I never expected to live through the good fortune of attending a STAR WARS screening prior to everyone else, with absolutely no word of mouth to set any expectations for myself. I suppose I should start with that would be my best advice to you all. Come in clean with no set expectations or “requirements.” And yet, here I am about to do the absolute opposite and vent about my riveting experience from this morning to you all. But seriously, try not to go in expecting your own narrative decisions, character theories, or deep fan desires to follow through with your vision. Surprises are without a doubt in store, and you may not agree with decisions made narratively, but allow the entirety of the story to be told first. Instead, watch Rian Johnson unleash a celebration of 40 years.
Whereas JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens delivered a nostalgic joy that focused on reigniting a legacy I grew to love and obsess over throughout the years, Rian Johnson instead creates a nostalgia towards my years of childhood imagination. I’m talking about the images created in your head as you waved your lightsaber around in your room; the doodles of your own stories in your scrapbook, or the fights you conjured up with your toys as you bashed their bodies together relentlessly. I’m talking about visions of Luke Skywalker as a Jedi Master, the force used in new (and visually stunning) ways, and a new, badass, cool-looking (yet overtly dramatic) villain (whom is also related to the Skywalkers, because that’s the stuff of ultimate tragedy to an adolescent me!). While this wholely innocent wonder engages you in the film, Rian never forgets to honor our beloved space opera and delivers an emotionally charged story that still leaves room for a new direction. This new direction is most particularly done through our new set of characters, who are thankfully not left behind for the sake of the original icons. Those turned off by the “rehash” of The Force Awakens (it’s a lot more than that), will be happy to know that although this film mirrors aspects of other films, originality lives on. The Force Awakens was a reminder of why we love Star Wars, but The Last Jedi is a reminder of the possibilities of Star Wars.
The Last Jedi fully strikes at just how much we idolize our heroes of old, and the force as well. For example, Carrie Fisher reminds us of General Leia’s co-existing fierceness and nurturing personality. Of course, her sarcastic wit and wisdom are brought to the table as well, and this is perhaps one of the most leading iterations we’ve seen of Leia. Leia has certainly always been the most proactive member of the original trio, especially in Rebel activities but this is Leia at her strongest leader status yet. As for how we are reminded of how much we idolize Luke Skywalker, Rian takes the opposite approach and deconstructs him. This is a Luke tormented and broken, and it makes us yearn to see him as the intergalactic legend we know him to be. So when moments of glory and awe arise for both of these characters, they hit at levels of intensity (both icons have a scene to be remembered for the ages). I don’t mean to sound so hyperbolic but I mean it when I say as a lifelong fan, I was blown away by certain sequences. You will without a doubt know them. Especially from the late Carrie Fisher, who will be severely missed this galaxy and Leia’s alike (not giving away any spoilers here, but JJ’s Episode IX won’t feature Leia). However, this film does a great service at honoring why we love Leia. My favorite performance from Hamill has always been Return of the Jedi, but you would be completely valid to say this is Mark at his best in possibly his entire career. We are quite blessed to see Mark Hamill flex his acting wings a lot here, especially after years of developing his craft.
I was pleasantly surprised by just how much of the screentime is shared among the entire cast. Finn isn’t sidelined! Neither are newcomer Rose (played charmingly by Kelly Marie Tran) and the formerly pushed-aside hotshot, Poe Dameron! Poe actually has a proper arc this time around and carries a great dynamic with General Leia. Finn and Rose also create fun chemistry, but it’s quick, yet effective development of Rose that I appreciate. Finn feels refreshingly self-realized and grown since our last adventure with him, and it’s great to witness him at this level of confidence. John Boyega is as charismatic as ever!
Now let’s move onto the beating hearts of this story. Rey and Kylo Ren absolutely carry this film to what it is. These two are at the forefront of the battle between light and dark and it is the exploration of these characters that in my opinion, stitches this saga together. And why exactly? I think it’s because of how much emotion drives their narratives. Rey has raw untapped potential within her, but she’s also extremely vulnerable. From The Force Awakens we know she longs for belonging to a family and this opens a void within her. A void she is trying to fill with purpose. This movie is her search for what that purpose means. Kylo Ren too feels lost, and his internal conflict and failure to be what he desires only fuels his efforts. I’m a huge fan of Kylo’s conflict, and I’m very content with the direction Rian took this character. Again, do not get caught up in your fan theories and allow Rian to tell his story. I think most will find themselves to be surprised on the paths the two chose. What are they? Dare I not say, because it’s the constant attempts at being one step ahead of Rian that makes this so fun. A round of applause for the entire team on their performances. Adam Driver remains as magnetic as ever, and I give him credit for portraying a character as unbalanced as Ben Solo.
Director of Photography Steven Yedlin deserves much recognition for the work here. The militaristic chambers and bases of the original saga are often cited in the work, but fresh Star Wars visuals are shot as well. Rian Johnson has been on hand to defend the prequels before, and I think in ways he expresses aspects of those movies that worked. As someone who grew up with the prequels releasing during my growth, I did not carry the same disdain for them as older fans. As a kid, they blew me away and took me to whole new worlds, and even as I’ve gotten older and began mostly writing them off, I will always admit that I believe the world and lore building in those films were sometimes better than the originals. I’m going to go out on a limb and say, I bet Rian agrees to some degree about these positives of the prequels because I found some of the new planets shown to be similar in their creation. Not to imply that there’s a lack of dialogue or anything of the sort for the film, but Johnson and Yedlin do utilize visual expression of emotion. Feelings can be demonstrated through how characters see and interact with the world, and in a universe where the Force exists, well I’m sure you can imagine the freedom. The action sequences that are presented in this film, my God, do they hold weight. The suspense thrives on the intensity of the battles, and choreography was very inventive (and oh-so over the top thrilling!).
I think the best part of this child’s-dream-come-true is that it still remains a mature story with a lot of depth. Sure, we have our usual funny moments of comedy sprinkled throughout (every Star Wars film has comedy, put the knives down), but the film definitely still takes itself seriously. Heavy subjects are relevant, and even though this is a story featuring a WAR and possible imminent doom, the film felt most real to me on one topic, failure. This may not be the most complex of issues available for exploration (although I’m willing to take that to debate), but I think it’s a necessary one, especially for all the little kids finding values and lessons in these escapist extravaganzas. In the end, I think that’s where Star Wars matters most. Now sure, us adults use these epics to remember a simpler time, with fewer worries and concerns. But it was always that small child within us who was first hooked into the idea of an ordinary farm boy becoming a figure of legend. I was absolutely floored by the final scene, in which Rian sets a reminder from where this inspiration comes from, and what Star Wars is truly all about.