Star Wars: The Last Jedi isn't an easy movie to talk about without digging into deep spoiler territory, but by God I'm going to give it a shot!
I was lucky enough to see the film at its world premiere at the gargantuan Shrine Auditorium in LA this past Saturday, so take that into account. Being in a 6,000 seater surrounded by the cast, crew and random celebrities in the first audience in the world to watch this movie can certainly have an impact on how the movie worked for me. I have tickets for Thursday and Friday nights (because I don't mess around when it comes to Star Wars) and will be able to test just how much being in that audience had an effect on my opinion, but here are some immediate thoughts on Rian Johnson's middle film in the new trilogy of Star Wars films in the meantime.
The Last Jedi isn't a passive film. Big, big things happen here. By the end of the movie the galaxy as we know it is in a much different place than it is at the start. The film opens just after the events of The Force Awakens. It's actually a pretty great choice to start so close to the ending of the previous film. It gives this story an urgency as the remnants of the Resistance flee their base, the First Order determined to stomp them out once and for all.
Starkiller Base may have been destroyed, but it did its job in wiping out the central government of the galaxy, leaving the Resistance little but a tiny militia way out-gunned and out-manned by the First Order.
The spark of the Resistance is dying despite their victory in The Force Awakens. The big question is whether or not the Resistance's actions can inspire the rest of the galaxy to stand up to Supreme Leader Snoke, Kylo Ren and the rest of the First Order because as we begin this new movie the Resistance is down to about 400 people and the First Order won't rest until all of them are eliminated, determined not to make the mistake the Empire did and let the Rebels grow in power.
Once again they place the hope of igniting that passion in Luke Skywalker. It worked before, surely it would work again, but Rey quickly finds that Luke isn't exactly gung-ho about returning to the spotlight and for good reason.
Writer/director Rian Johnson has placed every single one of these characters into situations where they have to face their worst fears. Poe has to come to grips with the fact that following his gut has consequences and being good at blowing shit up isn't always enough. Leia has to face the very real possibility that she has failed with the Resistance. Finn found his courage in TFA, but only when it comes to his friendship with Rey. What about his devotion to the movement? That is tested here. Luke has removed himself from the equation completely because he fears he will do (and has done) more bad than good. Can he open himself up to the force once again? Rey confronts the dark and the light within herself.
People expecting a remake of The Empire Strikes Back are in for a surprise. In fact, surprise seems to be the modus operandi here. Johnson constantly defies expectation, resulting in some of the most cheer-worthy moments of the entire saga. He also makes strong choice that will surely enrage some hardcore fans, delight others and result in hours upon hours of debate, deconstruction and conversation.
I believe every single one of his choices are inspired and meaningful. Nothing is done cheaply here, every choice is earned and shows a deep insight into character complexity and thematic clarity. The final shot (don't worry, I won't spoil it), for instance, is atypical of this franchise, but sums up every single thing this movie's about in one beautifully composed image.
The Force Awakens was a rollercoaster ride that re-introduced us to the Star Wars many of us felt had been gone since the Original Trilogy. The Last Jedi has some big moments, but is a little more introspective and actually makes The Force Awakens even better.
We get a better insight into Kylo Ren in particular. He got criticized for being too emo in the last film, something I didn't really buy. I loved his set up as a lost character, his dark and light nature constantly fighting within him. He desired to be Darth Vader, but had to force himself into the darkest aspects of his grandfather's persona. It didn't come easy. That's interesting to me. In The Last Jedi that struggle is magnified and a choice has to be made, one way or the other.
Snoke is handled so much better here as well. His power is shown, his intelligence is revealed and the CG work on him is infinitely better than hologram dude from the last film. He's a real threat now and as powerful as he's shown you're not sure how the hell the dwindling Resistance has a chance against him.
Rey's character growth is actually much more subtle than you'd think from the trailers. Much like Kylo she's trying to figure out just who she is, hanging so much on her parentage to give her a clue what kind of person she is and what her place in the world is, which weirdly mirrors the fandom surrounding the character. The answer to that question is wholly satisfying to me, but I'm not sure how the rest of fandom is going to take it.
Leia is done very, very well here. She has some meaty stuff to work with. What Johnson does with her character here is some of my favorite stuff in this new film. I love it so much I'll just leave it at that and pick up the discussion after everybody has had a chance to see the movie.
Luke. It's tough to talk about his character in any sort of detail without putting you ahead of his story, but I will say that Mark Hamill totally brings his all to this part. Luke is frustrating, inspirational, likable, grumpy, dickish, compassionate, cowardly and brave all at once. He's beautifully written and expertly performed. Much like with Harrison Ford's return as Han Solo in the last film there are moments of pure nostalgic magic when you see glimpses of the Luke Skywalker from the OT poke through this older version of the character.
The new characters likewise benefit from Johnson's rich character writing. Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran, in particular shines as a lowly grunt that has the heart of a Rebel fighter. She's a true believer and her enthusiasm is the kind that changes hearts and minds. She's a crucial character to this story because she embodies everything good about the Resistance and the Rebel Alliance before it. She's kind, proactive, loyal and doesn't take any shit.
Benicio del Toro's “DJ” is a murkier character, a rogue in every sense. He's shaped in the Han Solo mold of a pirate that's out only for himself, but Johnson knows that you'll recognize this exact Star Wars character type and makes sure not to take it in the direction you're expecting.
Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo is not at all what I expected. She's a figure that is quite prominent in the Resistance and ends up carrying some of the most emotional weight of the movie. It's so damn nice to see Dern in this universe and the only problem with casting her in this movie is that she's not in every frame and you kind of want her to be.
Porgs. What to say about the Porgs? I love 'em. There's an especially awesome scene around a campfire and that's all I'll say about that, but yeah, they're adorable and you're going to either love how cute they are or they'll annoy the hell out of you. Thankfully Johnson doesn't overuse them, so either way you'll be fine.
The film looks like a million bucks thanks to Steve Yedlin's gorgeous photography. The battle scenes are especially spectacular. John Williams is still on his game with a driving, yet delicate, score that sits shoulder to shoulder with his best Star Wars work. ILM does a great job with the VFX, with only a few wonky comp shots on the casino planet of Canto Bight that stuck out to me. Snoke in particular is an impressive feat considering that he's photoreal and shaped in a way that absolutely can not be makeup yet doesn't land in the dreaded Uncanny Valley. There is one other bit of CG weirdness that is a tad off-putting, but ultimately successful. Vague, right? Trust me, you don't want me to say more than that.
The practical effects are righteous, too, especially when it comes to some of the creature work done.
There's some deeper stuff I'm dying to talk about, especially when it comes to some of the main themes of the movie, but even bringing those up could get your geek brains firing in ways that'll put you on the path to figuring out the movie before you see it and I don't want to do that. I will say some of the themes of the movie have to do with Hope and Nostalgia or the lack thereof and to me that's the real interesting thing about this movie, but I'll write something next week that dives deeper into that after everybody's had a chance to see it.
On the whole, The Last Jedi is a fantastic film that really moves the Star Wars Saga into some unexpected territory. It's not a retread of Empire, but does borrow a little bit of Empire's structure which really keeps the flick moving through its 2.5 hour runtime. All the characters are interesting and complex and there's absolutely no pussyfooting around some real deal consequences to actions taken.
In short, The Last Jedi is an assured film. If you had any doubt that Johnson wasn't able to make his movie the way he wanted to without being forced into safe territory by some kind of committee then this film should put your doubts to rest. This is a bold, emotional, surprising entry into the Star Wars franchise and one that I can't wait to watch over and over and over again.