Star Wars: The Last Jedi: A Flicker of Hope, by Tyler Smith
Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi is more than just a worthy entry in the series. It might just feature some of the most complex character developments of any film in the Star Wars franchise. Johnson effectively deepens each relationship, both past and present, until we are left with perhaps the most tragically human Star Wars film so far. The inner conflict, the reluctant strength, the self loathing, the moments of triumph; Johnson incorporates the various shades of human emotion and interaction into his story, bringing us further into this unusual world of magic and technology, and bolstering it with some genuinely striking visuals and exciting action set pieces. That he is able to do all of this in the midst of an uneven narrative and several jarring tonal shifts speaks to Johnson’s developing talents as a filmmaker. He has crafted a very engaging – if notably imperfect – fantasy film, and the series is all the better for it.
We pick up almost exactly where we left off in The Force Awakens, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) trying to convince a melancholy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join the Resistance, as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the rest of the First Order systematically destroy what little is left of the rebellion. Along for the ride are pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and ex-storm trooper Finn (John Boyega), but the primary storyline revolves around the complex history – and possible future – between Luke, Rey, and Kylo.
Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the film is the way that it seems to look at previously established characters and understand what really drives them to act the way they do, while never quite boiling them down to one or two simplistic motivations. This isn’t a film that spells out exactly what these characters are feeling and why. Often, they don’t know themselves, and their desperation to figure out what it is that they actually want is what drives much of the drama. As Rey confronts her potential as a Jedi, she must come to terms with concepts like destiny and what that means to an unknown scavenger from a desert planet. Kylo Ren continues to brood and thrash about like an angry child, but not always for the reasons that we think. His actions from the previous film haunt him in a way that he can’t ignore, and his struggle with his inner desires are scary, pathetic, and often deeply sad.
But it is in the portrayal of Luke Skywalker that the success of The Last Jedi is so dependent upon. He is a legend in this galaxy, the hero of the original rebellion, and the man who eventually saved his own evil father, Darth Vader (at least spiritually). There is a lot of weight on this character, and to overwrite or underexpose him would mean an imbalance in the film. Thankfully, Johnson manages to create a Luke that is so very different than the one we last saw 34 years ago, and yet with the occasional glimmer of hope and youthful energy that led him to embrace the rebellion in the first place. Essentially a hermit, Luke has clearly had many years to think about the past, and his larger role in the galaxy. His conflict comes not merely from himself, but from the larger impact of the Jedi and how they have twisted the Force into something much simpler than it is, perhaps for their own gain.
Luke is well-written, but the real depth comes in Mark Hamill’s soulful performance. Seen by some to be the dramatic weak spot of the original trilogy, Hamill has since matured into an actor that is both humble and extremely dependable. His successful voice acting career seems to have taught him the ability to speak and act as quietly and subtly as the microphone will allow, while also giving him the opportunity to go as far over the top as the character requires. The result is a Luke Skywalker who is roiling with emotion and regret, but has simply become too tired to express it. Luke’s arc over the course of the film is fully realized and never strikes a false note, and it could be argued that this is the real achievement of the film.
But to talk only about character would be to ignore Johnson’s increasing confidence behind the camera. While Johnson has always been a dependable filmmaker, he has never tackled anything this big before, with Looper maybe coming the closest. But Johnson, along with cinematographer Steve Yedlin, shows himself able to manipulate and utilize the camera for maximum effect. He not only is able to bring emotions out of the audience, but he also understands the epic and mythical nature of the story he is telling. As such, he knows when to slow things down and let the striking imagery speak for itself. And indeed there are many striking images in this film, often a triumphant mix of choreography, visual effects, and cinematography. Upon watching this film, it’s easy to see why Disney is putting much of the future of the Star Wars saga in his surprisingly capable hands.
Of course, this film isn’t perfect. There are some glaring flaws, primarily with the narrative itself. As often happens in modern action movies – and most certainly happened in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy – there are subplots that, while tangentially related to the main storyline, seemed so ill-timed and unnecessarily drawn out that it actually began to flatten a bit. There is only so long that a viewer can be taken away from the primary pull of a story – often to explore something hastily introduced and eventually forgotten – before he begins to lose interest. There are moments in this film that seemed more committed to expanding the galaxy than furthering the story. This isn’t necessarily a crime, but there is a definite ticking clock element to the film, and any deviation from that not only hurts the story, but might even cast certain characters in a different light, making them look oddly distracted and unfocused on their ultimate goal.
Between these tendencies and some clunky, shoehorned-in humor, we can’t exactly describe The Last Jedi as streamlined. It gets bogged down in things that are unimportant, both to us and the characters. It too often loses the tightly wound thread. This might explain why the third act of the film seems a bit scattered. It seems at times like Johnson, so understandably preoccupied with the characters and visuals, avoids making certain decisions until he absolutely has to. As a result, the third act is drawn out in a way that, while still effective from a character standpoint, begins to lose its forward momentum. And this is a series that has always been at its best when it is focused on its goal and moves full steam ahead.
Tonal and narrative issues aren’t exactly nitpicks, but they do fade a bit when one looks at the strengths of the film. While watching The Last Jedi, I was often engrossed in where the characters were going and how they were going to get there. I was shocked by the betrayals and inspired by the devotion. Many of its moments rank with some of the best in the series and could someday become iconic in their own right.
There are times when I bemoan the future of the Star Wars franchise, worrying that Disney’s commitment to putting out a film a year could demystify a series that for so many was untouchable, somehow above the standard Hollywood fare. There was a time when anything Star Wars-related was an event, and I sometimes fear that it could become just another blockbuster franchise. The Last Jedi puts some of those fears to rest, as Rian Johnson doesn’t allow external pressures to seep into his film, and instead focuses squarely on the characters and larger mythology, thus guaranteeing that, at least for the moment, Star Wars can still be rightly considered a cinematic and cultural phenomenon.