Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi Lives Up to the High Standards of the Beloved Prequels

Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

In the 40th year of the franchise, a gloom has set over the universe of Star Wars. Harrison Ford still lives, but Han Solo does not. Carrie Fisher died unexpectedly last year, even though Princess Leia, as of the end of The Force Awakens, is still alive. But as any fan of the films knows, Star Wars is at its best when it embraces its dark side.

Most people consider The Empire Strikes Back the greatest film of the series, and even though the prequels have few defenders, the pitch-black Revenge of the Sith was easily the best of that trilogy. After The Force Awakens copied the original film with a few substitutions, it is reasonable to expect that The Last Jedi would do the same and replicate the tragedy of The Empire Strikes Back, and while it does have some inevitable parallels in both tone and plot points, the only true comparison between the two is quality. The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie since Luke Skywalker found out his parentage 37 years ago.

It is easy to criticize The Force Awakens for its abundance of caution, replicating almost beat for beat A New Hope with only cosmetic substitutions (This time, the orphan found on a desert planet is a girl!), but after George Lucas strayed too far from what made Star Wars so beloved in the prequels, it was perhaps necessary for J.J. Abrams to return to the basic structure of the series to right it. Rian Johnson, best known for directing Looper and some of the very best episodes of “Breaking Bad,” does not have the same burden, and as such, he can take greater chances with the film that pay off immensely. What Johnson accomplishes is that he makes The Last Jedi both into the movie that audiences expect and the movie that audiences do not simultaneously. At this point, audiences know in general of what the Jedi are capable, but as Johnson shows, they don’t know nearly everything.

The Last Jedi takes place almost immediately after the conclusion of The Force Awakens, with two crucial scenes that establish just how different this movie will be from its predecessor. The first has Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) facing off against the First Order forces of General Hux (Domhnall Gleason), and instead of dazzling us with a TIE fighter taking on a Star Destroyer, Johnson has Isaac and Gleason perform what is essentially a comedy routine, and a rather funny one at that. Following this, Rey (Daisy Ridley) approaches Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as she did at the close of The Force Awakens and hands him his lightsaber, which he promptly throws away. Any expectations that he will be her Yoda, which once seemed inevitable, are wickedly dashed. Meanwhile, Princess Leia remains faced with tough choices, Finn (John Boyega) recovers from his injury and finds a new ally in the Rebel tech Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), and the emo Sith Lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) becomes obsessed with finding Rey after she defeated him in a lightsaber battle. This doesn’t even take into account new characters played by Benicio Del Toro and Laura Dern or the non-human characters whether old (Chewbacca) or new (the Porgs, adorable bird-like creatures that will be under every child’s Christmas tree). Suffice it to say, this movie is overstuffed.

At its best, Star Wars has always had an undeniable visual poetry, and The Last Jedi offers some of the most indelible moments of splendor of the series, comparable to the twin suns of Tatooine and the cloud city of Bespin. The climactic battle on an ice planet obviously recalls the opening of The Empire Strikes Back, with a striking twist. Some of the new aliens feel novel without resorting to excessive cuteness, from the ice foxes to the tortured racing creatures on a casino planet. This diversion among the universe’s elite also provides actual moral complexity to the series that it generally lacks. The series has always had a Manichean sense of morality – it does, after all, hinge upon the idea of a Dark Side of the Force and its opposite – but The Last Jedi suggests for the first time that there might be a shade of gray. Some of the prequels had obvious parallels to Bush and the Iraq War, but this movie feels as if it was made in recognition of the Obama-era drone strike policies.

While The Force Awakens had Harrison Ford, perhaps the most iconic living movie star, as the main representative of the original cast, The Last Jedi relies on the two performers responsible for some of the weakest acting moments of the first film (Hamill’s whining and Fisher’s accent, caught somewhere between Windsor and Bel Air, look particularly bad in retrospect.). This might have inspired a Jake Lloyd level of concern about the quality of the acting, and yet both are perhaps the best they have ever been in the series. Hamill fully embraces the iconic nature of Luke Skywalker, and the decades have given the gravitas the character always needed. For the first time, he’s just about perfect. And Fisher, in her last role, adds a maternal grace to a Leia who looks as weak and beaten down as the character should be. Meanwhile, the next generation (Ridley, Boyega, Isaac and Driver) each find new dimensions to their characters and, in Isaac’s case, benefit from massively expanded roles. The interplay between Ridley and Driver, in particular, contains the best acting work of the franchise not done by Alec Guinness or Frank Oz.

Most people who see Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back remember the first time they saw it and can recall the particular details of how they felt at critical moments. There are certainly better, more accomplished and more perfect films than these, but only a few that connect so viscerally to audiences that every sensation feels so acute. The Last Jedi, for the first time in thirty-seven years, is a Star Wars film that lives up to that high standard.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Walt Disney Motion Picture Studios
Now in theaters

5 Stars

Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).

Jeremy Ross is a Staff Reporter for Living Out Loud - LA, covering entertainment.

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