Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher
Directed by: Rian Johnson (“Looper”)
Written by: Rian Johnson (“Looper”), George Lucas (based on characters created by)
It was 1977 the first time that cannonblast-of-a-musical-fanfare, yellow text crawl, and intrepid white runner-ship exploded across a celluloid starfield, changing movies forever. Forty years on, few phrases have the capacity to ripple the pop-cult zeitgeist like an upturned bedsheet in quite the same way as “they’re doing a new Star Wars.”
Toss it casually into your nearest social-media flea market of opinions and it’ll be met, in part, by a tide of cocksure pessimism, even anger – but know that these reactions are inflated artificially by their purveyors (even the most hardened and embittered of fanboy cynics and Han-Shot-Firsters) to castigate themselves for the inner flame of hope they dare not allow themselves to indulge.
Because that’s the power of this series: Even that wide (or at least vocal) swath of a generation that purports to feel intimately burned by the trio of p-words (sort of rhymes with “seagulls”) that “everyone hates” (disclosure: I don’t) would likely have to admit that their fear of feeling that way again is still tempered by a light side – a deep, secret longing to feel the wonder and awe they did when, as children, they watched a towheaded space-hick teenager thread the needle on a no-scope proton-torpedo shot that blew up a planetful of jackbooted, corrupt-establishment assholes. And of course it is. That fear and that hope coexist always, in all of us, swirled like chocolate-and-vanilla soft-serve, one amplifying the other. We’re afraid to wish for the feeling we grew up with, but we want desperately for someone to give it to us again, the same but different. So. Enter Rian Johnson?
Johnson’s “The Last Jedi,” Episode 8 of the Saga That Launched a Quadrillion-Million (Toy) (Space)ships, takes the baton (almost literally) from J.J. Abrams’s “The Force Awakens,” the December 2015 sequel that kickstarted a third trilogy under Lucasfilm’s new auspices at Disney. (Disney further cemented its “Star Wars” ownership this week – including new rights to the original theatrical versions of Episodes IV-VI – by purchasing 21st Century Fox). “Awakens,” despite its colossally daunting charge, acquitted itself more-than-admirably well: It delivered thrills, introduced winsome new players, and was for the most part received warmly, even enthusiastically, with perhaps its most common and agreed-upon criticism (a fair one, perhaps) being that it tried too hard and too often to call back to the original films. For my money, it was certainly a good time.
“The Last Jedi,” then, benefits not only from Awakens’ strong start, but more particularly from its predecessor’s having laid down backstory and development for such characters as First-Order-Stormtrooper-turned-rebel-hero Finn (John Boyega), orphan-junk-scavenger-turned-lightsaber-wielding-icon Rey (Daisy Ridley), and – despite the actor’s own demurrals, let’s face it – inescapably Han-Solo-esque fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). This legwork done, Johnson’s film is free to hit the ground running, and wisely does so, kicking things off with a rather breathtaking space-action sequence, engaging multiple concurrent storylines, and bringing faces old, new, and new-but-familiar into the galactic fold. At times, in fact, there almost seems (but doesn’t quite) to be too much going on: Clearly expository dialogue, which would otherwise chafe, is instead often welcome, as it helps explain (natch) and contextualize things that are happening quickly. Without spoiling much of anything (I promise): Rey has gone in search of Luke Skywalker (and found him, as we saw in “Awakens”), Finn decides to go in search of Rey, and Poe and Leia are alternately fleeing and facing down the First Order (General Hux [Gleeson], Kylo Ren [Driver], Supreme Leader Snoke [Serkis], et al.), who want the Rebellion quashed, because that’s what oppressive regimes like to do to rebellions. More happens, of course. But you don’t want me to tell you about that.
So. Does it work? As a film, and as a Star Wars film? In a word: Yes.
In another word: ABSO-PORG-ING-LUTELY. Johnson is bold in his choices – and, more importantly, enacts his choices with the requisite confidence and style (and then some) to bring us along for the rollicking ride, even when we’re not immediately onboard. Further, again, so much is happening, and so much of it is so good, whatever’s questionable is easily and happily swept up by the consistent and captivating entertainment that surrounds it. One conceptually brilliant plot point/character motivation, for instance, doesn’t seem to get to breathe enough cinematically to have maximum impact, but is intrinsically such a stroke of genius that it nearly gets there on its own anyway. Johnson, who also wrote the film, uses humor early and liberally (and often notably modern-seeming humor, at that), which occasionally threatens to distract, tonally, but ultimately lands frequently enough to more-or-less justify itself. A few performances aren’t the sort in which one gets lost and forgets the effort being expended, but work well enough, for various reasons, to not break things up much. The porgs probably aren’t as cute (or omnipresent) as you think they are, but they’re still pretty freakin’ cute.
Much of everything else: Great.
Battle scenes, in space or otherwise, are gripping and spectacular. One of them contains a short action set piece that is, without exaggeration, one of the most instantly unforgettable sensory experiences I’ve ever had in a movie theater. Visually, sonically, narratively, emotionally, it’s utterly, utterly stunning. We were at a press screening, full of critics – generally a more restrained audience (no whoops at the onscreen appearance of the words “Star Wars,” say) – and here there were audible gasps, surprised laughter, cheers, … even applause, I think. Ridley, as Rey, has come fully into her own. While she was certainly scrappy and charismatic in “Awakens,” “Last Jedi’s” Rey anchors and drives the emotional and narrative core of the film. Her focus is unblinking; her power undeniable. She’s one of a number of self-possessed, memorably heroic women in the film (there are a couple in even just the first few minutes), but Ridley’s transformation, and the calm certainty and resolve with which she carries vital portions of the picture, are astounding: She’s become the legend-in-the-making “Awakens” was hinting at, and I can’t wait to see more. The same could be said of Driver’s Kylo Ren, whose arc and inner turmoil are further explored and expanded, giving us a deeper, emerging portrait of a truly fascinating character – rendered so in large part by the actor’s quietly searing, often transfixing performance. Both actors are dialed in, and Johnson crafts a sprawling, compelling narrative around their interwoven fates — one that makes me want to keep watching.
Oscar Isaac, too, is phenomenal. He’s given much more to do this time around, and knocks it all out of the park. He flies like Maverick, disobeys orders for good reasons (like Maverick), and lights up like a Christmas tree when he sees buddies Finn (Boyega is as heart-on-his-sleeve magnetic as ever) or BB-8 (whom I could watch speedroll chirpily around for hours). (Side note: You deserve someone who looks at you the way Poe Dameron looks at Finn or BB-8. We all do.)
There are surprises to be had, and remembrances to be made. Go in willing to have a good time, and it might just be inevitable. Johnson tackles a monumental task with aplomb, paying deep homage in ways that feel integrated with and advance the story while putting his own stamps on it, as well. He knows how to create truly “cool” movie moments, but also how to weave them into the narrative so that they feel organic and earned. While Abrams is back at the helm for “Episode IX,” Disney has announced that Johnson will be directing an entirely separate Star Wars trilogy – which, following Last Jedi, sounds good to me.