column

Science-Fiction Weekly – Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

by Andrew Reiner on Dec 19, 2017 at 03:05 PM

I was in the hospital waiting for my daughter to be born when a bombshell of news hit: Disney had just purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion, and the Star Wars saga would continue with Episode VII in a few years.

My mind was already a mess, hoping everything would go as planned for my wife and daughter, but now I had strong Star Wars thoughts creeping in. I was throttled by a chaotic symphony of emotions: “Oh god. I don’t know how to be a father. Luke Skywalker is probably coming back! My wife is amazing. I need to tell her that. Will Chewbacca's hair be grey?”

I told my wife that the universe was a cruel place, and I may be a weirdo for the next couple of hours due to Star Wars. She was quick to state that she didn’t want to hear it. Roughly 15 minutes later, she entered the final stages of labor, and our daughter was born two hours after that. I somewhat jokingly told her we should name her Leia, given the news that hit, and she debated murdering me.

In those moments of becoming a father, the Star Wars thought that I didn’t let go of was, "Will I see Luke Skywalker again?" He was there through most of my childhood, and I realized he may be for my daughter's too. I believed he would be the focus of the next film.

When I heard Mark Hamill signed on to reprise his role as Luke, that was the final confirmation I needed: He had to be the star of this new trilogy. When I sat in the theater on opening night of The Force Awakens, and the crawl began with “Luke Skywalker has vanished,” I expected to see him in a few minutes. Those minutes turned to hours. He only appeared in the final scene. I was shocked. Sad. Confused. I walked out of the theater with a huge smile on my face, but my mind kept asking, "Why the hell wasn't this Luke's story?"

J. J. Abrams may have played it too safe with scenes that echoed A New Hope, but he deserves credit for doing something unexpected with Luke. As much as I would have loved to see him training a new generation of Jedi, or being an all-knowing Obi-Wan-like figure, making him enigmatic was the right call. Star Wars is at its best (usually) when the unexpected happens. Think about that one for a second. My favorite moments in every film are twists. 

Over the next two years, I frequently engaged in conversations about where this story could go next. What is going on with Luke? That was the big question I kept coming back to. What is Snoke up to? Will Kylo Ren turn to the light? Will Rey turn to the dark? Who are her parents? What’s up with Maz?

Abrams has a long history of filling his stories with intriguing questions, and a long history of angering his fan base by not delivering satisfying answers (or even answers at all). With the writing and directing baton being passed to Rian Johnson, I was hopeful we would get answers. I didn’t expect Johnson to answer most of them in his Star Wars debut, but he did.

The Last Jedi bombards theatergoers with resolve just as frequently as it keeps them off-kilter – a wonderful mixture of storytelling that ends up taking the Star Wars mythos to places I didn't expect. The Force is mysterious and new again. Luke Skywalker bounces between the goofy young farm boy we met on Tatooine to the darker version we feared he would turn into when he met the Emperor. Kylo Ren is a powder keg of emotion that continually erupts in unexpected and dangerous ways. Supreme Leader Snoke somehow keeps him on a leash, and shows us just how manipulative he can be as his master. General Leia is an intelligent and skillful leader who is sadly dealing with a flawed deck of cards that she's desperately trying to keep in order. Rey is recklessly trying to find her place in the universe, only to learn the pull of the darkness cannot be ignored. Poe continues his assault on the First Order, yet doesn't have the foresight to see just how reckless he is.

These story lines are beautifully sewn together, and again, deliver the answers I wanted or take the characters to exciting and dangerous new places. Suspense hangs over almost every second of Rey and Kylo's dance with the light and dark. Given just how powerful they are, neither of these characters are where they need to be emotionally. Johnson toys with their instability throughout the entire film – one second filling us with dread, the next a sigh of relief. I didn't have an idea where their story was going next or even a hint of where it could end. When two characters can overshadow a fascinating new version of Luke...wow....just wow. That's masterful storytelling, especially considering Luke's story is damn good. One of the most powerful scenes is Rey figuring out who she is. She sees herself in a variety of ways, a visual Johnson knocks out of the park.

This is the longest Star Wars movie to date, yet it doesn't feel like it. The story moves quickly, sometimes bouncing chaotically between sequences to keep theatergoers on edge. Finn's story is the one point where there's somewhat of a calm, even with the stakes being of the do-or-die variety. He's racing against the clock to save the Resistance, and he's joined with a newcomer to the series named Rose, a Resistance mechanic who hatches a risky plan to save the fleet. Their journey takes them to Canto Bight, a place where the universe's wealthy mingle and gamble. I know this is the side story that most people have issues with. I agree it's the weakest link in this movie, but I also think Canto is one of the most intriguing places we've seen in a Star Wars film in quite some time. It shows us an ugly side of the universe that makes every other location more intriguing – whether it's the slave labor on Tatooine or the royalty in the palaces on Naboo. It made me think about the political and societal structures of the universe, and it didn't slow the narrative to get those points across. 

The action that unfolds on Canto come dangerously close to being prequel-quality bad, but thankfully doesn't last long in a film that otherwise dazzles with its visuals. The color red is flexed in a wonderful way in Snoke's throne room – the setting for a battle that is easily one of Star Wars' best. We never saw the Emperor's Royal Guards do anything other than stand idle, but Snoke's Praetorian Guard equivalent get a good workout in this film, and they're immensely entertaining to see in action. They engage in a fight that continually pumps out "did that just happen?" moments that come on the heels of a shocking twist that I still can't believe happened.

I was hit by that sensation a lot during The Last Jedi. That was a twist I loved. Others I didn't like seeing mostly because I'm been a lifelong fan. Johnson did some things I don't agree with, but like Abrams before him, will probably end up being the right call.

Now let's address the things I didn't like. The humor was too much at times. Many of the jokes are clever and fun, but were used to frequently to defuse a tense moment or remind people that this particular character is witty. I loved the opening banter between Poe and General Hux, but felt many of the jokes were better suited for a lighthearted Marvel movie than Star Wars. Having said that, I will take a quick one-liner or shot of an iron over seeing C-3PO in a droid factory again.

Another thing that bugged me: Constantly questioning the science, tech, and flow of the space battle – even though I enjoyed the chase, which reminded of some of my favorite Battlestar Galactica episodes. Star Wars' best battles are filled with explosions, harrowing moments, and tons of laser fire. In this film, our eyes are on the fuel gauge. What happens if it runs out is a fine plot point, but, well, it made me question what the hell the First Order was doing. I get that the fighters were short-range and the star destroyers were too far out, but they just watched them go and didn't try anything else. The final blow of the battle is also concerning from a science standpoint. Why not do that all of the time? Would it have worked on the Death Star? Big questions hang over that stunning and beautiful moment.

Did these moments ruin the film? Hell no. Not even a little. The character development takes center stage and is constant, even during the less engaging moments. The Last Jedi laughed in the face of all of my theories and hopes, and beat me senseless with unexpected delights and intriguing new developments. I loved it. Absolutely loved it. I got to see Luke again, and appreciate him for entirely different reason than I have in the past. Johnson may have upended the tidy table that Abrams set, but didn't make a mess of it. The pieces landed in a way that should make for a hell of a final chapter in Rey and Kylo's saga. Episode IX can't get here soon enough.