Star Wars: The Force Awakens delivered such a delectable burst of new life to the franchise that it even convinced me to move on from some of my most beloved movie characters in favor of new ones I had just met. So why won’t Star Wars: The Last Jedi let me get on with it?
Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Looper), The Last Jedi has a quirkier personality than its immediate predecessor, including a playfully comedic instinct, a particular fondness for strange creatures (porgs!), and some moments of arresting, poetic imagery. In short, it too is fun. But narratively, the movie is a bit of a placeholder. Rather than focus on the new characters we met in The Force Awakens—Jedi novice Rey (Daisy Ridley), AWOL Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), and Resistance pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac)—The Last Jedi is mostly interested in them as they relate to two of the franchise’s original figures: Luke (Mark Hamill) and Leia (Carrie Fisher, who died after filming).
And so Rey spends much of the first half of this film where The Force Awakens left her: on the remote island where Luke has banished himself. Distraught by the fact that his former apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has turned to the dark side, Luke thinks it would be best for the Jedi order to end with his lonely passing. As Rey tries to persuade Luke to instead join the fight against the fascist First Order, Poe spends much of his time trapped, along with Commander Leia, on a transport ship surrounded by a First Order battle fleet. Meanwhile, Finn sneaks away on his own mission to infiltrate one of those First Order ships.
You can probably already see the problem. The three characters who showed great charisma and chemistry in The Force Awakens are largely kept apart in The Last Jedi, in favor of frequent scenes with Luke Skywalker. (And anyone who used to argue with childhood friends over who got stuck role playing Luke will tell you, he was never the series’ strong suit.)
Thankfully, Johnson’s imagery lends Luke a gravitas and mysticism that Hamill’s acting doesn’t necessarily provide, especially during the climax. It takes Luke a while to finally draw his lightsaber, but when he finally does Johnson gives him an appropriately operatic stage on which to do it and frames him like the legend he’s become.
That sequence takes place on a battlefield where white salt covers a landscape of red dirt. When even a single step is taken, crimson seeps through the mineral like blood. It’s a striking element as the fighting unfolds, with red streaks crisscrossing the land, emphasizing the cost of the warfare we’re watching. An earlier “wow” moment involves one spaceship colliding with another at light speed, resulting in an instance of immense silence and radiating rings that have a pale, deathly glow. It’s at once mournful and wonderful, and unlike anything we’ve seen before in the series.
The three characters who showed great charisma and chemistry in The Force Awakens are largely kept apart in The Last Jedi.
Johnson also delivers what is perhaps the most elegant explanation of the Force—that mysterious power that governs the Star Wars universe—that the franchise has given us. As Luke describes the Force as the tension that exists between light and dark, life and death, Johnson delivers a montage of images echoing these themes, helping us understand that the Force isn’t a power to be wielded (as Kylo Ren sees it), but a space to be inhabited (as Rey is learning to do).
It’s telling that aside from these visual flourishes, what I found most compelling about The Last Jedi was the developing relationship between Kylo Ren and Rey, two of this saga’s new characters. They spend much of the first half of The Last Jedi messing around in each other’s heads via their manipulation of the Force, but eventually we get a high-stakes showdown where lightsabers are drawn. I won’t give anything away except to say that it contains a stark surprise and some excellent stunt work. (Rey pulls out a dropped lightsaber move that should become legendary.) It’s Rey and Ren, at least for me, who are now the heart of this saga. Here’s hoping the next episode puts them center stage.