Disclaimer: Some of the criticisms aimed at people who dislike this movie are intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Please don't take anything personally. The brilliance of such an iconic, sprawling saga such as Star Wars is that we can debate its best and worst bits from dusk til dawn. So love and hate whatever the damn hell you like. Anyway, on to the review...
The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. I say that despite the wrath it’s incurred from the Internet masses, and the glaring fact that it’s still a way off from being as good as that middle bit from the original trilogy. It fails to explain plot holes from The Force Awakens, brute-forces some subplots into the account without due need, and concludes in a somewhat trivial fashion. But when you consider that the franchise has been messing with its own narrative ever since it began, it feels a bit pointless to criticize it for doing so in the Disney era. This is still the same Star Wars that The Force Awakens got right - breathtaking space battles, lightsaber duels, new worlds to show off and some great performances from its central cast to build the emotive drama. Particularly, it’s the latter benefit that moves The Last Jedi up a few notches from the other recent efforts. The trailers may have been all about Luke Skywalker’s return, but it’s the ever-increasing strength and purpose of the newer characters that deserve the most attention - and might prove to be the catalyst that gets this current trilogy out of the shadow of the old.
Certainly, the impetus to push past the creative boundaries defined by the original trilogy is frequent throughout. It picks up very quickly from where it left off: junk salvager turned Jedi protege Rey (Daisy Ridley) finally finding Luke (Mark Hamill) on the remote planet of Ahch-To, while General Leia (Carrie Fisher) and fellow Resistance cohorts Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) begin the evacuation of their base from a First Order fleet, following its exposure in the aftermath of the previous film. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), fresh from killing his own father Han Solo back at Starkiller Base, spearheads the assault on the Resistance escape by leading a TIE squadron to destroy all fleeing ships. But for all of his pent-up rage and patricidal tendencies, he hesitates at delivering the final blow on the Resistance command ship that would certainly kill his mother, Leia. The Resistance ultimately make the jump to hyperspace, leaving Kylo, as well as the First Order’s gormless military head General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) to the wrath of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). The Resistance’s escape is no huge defeat - The First Order’s fleet has a tracker enabling them to follow them through hyperspace, no matter how many jumps they make. But Snoke is particularly furious at Kylo’s sudden lack of ruthlessness - going so far as to question his loyalty to the dark side of the Force. Kylo, naturally, protests - he didn’t murder his dad for nothing, after all. But the decision to spare his mother lays bare a doubting mind, and the internal struggle between his conscience and his desire for power becomes a focal plot point - and a catalyst for conflict - as the film goes on.
Soul-searching is also the theme in Rey and Luke’s arc, too - the former believing herself to be in need of guidance on the Light side of the Force, the latter staunchly unwilling to discuss anything Jedi-related. That lightsaber that Rey’s been holding out to Luke for over a year in-between releases is finally taken - and tossed aside. It’s obvious that he didn’t disappear in order to hide from any First Order agents intent on finding him - he disappeared to be left alone for good. Whatever has caused this U-turn, he’s also not willing to share. Of course, Rey’s stubborn refusal to accept the Jedi Master’s non-cooperation eventually results in him softening up and spilling the beans. But not before he offers up a few monologues that significantly shift perception regarding the Force - and especially the Jedi - to schools of thought only hinted at within the Star Wars ecosystem until now. What if, after all, the Jedi were just another controlling religious faith, instead of the incorruptible galactic force for good they’ve been presented as? It may not be a revelatory twist of Darth Vader magnitude, but it’s a subtly groundbreaking one that Rey and Luke’s scenes wind up coming back to. Such a shift away from Star Wars’ traditional ‘good vs. evil’ narrative is also a welcome. Frankly, as brilliant as its defining moments have often been, it’s long been in need of a bit more philosophical complexity, especially after the prequels’ stumbled attempts at adding such.
Eventually, Rey and Kylo’s paths do cross again - and without offering any more spoilers, deliver The Last Jedi’s most thrilling moments. It’s fantastic timing too, given how well the film’s opening half handles the addition of depth to both of its main characters. Daisy Ridley has definitely grown into her role as Rey, even if the story still firmly molds her in the ‘hero’s journey’ style of character development. She remains thoroughly engaging despite still being an archetype, but not quite as much as Kylo Ren. For all intents and purposes, this is Adam Driver’s movie. He makes Kylo’s growing internal conflict both compelling and believable, and gives a performance of such gravity that he steals almost every scene he’s in. Special mention must also go to his on-screen mentor Snoke too, whose long-awaited appearance is complimented with a memorable display of volcanic rage and malevolence, courtesy of Andy Serkis’ fine pre-CGI work. When the three of them do unite in The Last Jedi’s pivotal climactic scene, it’s an unforgettable franchise moment - and one that potentially sets up a tantalizing final chapter to this current trilogy.
Meanwhile, it’s safe to say the rest of the Resistance are elbowed aside in favour of Rey and Kylo’s stories. Their ongoing attempt to escape the ever-pursuing First Order fleet may feel less important, but it’s no less entertaining. Oscar Isaac continues to impress as Poe Dameron, a hero who at this point has become a perfect mix of Han Solo and Wedge Antilles. His clashes with both First Order forces and his own command (Leia, along with newly-appearing Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern)) provide a nice distraction away from all that mulling over the Force, especially when the space battles themselves get into full swing. Alongside him, Finn (who at one point seemed certain to be a central character to all of this), is handed a fairly ill-contrived - but still fun - espionage-heavy arc when he’s sent off on a near-suicide mission to find a hacker, DJ (Benicio Del Toro), who’s capable of nullifying The First Order’s hyperspace tracker. Both BB8 and fellow Resistance member Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) accompany him for this oddball-ish little escapade; one that does admittedly feel at odds with the more traditional Star Wars elements on show. DJ’s stomping grounds of the casino planet of Canto Bight has certainly been the subject of a lot of polarizing opinions online. But it still provides a great excuse for the creative department to push the universe’s boat out a little more, offering up a new locale and more of the outlandish aliens that made Mos Eisley such a critical piece of Star Wars lore. Love it or hate it, it’s at least different. And considering how safe The Force Awakens played it for its duration, it’s commendable that The Last Jedi at least tries to offer new ideas.
Ultimately, the perceived failure of these moments mean little. Despite the shift in narrative, The Last Jedi retains the old Star Wars spirit impeccably. It definitely helps that it brings back the most important ‘old’ character - and Mark Hamill’s return is indeed a triumphant one. His on-screen Luke may be different from even his own vision, but his transformation from do-gooder Jedi to grizzled, cynical hermit is another excellent example of how this universe has begun to turn on itself. There is still room for a reconciliation of sorts with Leia - a genuinely moving scene, given further poignancy by Carrie Fisher’s untimely passing. But putting Luke under a different light definitely works in giving this film - and this trilogy - a chance to try new things without abandoning the soul of it all.
John Williams’ soundtrack is both as fantastic and irreplaceable as ever. The lightsaber battles are tremendously choreographed, and the X-Wings, TIEs and Star Destroyers look as cool as they ever did. It should also be mentioned that every second of this film looks jaw-droppingly beautiful too, no matter the scene (seriously, if the film ain’t up for some kind of Cinematography award at the Oscars, then I’m a Wookiee). But it ain’t all perfect. Rian Johnson’s taste for cutaway shots feels a bit too modern at times, and the whole transition between Rey and Kylo’s reunion, to the climactic battle between Resistance and First Order on the salt planet Crait, feels so rushed as to be two completely different films in one. Not to mention Rose’s rather forced insertion into Finn’s storyline could have been handled with a lot more tact. But for all of The Last Jedi’s flaws, its core is unabashedly Star Wars. Better still, it’s Star Wars daring to be adventurous - with its creativity rewarded with the building of a now-solid heroine, and a villain as fascinating as any put to a Star Wars movie - even Vader himself.
But irrespective of the quality of the movie, the wrath of the Internet will remain. The message boards of the world will complain about how dumb it is that the Force can be used to communicate across space, even though it was already hinted at in the first two original films. They’ll have no problem that being the biggest crime lord in the galaxy was a status once enjoyed by a large, stationary slug, but will get up in arms about a steampunk-styled casino planet. They’ll bitch about the pointless distraction of Finn and Rose’s side plot, conveniently forgetting about that whole bit in Empire Strikes Back when the Millenium Falcon nearly got eaten by a asteroid-that-wasn’t-an-asteroid. They’ll complain about Porgs when Ewoks were a thing. I could go on (and on), but the only thing that needs to be said is this: The Last Jedi is a Star Wars film for the modern age - with all the strengths and flaws that come with that. So for goodness’ sake, just pipe down and enjoy it.