There are no spoilers in my review of Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Here’s the loosest of plot summaries: Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) is still on that island with a long-gone Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). While the other rebels are fighting against the newly assembled evil Empire, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) remains angry as ever.
For the first time since George Lucas stopped making these movies, we have a writer/director of real vision at the helm who’s unafraid to take major risks. After the enjoyable fan film that was “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and the needless footnote of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” we get Johnson’s take on this series, which has been made with passion and designed to shake things up.
The strongest portions in “The Last Jedi” are enough to elevate it past an iffy start and how, at times, this resembles the most expensive toy commercial ever made. While the strangely unloved Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi” made some accuse Lucas of selling out to the toy companies, they were genuinely integral to the plot. Here, the cute and squeaky Porgs are introduced in a funny but very forced manner. There’s lots of scenes here where the camera pans across vast new ships, with new characters standing around…I kept waiting for an announcer to declare, “Each Sold Separately! Batteries Not Included!”
Johnson’s dialog is often quip-heavy, a choice that doesn’t always feel genuine. Laura Dern makes a striking entrance playing a pivotal role but she’s misused, as her character arch is seriously confused. Likewise, Benicio Del Toro shows up and, rather than energizing his limp subplot, gives an overly mannered, self consciously “quirky” performance. The late, great Carrie Fisher gets the worst of it, as her final performance requires her to do some frankly laughable things. Rather than deciding whether to kill off Princess Leia or have her remain in the series, Johnson essentially chooses neither option. Fisher deserved a better swan song than this.
Of the subplots that don’t work, a side trip to a gambling casino is a disaster, with imagery that reminded me of the grotesque Lucasfilm “Strange Magic” from a few years back. For all the undeserved flack Lucas’s prequels still get, nothing in them was as cringe-worthy and out of place as this section of “The Last Jedi.” It doesn’t help, either, that the powers of the Jedi are played fast and loose; at times, those strong with The Force can survive a torrent of laser blasts, being ejected into space, having boulders and rubble land on them or, basically, anything rooted in science and logic. By this point in the movie, I feared that, like the characters onscreen lament, all hope was lost.
Yet, when the focus is on Rey and Luke on the island, it works beautifully. These scenes are so riveting, they carry the rest of the movie. Numerous confrontations between Rey and Ren (Driver’s excellent performance is the best in the film) are stylishly crafted and complex enough to make this more than just a children’s fantasy. A flashback with a “Rashomon” approach and a reveal of a steam iron are just two examples of how playful and visually dynamic Johnson’s approach becomes.
There are two massive climactic sequences, both full of big reveals and thrilling action. While the second set piece comes late in the film, both of these crucial showdowns are both so rousing and emotionally rich, I didn’t care about the overextended running time.
Johnson’s film may be a fantasy but it’s also a political film about rising above those who exploit the downcast and rule by bullying. The final image even suggests the birth of an activist. There’s also my favorite moment in the film, where Luke acknowledges an old friend with a wink; it stirred the lifelong “Star Wars” fan in me.
“The Last Jedi” has big peaks and valleys but left me satisfied overall for being so bold. For all the calculated corporate hands on deck, this the work of a real writer/director. Not since Luke Skywalker cut off his own head on Dagobah have these movies seemed so weird and that’s a very good thing.
-originally published in Maui Time Weekly