Star Wars: The Last Jedi  is the eighth episodic installment of the long-running Star Wars saga, first brought to fruition by George Lucas in 1977, before cascading into a pop culture phenomenon beyond anyone's wildest dreams. It is the direct follow-up to 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, continuing to build on Disney’s vision for the franchise moving forward. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is penned and directed by Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick), taking over from J.J. Abrams, and features returning stars Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Daisy Ridley (Rey), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), John Boyega (Finn), Carrie Fisher (General Leia Organa), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Domhnall Gleeson (Hux), Andy Serkis (Snoke), Gwendoline Christie (Phasma), and Lupita N’Yongo (Maz Kanata). Newcomers include Kelly Marie Tran, Benicio Del Toro (Sicario, Traffic), and Laura Dern (Wild, Jurassic Park 3).
Without spoiling anything, it is difficult to address my specific praises and qualms with Star Wars: The Last Jedi because so much of its personality lies within the intent of its narrative beats rather than the wrapper they come in. But this is for the best because so much of The Last Jedi is a foundationally subversive chapter. Nonetheless, rest assured (that if you found Star Wars: The Force Awakens to be a derivative affair – something for the fans that restricts itself to the formula of the original 1977 film – then perhaps The Last Jedi is the breath of fresh air you have been waiting for. For me, that’s exactly what it was… and maybe even a little more.
The bloom of creativity, or the accused lack thereof, under Disney’s Star Wars “Empire”, is a hotly debated topic among fans, with some feeling that these new films are the culmination of corporate greed and financially motivated familiarity within their stories. Others, like myself, see something sort of in-between. Indeed, it is hard to ignore the corporate motivations when, thus far, three directors/directing duos have been let go from Lucasfilm’s creative team (Josh Trank, Phil & Chris Miller, and Colin Trevorrow) and Disney insists on a strict one-film-per-year release schedule. Nonetheless, The Force Awakens, co-written by J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan and directed by the former, played it safe and earned critical acclaim, as well as the third-highest worldwide box office gross of all time. The Last Jedi is an entirely different beast, hoisted by the eradication of what people expect from a Star Wars film and perhaps even what J.J. Abrams had intended with the foundations he laid in The Force Awakens.
Nobody hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans, and with that being said, the divisive response from general audiences toward Star Wars: The Last Jedi is really no surprise. However, speaking as both a Star Wars fan and as a film critic, if you go into The Last Jedi wanting specific answers and checking off certain criteria, you might leave disappointed. Allow the film to surprise you; allow it to undermine whatever it is you think you want; and maybe, just maybe, you will come to realize the truth: Star Wars: The Last Jedi is one of the finest films in the entire franchise. Rian Johnson, writer and director, does not play it safe, and his vision feels as such; belonging to one person, singularly epic in stakes, and representative of not just his own love for the series, but his understanding of risk and payoff.
On a few more specific notes, there are some things I can tell you about Star Wars: The Last Jedi that can simultaneously leave you in the dark about specific plot points AND keep your fragile electronic device – a computer or a phone, perhaps – safe from a raging spoiler-fueled tantrum. Number one: the performances are incredible here. I would single out Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Carrie Fisher, and Adam Driver. While the film is long, the pace is actually far more consistent and entertaining than some have pointed out. One particular story thread, involving Finn and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), left an uncertain taste in some viewers’ mouths; I would argue that, more accurately, this venture interferes with the tone more so than pacing. Even so, its purposes are clear-cut and, more importantly, it perfectly ties in with both the major themes and the climax of the film. There are some truly magnificent set pieces, including one dazzling and emotionally charged moment that took the breath out of every single person sitting in the audience, as if a cold chill had overtaken the room. It’s moments like this – and a seemingly endless heap of others – that elevate The Last Jedi to the epic extravagance it aspires to.
Disappointment runs through the DNA of The Last Jedi, thematically. Though it thankfully steers clear of The Empire Strikes Back in lieu of weaving its own story, the film still reminds us – like Empire – that our heroes are capable of failure. Even the previously clear-cut notions of good and evil – and the tempting allure of both sides – are expunged in favor of moral ambiguity… greyer than you might expect to find in a Star Wars film. The old perceptions of what makes a villain compelling – or a hero easy to root for – have been traded in for something altogether more interesting. Rejecting the black-and-white nature of the human condition is one of the greatest strengths of The Last Jedi, much like Rogue One before it, except with stronger, more developed characters.
Time will tell where Star Wars: The Last Jedi fits into the esteemed-but-mixed legacy of the saga it continues. It may depend greatly on the success of the as-of-this-writing untitled Episode IX, or perhaps a greater factor may be just how far Disney rides this franchise train. For my part, The Last Jedi is everything I wanted from a new Star Wars film – even a few things I had no idea I wanted. As it turns out, that meant tearing down the boundaries of what one should expect from a Star Wars film. It’s a movie that takes huge risks, achieves huge payoffs, and on both a technical and storytelling level, dazzles in its execution.