There’s a promising and foreboding line by Luke Skywalker: “This is not going to go the way you think it will.” Indeed, The Last Jedi aims for the unexpected as the dark and revealing bridge film of this latest trilogy. Questions are answered with shocking revelations, characters must make tough calls in their loyalties, and there’s no guarantee anybody will make it out of this film alive. There’s a lot to take in as writer/director Rian Johnson has filled this movie with so much character, mythos, themes and action that it becomes overwhelming at times. He doesn’t waste our time, but he doesn’t give us much room to breathe in his somberly stirring epic that becomes draining by the time those blue credits roll.
True to the tone of The Empire Strikes Back, the middle chapter finds the heroes at their most desperate and dark of times. The Resistance really is the resistance now after the evil First Order blew up a handful of planets with their Starkiller Base. That base is no more, but they still have a seemingly endless array of massive starships to gun down the opposition. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Resistance has to make some tough calls in the face of danger. General Leia (Carrie Fisher) tries to be the decisive leader but need pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to be one as well and not just order suicide missions. Finn (John Boyega), the Stormtrooper turncoat, has a plan to defeat more of the First Order ships but will need some extra help in the form of engineer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran).
Meanwhile, on a planet that looks suspiciously like a European island, Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks the training of Jedi-turned-hermit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). With his gray beard and solitary lifestyle, it seems as though he would be the next Obi-Wan Kenobi or Yoda for training the next generation of Jedi. Luke, however, is done with the Force and wants no part of it. And when we learn what went down with the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), his decision doesn’t seem so crazy. On the other side of the coin, Kylo Ren makes his case for what happened, and his situation becomes more understandable past his angst from the first film. He’s a somewhat complicated villain in a tight spot with trying to prove himself to the ugly Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).
That’s an awful lot of material to work with, to say nothing of the inclusion of Laura Dern’s character of a stern Resistance Admiral and Benicio del Toro as a shapeshifting coder/thief. There are so many areas to explore, from Rey’s Jedi journey into the dark recesses of her mind to the casino planet that Finn and Rose venture to, ending with them riding giant horse-like creatures across grassy plains. As if that weren’t enough, a multitude of showdowns occurs that I did not expect to appear here. This is a positive for audiences that don’t want to feel cheated or left with too many questions before the next chapter, but some seem to arrive too early for this trilogy. Finn finally has that long overdue fight with his former superior Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), but their battle comes so late in the second act without much buildup that you’ll have to remind yourself about how much Finn hated this woman quickly. I thought he had a better arc with besting her in The Force Awakens, but I guess there were a few more whacks he had left to give.
Those expecting action will not be let down in the least. From the opening assault of starships bombing each other to the stellar climax of marching walkers versus rickety speeders, there’s no shortage of lasers and explosions. It’s also more involving considering all of Poe’s arc takes place on the Resistance’s largest craft, desperately outrunning the pursuing First Order. Lightsaber duels are more intense this time, as in the fantastic sequence of Rey battling her way through expertly-trained Sith guards that have fashioned Lightsabers into all manner of weaponry. And if watching characters being diced up by Lightsabers is your thing, you’ll get your fill and then some.
Yes, that’s all pleasing to the eyes, but the grander story left me wanting more. There’s such a rush to push everything into this movie that moments which should carry a heavier punch make few dents. The scenes of Rey’s obligatory training of the Force come off as just that, despite some genuinely shocking answers to long-awaited questions. The casino planet visited by Finn is decadent and detailed for sure but its lacking in the extra flavor of the culture where it does little to define itself as more than upscale gambling resort of weird creatures in fancy suits. There’s something that felt very non-Star-Wars about the planet, despite playing directly into the mechanics of how the First Order and the Resistance can wage war.
The most exciting aspect present is the doubt within the characters that grow progressively more fervent and emotional. The more Rey learns about the Kylo Ren, the more she starts to sympathize. The more Finn learns about the economics of the galaxy, the less inspired he is to join the fight. This is all great stuff and makes the prospect of Episode IX all the more exciting to look forward to but it somehow always feels a little held back in this movie. Maybe it’s the abundance of splintering plots and fluctuation of editing between them that breaks the tones too frequently. Perhaps it’s the excessive amount of action that does its best to fulfill the appetites of the thrill-seeking audience. Maybe it’s the Porgs. No, it couldn’t be the Porgs; they’re too cute with their penguin limbs and doe-eyed faces. Even Chewbacca wouldn’t eat them when he’s starving, and they look so delicious.
While the majority of The Last Jedi’s intriguing ideas never wholly culminate into the fantastic film it could have been; the film is still genuinely entertaining. Most of what I love about this new trilogy is still present. The humor is in good shape with Poe and Luke delivering the brunt of the smirk-worthy lines. The mythos is strong with Luke’s tragic story of his descent from teaching and his nihilism for the Force. The characters have a lot of charisma, and there’s time for every single one to shine with arcs, including the new batch introduced for this film. Even the rolling droid BB-8 plays a more significant role, most notably his piloting of a walker to save his friends. The consistent overload of, well, everything is most likely going to give audiences a real bang for their buck. And while I felt not all of the aspects were firing at their highest heights, it’s worth viewing alone for the most stoic depiction of Luke Skywalker to date. Han Solo and Darth Vader have already had their time to shine in the previous crop of new Star Wars pictures, but Luke really does get the star treatment here as the most powerful force in the Star Wars universe.
Ultimately, for all The Last Jedi tries to wedge into its 152 minutes, it’s still a film of heart, adventure, mysticism, and character that I’ve come to admire about Star Wars. All of this and a Wookie’s armful of Porgs in the same movie. What a bargain.