When the end credits for Star Wars: The Last Jedi started to roll, I turned to a good friend and colleague and asked her, “Could we ask the projectionist to play it again?”. I could not stop grinning throughout the film, even during its most somber moments. It was the smile of that young kid who, back in the 70s in Puerto Rico, went to the movies with his Dad and saw such unlikely mix of titles as Battle for the Planet of the Apes, The French Connection, Papillon, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Charles Bronson’s entire filmography. It was the smile of that teen who, years after its premiere, discovered the original Star Wars and would later re-enact in the balcony of one his house that film’s dogfights, sound effects included. It was also the grin of that college student who discovered so many classic films once denied him because they were not age appropriate. The grin that belongs now to this adult film critic and writer and jack of many trades after watching a movie that revives his love for the art form. For Star Wars: The Last Jedi, far more than The Force Awakens and Rogue One and even The Empire Strikes Back, reaffirmed my love for the movies. It offers that visceral thrill, that emotion we all seek from any image projected on the big or small screen. High praise indeed in a year that brought us so many extraordinary and diverse cinematic accomplishments as Mudbound, Coco, The Shape of Water, Okja, Poesía sin fin and Baby Driver, among so many others.
If J.J Abrams’ The Force Awakens set the tone for the following films with its tactile, organic, lived-in look and feel, while being too perilously close to comfort to the storyline of the original Star Wars, here director and writer Rian Johnson (Brick, the extraordinary time bending Looper) grabs those very same ingredients not only to elevate the saga but to take it in another, more promising and potentially exciting, direction. Yes, there are echoes of both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi here and there. But that’s all they are, echoes. If you expect Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to be a Yoda-like instructor to Rey (Daisy Ridley), think again. If you think there will be soap-operatic revelations, think again. And if you think that Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) will become the next Darth Vader, guess what…yep, you got it, think again. Yes, the climactic battle sequence takes place in a wintery planet not unlike Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. But, that’s where the similarity ends. Johnson acknowledges the past but is far more interested in paving the way for the future. In fact, that is this film’s main theme as voiced by both Luke and Kylo/Ben in two distinct moments of the film. The original saga dealt in blacks and whites, in good guys versus bad guys, rebellion versus authority. Johnson tears apart that dichotomy; he is far more interested in the shades of grey that lie between both extremes. In doing so, he has layed down a challenge of his own as Abrams takes the reins of the final part of this trilogy, which begins shooting next month.
Like all the previous chapters in the saga, The Last Jedi opens with a thrilling space battle as the forces of the Resistance led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) are under attack by the forces of the First Order led by General Hux (Donhall Gleeson, delightfully chewing scenery left and right) under the watchful eyes of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). The battle is preceded by a standoff between Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) as he faces off one of their huge starships with his X-Wing fighter in a scene that is alone worth the ticket price, establishing right off the bat that this will not be your run-of-the-mill Star Wars film. The battle leaves the rebel forces decimated and its survivors relentlessly pursued across space by the New Order as they begin to run out of fuel.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the galaxy, Rey tries to convince a bitter, reclusive
Luke to come out of retirement and pick up his light sabre to give hope to the Rebels and the entire galaxy. She also seeks answers to her own questions, especially about her newly acquired powers. Luke witnesses a unique demonstration of her abilities and reluctantly takes on her training. And what of Kylo/Ben, you ask? He is no longer the sulky, resentful Anakin Skywalker wannabe of the first film but a fully defined, complex antagonist driven by doubts of his own, especially after having killed his father Han. He can also communicate telepathically with Rey across space (these are some of the film’s best directed and edited scenes). As you listen to these conversations, one can’t help but think that they are laying down the philosophical underpinnings of the final chapter in this trilogy.
Johnson gives the rest of the returning cast plenty to do while introducing new characters. Poe bangs heads with a new commanding officer while Finn (John Boyega) and maintenance worker Rosa (Kelly Marie Tran) embark on a mission to find a codebreaker that will help them neutralize one of the New Order’s main starships. The search leads them to Costa Blight, an outer space Monaco where the Galaxy’s one percenters frolic and gamble their lives away leading to one of the many films many tours de force. If Poe’s character felt shortchanged in The Force Awakens, Johnson more than makes up for it by fleshing out this character; one of the film’s many joys is watching Isaac tear into this role with gusto and charm, turning him into a classic swashbuckling hero.
Johnson packs a lot of story, a lot of action and a lot of quiet moments into his two hour and a half film. The Last Jedi never feels like a placeholder the way most second chapters in so many film trilogies do. It also has the epic sweep and feel that I found missing in so many Star Wars films post-Empire Strikes Back. Johnson sets a new standard here, one to which every Star Wars film can be measured by.
Everything old is new again and that is the case with Mark Hamill’s and Carrie Fisher’s performances as Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa. With his craggy beard and weary and, at times, distrustful gaze, Hamill brings to Luke the gravitas of a man who has seen it all, the best and the worst, of a man who believes he has failed. In his hermitage he is not turning away from the galaxy, but from himself; but his conscience, and his memories, won’t leave him alone. It’s a measured turn, one that reminds us of the depths of emotion Hamill can bring to any role and one that makes us wish we had seen more of him on the big screen outside of the Star Wars universe. The Last Jedi is Luke’s movie but it is also Leia’s. Carrie Fisher’s final on-screen performance works as an unexpected farewell from the actress, Johnson;s script (in which apparently Fisher had a hand in finessing) preserves her characteristic sardonic wit and Fisher rips into it with sly, understated glee while conveying a leader’s weariness and the weight she carries on her shoulders. Her verbal mano a manos with Isaac are a joy to behold. And her inevitable on-screen reunion with Mark is far more moving than expected given her eventual passing away.
So, in other words, dear projectionist, can you play The Last Jedi again? Can I have some more, please?