‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ had a very difficult job to do in 2015 after Disney purchased Lucasfilm. A long-running franchise had to be reintroduced to audiences who were simultaneous turned off by the prequels and waiting with unimaginably high expectations. This was accomplished for the most part with a film that had mostly positive reception with a minor criticism that it too closely resembled what came before it. Rain Johnson attempts to continue this story while staying true to his own artistic voice with ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’.
’Last Jedi’ picks up after ‘Force Awakens’ as Rey convinces Luke to train her while Finn, Poe Dameron and Leia Organa as they continue to face off against Kylo Ren and The First Order. This brings back the cast of ‘Force Awakens’ while introducing a few new supporting players such as Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo and Benicio Del Toro as DJ. This is to say that Iran Johnson has done well to continue on the story started by J.J. Abrams while expanding the universe, something that ‘Star Wars’ hasn't always been the best at.
From the jump, ‘Last Jedi’ is one of the most visually striking ‘Star Wars’ films to date with a space battle (not too abnormal, given the title) that is shot, edited and mixed in a while that truly creates a visceral atmosphere. The scale that Johnson is able to convey with X-Wings rocketing past Star Destroyers is matched only by Gareth Edwards’ ‘Rogue One’. When Poe Dameron flies by the windows of another ship, you see the bridge slightly shift while listening to the windows rattle from the force of his X-Wing. While he certainly breaks the laws of physics as I understand them, Johnson has introduced an attention to detail that hasn’t been present in most films from a galaxy far far away.
This level of skill carries on to the very end of the film, with sweeping shots of Ahch-To (the island where Luke Skywalker has been chilling for an undisclosed time) where Johnson was able to film on the real-life Skellig Michael Island, to a ground-level battle on Crait (a salt covered planet with red soil) where the planet’s surface is used to create some truly stunning visuals. Johnson has clearly honed his abilities to an expert level even with ‘Last Jedi’ only being his fourth film. Creating one of the most visually arresting ‘Star Wars’ films, if not the most, is no small feat and one that was certainly aided by the cinematographer Steve Yedlin who has shot every film of Johnson’s to date.
One of the most damning criticisms of ‘Force Awakens’ was its rather familiar story and structure that was a little too similar to ‘A New Hope’. With an incredibly similar structure and the inclusion of a giant Death Star-esque mega weapon to boot, J.J. Abrams received plenty of flack for just copying the film that started this whole thing beat for beat. What Johnson has done with ‘Last Jedi’ is create a film that continues the Abrams story and is recognizable to 'Star Wars’ fans as something inspired by 'The Empire Strikes Back’ while not copying it in any way. Have a few minor similarities and multiple nods or homages to ‘Empire’ as well as the rest of the original trilogy is something that I think most fans will appreciate.
While I will show my hand slightly early and say that I am a big fan of ‘Last Jedi’, that isn't to say that I have no complaints. This film may earn the title of longest ‘Star Wars’ film to date, but that isn't to say that it is earned. This failed my watch test (if I have to look at my watch to check the runtime, you’ve done something wrong) as certain bits of the story either have a lull to them, or just feel like a distraction from the main story. For instance, Finn and Rose Tico leave the majority of the characters for an extended bit of this story to retrieve something necessary for the Resistance and their efforts to evade The First Order. Even though there are some very cool additions to the ‘Star Wars’ universe in this part of the film, in both locations and culture, that doesn't mean it’s entirely needed. I found myself wanting to get back to our main plot line quickly into this side quest.
To make the minor gripes worse, Rian Johnson and the freedom he was given with ‘Last Jedi’ has me questioning Disney’s entire ‘Star Wars’ enterprise as many of the larger questions posed by J.J. Abrams with ‘Force Awakens’ seem to be derailed, ignored or altered in a major way. To reveal any of these would be a spoiler, which I will avoid, but seeing so many story elements and plot threads be cut or forgotten leaves me wondering what sort of a master plan Disney really has. I more than support the idea of embracing a director and their vision but I feel like the mouse powers that be should have at least a rough outline of where they would like to take this multi-billion dollar franchise.
With an original story, a confident style of direction and an ability to properly utilize a talented cast like Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill, Rian Johnson has delivered a ‘Star Wars’ movie that is somehow the funniest, darkest most risky film in the series yet coming off of a rather safe outing in the galaxy far far away. I am more excited now for Episode IX than I thought I would be as seeing if J.J Abrams can match this level of skill will be worth the wait. This is a proper sendoff for Carrie Fisher and Leia as a character and has so many reasons to be worthy of the fandom that comes with this franchise.