STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017, PG-13, 160 minutes, LUCASFILM LTD/DISNEY)
Way back in 1980, George Lucas and writer Lawrence Kasdan redefined the sequel. With THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, they gave the bad guys their moment to shine, kicking the heroes of STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE right in the teeth and sending them reeling. Luke was left without a hand, Han was turned into a concrete ornament, and the rebels were sent scurrying for cover. It was a formula that only the best of sequels manage to capture, and one which provided the best story of the original trilogy.
So, when JJ Abrams breathed new life into the slowly dying body which was STAR WARS, he went back to the roots of the series and kicked things up a notch. It should come as no surprise that writer/director Rian Johnson (who previously provided the cinematic world with the astounding debut BRICK, and followed it up with one of the better films about time travel, LOOPER) attempts to pull off an EMPIRE of his own. Following up Abrams’ shiny THE FORCE AWAKENS seems a daunting task, and the only way to try and up the ante is to once again go back to the roots of STAR WARS.
And oh boy, does he pull it off.
This modern EMPIRE not only cranks up the ‘Emotion Meter’, but it gives Lucas’s universe a much needed dose of steroids and an endorphin boost which launches this latest planned trilogy into hyper drive. The Resistance (this era’s version of Rebels) are on the run, albeit slowly, and without much fuel in their tanks—literally. The First Order has them scrambling for cover, and what seems like a basic premise (a space chase between a few big-ass turtles and a few tiny ones) becomes quite complicated as the story unfolds. Don’t go looking for many surprise revelations in this one; whereas EMPIRE was all about crippling truths, JEDI concerns the roles people play in our lives, and what makes them tick.
The best new character on display is humor; Abrams hinted at it a few times with FORCE, but Johnson allows it to run freely here, and it makes for a faster, more entertaining ride. Don’t get me wrong, this is no comedy—but there are enough laughs in the first five minutes to make you wonder at the possibility. Also, the sheer power of the Jedi; after watching JEDI, you get the feeling their abilities were merely hinted at in previous films. Remember how Darth Vader throwing crates at Luke Skywalker in EMPIRE seemed like the ultimate Jedi weapon? Prepare for Jedi’s with mystical abilities. The force isn’t just for stacking rocks anymore, and Johnson amps up the power to tremendous and unexpected levels.
The biggest gripe I have comes once again with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). He still has temper tantrums, and still feels more like a jilted child than he does an outright villain. More of a bully than he is a misunderstood juvenile, his menace is still not fully conceived here, despite the brief backstory provided.
Yet this may be the strongest STAR WARS film to date. I need to see it a second time (this one begs for multiple viewings, as there is a heckuva lot of story presented) before committing to my initial viewpoint—which, controversially enough, was that JEDI is the best of the series. It most certainly is the best Luke Skywalker tale, and that opinion I will hold solidly to. Abrams is set to direct the final installment in this core thread of the Star Wars Universe, and it will be interesting to see how he follows up Johnson’s installment. May the Force be with him…
-- T.S. Kummelman