Ordinarily, a hefty degree of background would be necessary to contextualize an epic action film in a standard film review. But when it comes to the monolithic and venerable Star Wars franchise, it’s hard to imagine most folks in the U.S.A. not being familiar. Truly, the neon swords, colorful aliens and galactic showdowns of the Star Wars fiction are about as American as apple pie. Nearly anyone you know has lived with these images and references all their lives. Most over twenty have a deep affinity with the original films and the opposite with their oh-so-failed early 2000’s prequels. Now, the 2015 release Star Wars: The Force Awakens has re-introduced this cinematic universe to a whole legion of new, young fans. As such, we’ll be brief.
The world’s first introduction to the world of Star Wars came by way of a trilogy of films between 1977 and 1983. Each directly sub titled “Episode IV – A New Hope,” “Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back” or “Episode VI – Return of the Jedi,” the films were a cross cultural and box office smash. They defied expectations in terms of not only financial success, but also visual rendering, special effects, unforgettable characters and fantasy splendor. Fiction creator George Lucas delivered on a long fan-pondered theory starting in 1999: whether they’d ever get to see the parts I, II and III of the story that the original movies followed. The vastly expensive and often critically maligned “Episode I – The Phantom Menace,” “Episode II – Attack of the Clones” and “Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” were—let’s face it—mostly crappy. Whatever simplistic magic that the practical effects rendered with eye-popping allure in the original three films were lost to overly contrived plots, ridiculously over-animated backdrops and a ton of bad Hayden Christensen acting.
In 2012, The Walt Disney Company purchased the Star Wars intellectual property and Lucas’ Lucasfilm for just North of 4 billion dollars (that’s billion with a b people). From there, the determined and well-oiled machine that is the Disney corporation immediately advanced a plan to continue the story in episodes VII, VIII and IX. The first of which, “Episode VII – The Force Awakens” was helmed by endlessly successful director/producer J. J. Abrams. Critics and fans alike were overjoyed at the property’s return to form, as much of the original look and feel returned to the series, along with many of the surviving actors from films IV, V and VI. It now comfortably sits as the top grossing movie in the history of the U.S.A. box office and number three at the all-time worldwide box office (behind only James Cameron’s juggernauts Titanic and Avatar).
Following last year’s spin-off Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Star Wars “Episode VII – The Last Jedi” picks up right after the epic finale of the last episode. Finn is badly hurt, Rey has just found the long-lost Luke Skywalker, General Leia Organa holds a shaky rebel alliance and antagonist Kylo Ren has started to doubt his fervent commitment to the dark side of the force. Here, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is convinced she must return with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to help the Resistance repel The First Order. Chewbacca at her side, she finds Skywalker to be far less accommodating than expected. He’s on the far side of the universe isolating himself for mysterious, but inevitably revealed to be good reasons. He’s none too happy to have any company even if Rey is accompanied by his old friends Chewbacca and droid R2-D2.
Meanwhile, The First Order has devised some mechanism of tracking the Resistance’s location and preparing to wage an all-out obliteration on their main outpost. From the film’s first moments, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher in her final film role), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) are in a crunch to try to have a glimmer of hope for survival. Their cause hanging in the balance, the film is a race against time to outwit and out-fight their enemies.
They are being hunted like cockroaches marked for extermination by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), the Darth Vader-esque Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Much like The Force Awakens, all is not well on the dark side of the force either, as internal tensions between the main three baddies hint at a power struggle bubbling about to blow.
Many trademark pieces of the Star Wars fiction are all rendered lovingly in this movie. There are immense space battles, locations filled with wildly eclectic alien species and deep philosophical pondering about the higher nature of “The Force” and what any one person’s connection to it might be. Yes, the time-honored conflict between faith versus control is a major part of this film’s story. Much like the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi, though far less irritating, there is even a cutesy furry alien animal that provides “awww” moments and comic relief. Called the Porgs, they’re a big-eyed hybrid of sorts of guinea pigs and birds (and yes, they are funny pretty much any time they show up on screen). We even get a few magnificent light saber duels and space chases before the film’s conclusion.
What really makes The Last Jedi special though—as fun as the sci-fi “pew pew pew” is and all—is how hard the movie works to bring forth the character arc of its many characters. The real cheer-inducing moments here are when these lovingly rendered plots play to fruition. If you see this film on opening weekend you will see people cheer at numerous moments. Literally, fists will be raised in joyful glee. We won’t spoil anything major for you here, as the surprises and revelations are really worth the price of admission, but suffice to say, Star Wars fans will be thrilled from top to bottom.
All the credit here truly belongs to the film’s director and writer, Rian Johnson. Johnson was responsible for a pair of truly excellent and underrated films (of which he both wrote and directed), the 2005 film Brick and 2012 film Looper. While massively different, both films starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt and were remarkably well thought-out and executed. In The Last Jedi, Johnson takes this precision knack for methodical storytelling and applies it on the grandest scale possible with characters the masses have been enamored with for decades. It is sad that he won’t be returning for the finale, the as yet untitled “Episode IX,” but he is left his mark on the film world forever behind this one.
He also guides the story of the Star Wars universe through inevitable transition. As the story progresses we learn more about the new initiates into this universe and how their meddle and faith all ultimately stack up against a dark and complicated universe. Does belief give them the strength to prevail over insurmountable odds? Is their any hope when the enemy is just inches behind your every move? What sacrifices are worth making to ensure the “good guys” win? Can anyone even honestly weigh the morality of each choice when everything is truly awful? Yes, everyone in The Last Jedi is stuck in a philosophical blender on puree. Little and less comes through the other side without being fully chopped and screwed.
The cast all give stellar performances to bring this to bear. New characters DJ (Benicio Del Toro), Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) all are essential in the execution of these quagmires. This film also stands as just one more sterling example of how Andy Serkis has turned motion capture acting in a high art form as his performance as Snoke is menacing and positively oogy. Of the principal cast Driver and Isaac deliver the best performances, slaving over every glance and word their characters emit throughout. Kylo Ren and Poe Dameron both have caustic confrontations with their true motives and the possibility of ascending to a greater state of being.
And of course, this is the last time any of us get to see the late, great Carrie Fisher in a movie. Having made her name in the original Star Wars as the film’s relentless fighter Princess Leia, she here renders a magnificent performance as the elder stateswoman a ragtag rebellion sorely needs. She is the heart and soul of a bombastic science fiction smackdown, longingly pondering over every lost life and every possibly futile decision. It may her career’s finest work, and it’s painfully evident how badly she will be missed in the next movie in the series.
Verdict: 5 out of 5
There is little arguing the massive scope and spectacle of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Fans, obsessives, kids and adults alike will be thrilled to see this story continue. Most importantly, it continues the pivotal trend of keeping the Star Wars films credible. A bunch of lasers and expensive CGI does not make for a thrilling movie alone. It’s the overall bent for excellence that makes this one worth every penny. The Force is strong with this one, indeed.