Special Effects: A-
Here is a classic example of a movie that is critic-proof. No one reading this review is going to decide whether or not to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi based on what I say about it. In all probability, anyone reading this will by and large have waited until after seeing the film, just to see how well aligned my point of view is to theirs. Some may even be part of the Star Wars Nerd Army, waiting to pounce on any criticisms I may have. And I do have a few, in spite of my immediate contention that The Last Jedi is easily the best of the new Star Wars films.
The Last Jedi locks us in, in a way The Force Awakens could only offer in a somewhat shaky promise: the re-ignition of a franchise many felt taken in the wrong direction by George Lucas’s ridiculously self-indulgent prequels; a return to the grittier, lived-in (as in: not bogged down by CGI) feel of the original trilogy; a thematic connective tissue that linked the characters we originally fell in love with to a new vision of a franchise future with even more exciting characters. The power of that film in its cultural context was undeniable, in spite of its overall plot being basically a retread of A New Hope (with the explosion of what amounted to a third Death Star), but there remained the feeling that the next installment of this new trilogy could be great, or it could be a disaster. It had great potential but offered no reliable promises.
Well, fear not! I don’t have to give away any plot details to tell you that The Last Jedi improves on its predecessor, escapes the clutches of its deeper flaws, and reaffirms Star Wars and its place in modern American mythology in a way The Force Awakens could not. The resulting relief is deepened by the very existence of last year’s stand-alone Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which was good but had nowhere near impact of the official, episodic installments, and served as a warning about market saturation. Do we really need a Star Wars movie every single year? I remain unconvinced, and the impact of The Last Jedi would be even greater with a longer wait before returning to the Lucasfilm universe. These stand-alone movies are fun but are basically tangents to the broader story arc – and, let’s face it, a tangent is never nearly as compelling as the primary story being told.
I will say that The Last Jedi starts off with dialogue clunky enough to have given me mixed feelings about how the rest of the movie was going to go. Rian Johnson, previously known for the decent but forgettable Looper (2012), proves up to the task as director, but was maybe not the best choice as the sole writer of the script. Then again, let’s be honest with ourselves: what single Star Wars movie has not featured clunky dialogue? One could argue convincingly that it’s part of the package.
Of course, that attitude can be a double-edged sword: millions of fans who grew up loving Star Wars – indeed, the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy alike – will come to this movie completely closed off to seeing its flaws. Minds are made up that the movie will be loved; therefore, it is loved. Who cares what dumb things come out of any characters’ mouths? There’s Princess Leia – excuse me, General Leia – on the screen! There’s Luke Skywalker! And Rey, the best new Star Wars hero – of any gender – since Princess Leia herself! And Finn! And Po! Captain Phasma! Chewbacca! And BB-8 and C-3PO and even R2-D2! It’s so exciting it’s exhausting! And that’s not even the end of the list of exciting characters who turn up -- speaking of which, by the way: what's with the porg haters? They are adorable and fun, and one of this film's many surprises is that these creatures are onscreen just enough, never overused.
Even Kylo Ren – pitch-perfectly portrayed by Adam Driver – gains a deeper meaning in this film. In The Force Awakens he was a petulant child; now he’s a dangerous young man whose emotional instability has greater clarity. No longer is he the villain trying in vain to emulate his idol Darth Vader; for once he’s becoming a villain of his own unique expression – one which, frankly, may be (so far) less iconic, but has greater nuance than Vader ever had.
In any case, once the initial dialogue finally gives way to the immediacy of the story itself, it cannot be understated how satisfying it is to watch the pieces of the story fall into place. And it is precisely the powerful mythology of this franchise that gives it unique weight, the way it can give the viewer chills just to see certain specific characters engage with each other. Battle scenes, particularly between characters wielding lightsabers, are expertly staged with staggeringly well-shot backdrops. The cinematography is epic in scope, with deliberate uses of light and color that make this film stand apart both as a Star Wars film and as a piece of cinematic pop art. The special effects are not groundbreaking – Star Wars has been incapable of that since the early eighties – yet flawlessly executed, using CGI when appropriate but more practical effects when it works better (something the aging George Lucas never understood).
Also: a surprising amount of humor, a welcome element in a pretty dark series of events for our heroes. Minor but effective gags are peppered throughout, although the first example I thought felt slightly out of place in this world – but, it fits with 21st-century American sensibilities. All three trilogies are very much products of their time, and we can’t really begrudge them that.
Finally, perhaps the biggest relief of The Last Jedi is that, after The Force Awakens – as thrilling as it was – was a transparent retread of A New Hope, there was much speculation as to whether The Last Jedi would be a retread of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s not even close. More than once the story seems headed in one direction, and then veers truly unexpectedly – to the point where I actually thought, Well, where are they going to go from here then? To me, this is the greatest compliment I could give it, The Last Jedi’s greatest strength: its element of surprise, of discovery not truly felt since the original trilogy. There is no “great reveal” in the vein of Vader’s “Luke, I am your father!” – but the potential is always there. As such, the key difference between The Force Awakens and this movie is that the former left its fans with cautious optimism about the future of Star Wars, and now we’re left with unbridled excitement.