‘The Last Jedi’ is the best ‘Star Wars’ since the original trilogy, but it’s a shame that isn’t saying more

Illustration: Kevin K.

After The Force Awakens drew valid criticism for being a near carbon copy of the original Star Wars, its follow-up falls into the same trap and wildly corrects it. The Last Jedi is without a doubt the franchise’s most distinct, ambitious cinematic entry yet. At the same time, it’s also the story of a would-be Jedi, separated from their Rebel companions and seeking training from a remote, embittered Jedi hermit beside a sunken X-Wing, in the process finding a foggy cave and taking an abstracted vision quest; at the same time, their friends visit an affluent city to recruit a scoundrel who would readily sell them out to the bad guys, and in the end, things look bleak but at the same time quietly hopeful. So yeah, it’s sort of The Empire Strikes Back. But now it’s not just the plot but the forward thinking being aped, writer-director Rian Johnson stretching to bring the series something new and undoubtedly more interesting than what was last on screens. It may not always work, but at least it’s not just more of the same.

Opening within moments of when The Force Awakens ends, the film picks up on Rey’s sweeping first meeting with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who some may remember as the laser sword-wielding farm boy of the original Star Wars trilogy. Similar to so many retirement-age Jedi, Luke is now living in solitude, residing on an island populated by hobbling, wonderfully Henson-esque alien caretakers, the much ballyhooed “Porgs” (basically cuter puffins, and thankfully not really new Ewoks), and some kind of upright dinosaur thing, whose engorged tits Luke massages so that me may chug of its pallid blue milk. And that’s canon.

Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Leia (the late Carrie Fisher), and an enthusiastic and pure-of-heart newcomer (Kelly Marie Tran, largely playing a fan surrogate character, equally excited and put off by this relentless saga), meanwhile, are facing battles and prolonged set-ups in space. After a definitely cool initial face-off, the group sets up a central premise that’s just a hair away from being an on-screen timer: a Star Destroyer is running down the central Resistance ship, and for reasons that are mentioned but never quite make sense, the explicitly lighter, more agile good guys can neither escape from nor be caught by the First Order fleet. If there isn’t balance to the Force, for some reason there is strikingly even balance to top engine speeds.

That kind of lucky coincidence, such perfect happenstance—a “one in a million” shot, to quote the late H. Solo—is stock-in-trade in the Star Wars franchise, yet it somehow feels more egregious than usual here. So many scenes broadcast their narrow conceit only to follow through without regard to even the narrowest criticism. At one point, as our heroes abandon a doomed ship, we’re told how someone must stay behind to continue its journey forward. Why it can’t be a droid, or a fucking brick on the pedal, is never fussed about. That’s a regular function of the film’s meticulous yet loose-when-needed drama. Though, in fairness, some of its abundance of lazy contrivances owes more to just how unnecessarily lengthy the film is.

At over two-and-a-half hours, The Last Jedi is far too long, overly ambitious, and somehow feels like a first draft despite the studio system of the ever-growing Disney machine. Johnson could, and perhaps should, have cut out the entire final act and saved it for the next film. Looking back, actually a lot of the film could be cut without consequence. For as long as it would take to give a detailed rundown of the film’s plot, if one were to just catch someone up to what they need to know for Episode IX, it could be done in a few sentences. In making his film so entrenched in his escape conceit, Johnson really went all out on the film spinning its wheels. Still, the writer-director did some pretty cool things, too.

It’s no secret that Star Wars was a pastiche, George Lucas borrowing from an equal mix of filmmaking masters and pulpy B-movies to make something that became a phenomenon. Empire Strikes Back carried on and expanded upon the original, but already by Return of the Jedi—and more recently with The Force Awakens—Lucas and his cronies had forgotten that the franchise was a nod to the past. Feeding into hype, both those films weren’t Star Wars films but imitations thereof, degraded xeroxes, recognizable as copies of the last but never quite matching what was originally being replicated. With The Last Jedi, Johnson has finally brought a newness, even as he still sought inspiration from the past.

Like Lucas, who liberally plucked from The Hidden Fortress to build his now-revered world, Johnson found inspiration in Akira Kurosawa (particularly in one stand-out samurai showdown). His impressive new set for Force Awakens‘ baddie Snoke (a predictably mo-capped Andy Serkis) is basically Snoke Making Sense, heavily referencing a certain iconic Talking Heads’ set from their 1984 concert film. We get surreal Force visions that overlap and reach past what The Empire Strikes Back accomplished; German Expressionist imagery; a possible nod to the still-impressive dolly shot from 1927’s Wings; and an environment where beautiful plumes of red dust are thrown around like a 5k Color Run. Johnson embraces montage, extreme close-up, flashback, and color like no Star Wars director has before. Given how much this series has already been irretrievably elevated from its humble beginnings as a better-realized Flash Gordon, it’s refreshing to see something attempt to consciously raise it up again.

In the end, though, The Last Jedi is, to its benefit and detriment, equally a belated Star Wars follow-up and a Rian Johnson film. It’s bogged down by the prequels’ lows, where madcap CGI chase sequences, the once thinly-sketched Jedi mythos, and rotating set-piece environments became so needlessly expanded upon. And while it benefits from Johnson’s craft and passion as both filmmaker and obvious Star Wars zealot, it’s just as held back by his tendency to lock in his fun ideas before in any way building them as reality (his last film, 2012’s Looper, is a likewise entertaining yarn that falls apart with any scrutiny). Not helped by its seemingly middle schooler-designed addition of several painfully extreme new lightsaber designs, The Last Jedi is, after J.J. Abrams’ too-reverent homage, the purely fan-fiction chapter of the Skywalker saga. Yet it’s quite entertaining, occasionally magical fan-fiction—even if we only get a brief taste of the expected fan-fic offerings of bipedal animal breasts. Here’s hoping for better in the next episode.

Grade: B-

Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Director: Rian Johnson
Studio: Walt Disney Studios
Runtime: 152 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro

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