moments of true art to be found here, moments of beauty and emotion and character, but I found those moments to be too far between to truly satisfy. There is no question that The Last Jedi is a good film, competently and sometimes thrillingly made and destined to inspire much of its audience. John Williams’ score manipulates in all the right ways, and the cast is clearly having a ball playing in this universe. And when Johnson gets to zero in on that central conflict between Rey and Kylo Ren, The Last Jedi soars. That is the spark that ignites the movie, and it’s a spark that I often found lacking in the rest of the film. Still, you can do a lot worse than what Rian Johnson has given us here. But I’m torn, because you can do a lot better too. I held out hope that Johnson could break through the glass ceiling that’s been constructed above blockbusters, especially those produced by Disney, and while he slams against it and generates some cracks, the ceiling has held.