Star Wars: The Last Jedi (aka Star Wars: Episode VIII) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Writer/director Rian Johnson had recently announced that he would be helming an entirely new Star Wars trilogy all his own. After viewing The Last Jedi, it’s easy to see why. His entry into the latest Star Wars trilogy, both written and directed by Johnson, is bursting with ideas, arcs, mythos, and characters that are enough to fill at least two movies. For audiences that feel cheated with bridge movies, you need not worry about this Star Wars picture. Johnson doesn’t waste our time, and he doesn’t leave plot arcs unresolved. In a cinema landscape where most films like to stew and brew their franchises for the long haul, here is a film that refreshingly asks of itself “Why not finish these arcs now?” For such a bold take, Johnson’s film gives the most bang for the buck. Almost too much.
Having firmly established the new crop of heroes and villain for the continuing saga, The Last Jedi expands on the familiar characters with a depth that was lacking from The Force Awakens. The Resistance fighter Poe (Oscar Isaac) felt like a bookend afterthought of a hero, but now he takes center stage as a leader. He leads fleets into battle against the evil armada of The First Order but has more grit than smarts, ordering his men into suicide mission under the guise of “we can win this now.” Finn (John Boyega) still has some First Order knowledge to save the day as a turncoat but has to learn better how to work with others. Elsewhere, Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks the guidance on the ways of the force from the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), but she may not be ready for what she discovers. And the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) still has some demons to face and a past to confront.
To what may be the dismay of many Star Wars fans, Johnson has decided to rewrite a bit of the rulebook to conceive his own tale of doubt and letting go of the past. For conceiving such a story, it's almost guaranteed that this film will be disappointing with its revelations, showdowns and character deaths for all the hype surrounding them. If you can set your fan theories aside, however, there’s a compelling story present that fits well with film’s theme of looking more towards the future than referencing the past. This makes Rey’s shocking discovery of who her parents were more meaningful than logistical. It also makes Luke’s massive change in attitude towards the Force seem more crucial to the plot than hitting all the expected Skywalker-isms.
The biggest problem with the picture is that Johnson has so much to deliver that he often rushes the audience along, making the 150+ minutes just zoom by. As a result, many of the more meaningful and emotional scenes don’t stew enough to pack a big punch. The biggest detriment is to Rey’s teachings of the Force, more hitting the expected beats of confronting the dark side than being a genuine surprise. It really sticks out like a sore thumb when such a dramatic and emotional journey must share screen time with Finn’s wild casino planet adventure. While the showdowns are pleasing for the third act, many of them come so fast that there’s rarely a moment to feel the drive behind them. This is especially true with Finn's big battle with Captain Phasma. Considering Phasma doesn’t appear in the film until the showdown, their feud doesn’t feel as cohesive in this picture as it did in The Force Awakens. But if you really wanted to see the two duke it out in a flaming hangar bay, there you go.
The Last Jedi may seem overly divergent for tossing so much in the air and playing it loose with the Star Wars mythos, but it’s a very welcome change to a franchise in need of some cage-rattling. At its core, however, are all the familiar Star Wars traits that make this series so grand. There’s a somberness to the film’s darker tone, but a lot of humor brings levity in the form of Poe’s prank call transmission to the enemy, Luke’s perfectly timed commentary on Rey’s life and those cute little Porg creatures. There’s real grit to this film’s large-scale battles, spanning from the high-stakes bombing of a First Order warship to a final-stand defense on a planet of salt. More importantly, the film is a constant surprise of who will die next, who will shoot first, and who will make a sacrifice. If you don’t like bridge films that leave you hanging, rest assured, Johnson won’t leave you exiting the theater with the groan of a child who has to go to bed before finishing a bedtime story. Johnson lets us stay up to hear that wicked fourth act with the most impressive display of Luke’s heroic abilities.