“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the eighth episode in the series that celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, marks the second time that an episode in the franchise has been entrusted to a director whose previous achievements created a buzz of expectation. This first time was back in 1980, when George Lucas gave the second movie in the first “Star Wars” trilogy, “The Empire Strikes Back,” to Irvin Kershner, who until then had made films about contemporary America (the excellent “Loving” and “Up the Sandbox,” for example) which seemed to have very little to do with a galaxy far, far away. In this case the intriguing choice for director is Rian Johnson, who made his debut in 2005 with the surprising, promising “Brick,” a clever mix of high-school movie and film noir, and went on to direct other interesting pictures, such as “The Brothers Bloom” in 2008 and “Looper” in 2012, each of them making distinctive use of the genre to which it belonged.
Interestingly, though Kershner and Johnson belong to two different generations of American filmmakers, they have some things in common. Kershner’s work up until “The Empire Strikes Back” had an eccentric quality to it (which disappeared in his later films), and so do the movies Johnson has made so far. Also, both Johnson and Kershner was asked to direct the middle film of a trilogy, and thus to create a bridge between its opening and closing segments. Kershner did a fine job in “The Empire Strikes Back,” which many have called the best of all the “Star Wars” movies; has Johnson managed to outdo him in “The Last Jedi”?
Let me say right away that “The Last Jedi” is a better picture than “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” from 2015, directed by J.J. Abrams, and that the two latest movies together are better than the tiresome, lackluster second trilogy that Lucas himself directed between 1999 and 2005. Johnson – who is also slated to direct the last movie in the series – has made a film whose strongest suit is its visual design: in many scenes he makes expressive use of the color red, which dominates the movie as a whole, and there are other visually surprising, even thrilling moments.
Johnson not only directed “The Last Jedi,” but wrote the screenplay on his own, and he seems to have had two main ideas about how to link the opening and closing films. First, in this movie he situates the war of light and dark, good and evil that stands at the heart of the “Star Wars” narrative at the crossroads between victory and defeat, and thus fills this episode with a mythic ambivalence. Secondly, he provides the psychological foundation for that myth, as Kershner also did in his film.
And indeed, although the movie follows the interlocking stories of multiple characters and features quite a few well-directed battle scenes, the plot of “The Last Jedi” is almost minimalist. The movie itself is more abstract in nature than any other “Star Wars” picture, which may be Johnson’s way of creating a bridge between the very concrete “The Force Awakens” and the final movie.
In this, Johnson chose wisely, although occasionally “The Last Jedi” – which, at 162 minutes, is the longest installment in the franchise to date – seems to collapse inward while waiting for the next significant plot twist to happen. The story is made of three linked components: first is the war waged by the Resistance against the First Order; second, the efforts made by Rey (Daisy Ridley) to locate Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who is suffering in some remote location, so that he can train her in the Jedi ways; and finally, the family melodrama, also present in “The Force Awakens.” That was created by the estrangement between Leia and the late Han Solo and their son, Kylo Ren, who has abandoned his family and crossed over to the dark side, where he is under the complete control of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, once again in full disguise).
A tinge of melancholy
The three parts of the story are not handled with equal success. Some of the characters who joined the series in “The Force Awakens” – Rey, Finn (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) – are not developed enough, and they seem colorless compared to their presentation in the previous movie. Sometimes it feels as though Johnson included them only because he had to, not because he knew what he wanted to do with them. He may simply have been far more interested in the longtime characters of the series, not least due to Mark Hamill’s nostalgic presence and even more so to Carrie Fisher’s performance as the leader of the Resistance. Knowing that Fisher died shortly after the filming was complete adds a tinge of melancholy to her appearance, a sadness that is only increased by the recognition that her role in her last movie may have been the best, most authoritative performance of her career.
Hamill and Fisher, who give “The Last Jedi” its emotional depth, are joined by Adam Driver, who once again shows himself to be one of the most skillful young actors of his generation. The movie also introduces us to some charming new characters, such as Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), who adds to the ethnic range of female characters dominant in this trilogy – Tran’s parents came to America from Vietnam.
But she is involved with Finn in a storyline that doesn’t add much to the plot. I hope she will be put to better use in the next movie than Rey is in this one. Other newcomers include Laura Dern, who is amusing as Leia’s purple-haired deputy, though her character doesn’t have a significant role in the movie; and Benicio Del Toro, utterly squandered in an unnecessary cameo.
There is much to admire in “The Last Jedi,” which bears the distinctive seal of its writer and director; still, like most of the “Star Wars” movies, I also find it slightly off-putting. Because of its relatively abstract nature, Johnson’s picture emphasizes how much the series is at heart a religious allegory. That is the true source of its sweeping, unrivaled appeal to its many fans, who become members of the faith it offers. The latest installments in the series and their various spin-offs mix religion with the most efficient kind of capitalist American filmmaking –- distinctive as “The Last Jedi” is, clearly it must obey the rules of the franchise – and the ideological implications of this blend are deeply uncomfortable.
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