Star Wars: The Last Jedi has finally hit theaters. But who is the Last Jedi, really? And what to make of the longest running Star Wars film in the franchise’s history?
[This is a spoiler-free review.]
One thing is certain: regardless of how much you enjoy the film as a whole, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is designed to wring out every possible emotion from its audience that it can. There is much at stake and director Rian Johnson knows this, knows that the film’s emotional core is going to be the primary takeaway no matter what happens on screen. He does everything possible to make certain that there is always something to feel, even if there isn’t always something to track logically.
The biggest problem with The Last Jedi is that there is far too much packed into it. The longest Star Wars film before Episode VIII was Episode II: Attack of the Clones, which was mired with pacing issues, and Last Jedi is unfortunately no different. It somehow manages to have even more story threads going than any installment of the prequels ever had, and is incapable of shepherding each of them to a satisfying conclusion. There are a few diversions too many while the central storyline (surrounding the fate of the Resistance and Rey’s time spent with Luke Skywalker) needs a sharper focus.
The new characters that Johnson introduces us to shine brightly, but need more time to grow. Laura Dern is spellbinding as Amilyn Holdo, but the character’s history needs more context for her overall role in the film to make sense. (She is featured heavily in the YA book about Leia’s early days in the Rebellion, Leia: Princess of Alderaan, but you barely get a sense of that past with her role in the film.) Kelly Marie Tran flipping sparkles in her role as Rose Tico, Resistance maintenance worker who sticks to Finn’s side, but she deserves more attention than the film is capable of giving her, particularly given how important she is to the overall plot. Benicio del Toro’s mysterious turn as “DJ” is an odd extra bit of casting that reads as though Johnson just really wanted the guy in the movie and basically let him do whatever he wanted. He’s fun to watch, but it’s still a bit confusing as to why he’s there.
There are some clever curveballs that Johnson throws into the tale. While much early speculation from fans spouted the common suggestion that The Last Jedi would likely mirror The Empire Strikes Back, there’s far less of the movie in there than one might have anticipated. Instead, there are several places where this film holds narrative hands with Return of the Jedi, often in the most unexpected ways. Occasionally the pieces where you can spot connections to the original Star Wars trilogy are incredibly jarring, but Episode VIII has far too much going on in it to feel like a solid rehashing of previous films.
Most of the overstuffed issues of Last Jedi come down to extra locations that we don’t need or attempts to lighten the tone that don’t fully succeed. It reads as though Johnson was concerned about leaving the film without enough laughs, but many of the jokes are oddly out of place. (The much-anticipated porgs are cute and actually pretty fun to watch on their own, but why they needed to be in this film in particular is anyone’s guess.) The detour to Canto Bight, the casino world full of high-rollers that was previewed heavily by Vanity Fair before the film’s release, is a very distracting B-plot that fails to pay out dividends in the film’s larger scheme, making it a confusing and lengthy diversion.
But despite the unevenness of the film overall, The Last Jedi succeeds in the places where it needs to the most; specifically, in reintroducing audiences to Luke Skywalker, giving more background on Ben Solo’s fall to the Dark Side, and allowing Rey to continue to continue her journey in this story. Mark Hamill has been waiting for this since he stood on a cliffside in The Force Awakens and didn’t say a word, and he gives everything to the performance. Luke Skywalker’s presence carries the weight of this massive tale in most respects, and that presence forces the audience to ask important questions about the nature of this galaxy far, far away; the idea of what balance in the Force truly looks like, the difficulty of inhabiting a legendary figure who is still a flesh-and-blood person, the true purpose of owning one’s failures. The pain that comes from bearing the Skywalker name (for both Luke and Leia) is not made simple for the purposes of this story—Anakin and Padmé’s children have suffered dearly for their legacy, and it’s clear that the galaxy over-relies on them to that end.
The knowledge that Carrie Fisher is gone is the sharpest sting of watching The Last Jedi, and it can’t help but stand out in light of the movie’s arc; when these films started, the plan was to have Force Awakens focus on Han, Last Jedi focus on Luke, and the final film focus on Leia. The events of Episode VIII offer a perfect bridge to that arc, begging questions about Leia’s way forward and the extreme personal sacrifices that can accompany being a leader and a literal embodiment of hope. The greatest loss that we suffer in The Last Jedi is the knowledge that we will never see the Episode IX that could have been. We will never watch our general complete her story.
Still, the saga continues, and this chapter ends with the sensation of a freshly opened wound. It’s hardly surprising for the middle chapter of a three-part story, but all pain is unique. The Force Awakens came for your heart, but The Last Jedi is here for your spirit. With stakes that high, Episode IX is a frightening prospect indeed.
[For the sake of allowing others to enjoy the film, we ask for NO SPOILERS to be given about The Last Jedi in the comments.]
Emily Asher-Perrin kept all of her feelings out of this review, and will proceed to eat a million cookies in self-congratulation. You can bug her on Twitter and Tumblr, and read more of her work here and elsewhere.