Prior to seeing Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I listened to The Film Programme’s spoiler-free review and smirked a little when after the host asked the reviewer what he thought of the film he briefly paused before replying, “You know what? I think I loved it.”
“Think I loved it” What’s there to think about? You either loved it or you didn’t. It’s okay if you merely liked it. But now, as I sit here pondering Last Jedi mere minutes removed from seeing it, I totally get it. Frankly, I want to say the same thing. “What did I think of Last Jedi?” you ask. I’m not sure, but I think I loved it.
The uncertainty comes from the sheer roller coaster of a plot which twists and turns in so many directions that by the end you’re exhilarated but also exhausted and struggling to separate whatever bad there might be (cough, casino planet, cough) from the overwhelming supply of the good. The love comes from the deep appreciation for having just witnessed one of the best possible versions of blockbuster filmmaking in recent memory.
Simply put, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is everything we go to the movies for these days – familiar, but challenging, stunning visuals which demand to be seen on the biggest screen possible, edge-of-your-seat thrills, an inclusive world, and, quite simply, pure escapist entertainment. It was clearly made by someone in Rian Johnson who knows the franchise well enough to anticipate all of our assumptions. Johnson, who wrote and directed, leans into what we expect to happen and then ingeniously upends all of that, so much so that when Mark Hamill first read the script he demanded a sit-down with the youngish director to explain the choices he made for Luke. I can see why.
For Johnson to ever get to that point, though, he had to sell LucasFilms boss Kathleen Kennedy on his ideas. At that point, it was mid-2014 and J.J. Abrams had already been working on Force Awakens for a year and a half. Johnson was relatively fresh off his sci-fi breakthrough Looper and a beloved episode of Breaking Bad. His pitch to Kennedy for what he would do with Episode 8 was relatively simple:
“If the first movie was introduction this movie is training, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Yoda-style training or training montages. To me, what that means is it’s the movie where we test each one of the characters. We find the hardest possible thing they could come up against and we throw it at them. Just like the second act of any movie. It’s where the complications come in. Everyone gets stumbling blocks thrown in their way and that’s how you define characters.” – Johnson told Variety
That pitch got him the job, and he followed through on it. His film picks up exactly where Abrams’ left off and sets Rey, Finn, and Poe off on their own character-defining adventures. [STOP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THE PLOT AT ALL, EVEN THE STUFF THAT’S ALREADY IN THE TRAILERS]. The budding Jedi begs for help from a reluctant, hardened old master (Luke). The former Stormtrooper partners with a new friend (Kelly Marie Tran’s lovable engineer Rose) on a covert op. The hotshot pilot studies at the feet of two powerful women (Leia and Laura Dern’s purple-haired Vice Admiral Holdo) and struggles to learn what true leadership means. Inevitably, their separate adventures eventually coalesce into one, at which point the “Holy shit!” moments come so fast and furious you almost can’t believe it when the film actually ends.
The problem with this set-up is that it initially creates a slight energy imbalance, mostly because the stakes in one particular section of the story are so much higher than in the others. Thus, despite editor Bob Ducsay’s awards-worthy use of relentless match-cutting to link the various storylines, there are still sections of the film which don’t feel as pressing or even necessary as others. However, you can easily see and appreciate how the characters are being tested and how the various plot strands will eventually fit together. Once they do, any criticisms you might have had completely fall away.[YOU CAN START READING AGAIN]
Stepping back from it all, it’s obvious Abrams ultimately had the harder job because he was the one saddled with all of the heavy lifting, but in some ways, he actually had it easier. Aside from Han, he didn’t have to worry too much about how to integrate the legacy characters with the new, and he always had the reliable plot structure of A New Hope to fall back on.
Last Jedi, on the other hand, has to make this Luke and Leia’s film as well as Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo’s, and it has to do so while forging a new narrative path for the franchise. Anyone expecting an Empire Strikes Back rehash will be surprised by just how much of Battlestar Galactica’s “33″ and Rogue One is in here. It’s a film which feels simultaneously like classic Star Wars yet also completely unlike anything we’ve seen before in the franchise, and the bold choices it makes will leave you desperately needing to see the whole thing again. And again. And again. Heck, I seriously might see it again today. But the ways in which Last Jedi essentially sets fire to what we’d expect from a Star Wars film is going to be divisive. I think I loved it, but you might hate it.
Random parting thoughts:
- This is the funniest Star Wars movie of all time, yet also one of the darkest.
- Porgs are now the Tribbles of the Star Wars universe, and I absolutely must buy one for Christmas.
- Laura Dern’s character is great because, well, Laura Dern, but she would have been 72.5% better if at any point she had said just one of her Big Little Lies or Twin Peaks: The Return lines.
- If you weren’t already thinking it beforehand you will leave the theater wondering: “Shit, am I attracted to Adam Driver now?”
- The amount of spontaneous cheering and applause from the crowd was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before in a movie theater. The joy was infectious.
I think I loved The Last Jedi. What about you?