Movie review: ‘The Last Jedi’ pushes Star Wars saga in bold new direction

“This is not going to go the way you think” — Luke Skywalker offers this warning in the trailer for “The Last Jedi,” and it’s one fans would do well to keep in mind as they watch the latest chapter in the Star Wars franchise. It’s been two years since “The Force Awakens,” and fans have had all that time to speculate and theorize about what may or may not happen in the new film. Director Rian Johnson definitely offers some surprising twists and turns — and takes some creative risks — in “The Last Jedi,” and the final film has proven to be surprisingly divisive amongst the Star Wars fan base.

Some fans seem to REALLY love it, and some fans seem to REALLY hate it. Earlier today I was scrolling through Facebook comments on a “Last Jedi” article and came across these two responses just a scroll away from each other — “best [Star Wars] since ‘Empire Strikes Back’” and “huge disappointment.” Personally, I think it’s exciting that the Star Wars franchise has given us a film that’s producing such strong responses and spirited debates.

Full disclosure — I’m in the “love it” camp, and I’m planning to dive into why it may have worked so well for me (and the other fans who loved it), and why some may not agree. Although normally I try to stick to (mostly) spoiler free reviews, there are waaay too many spoiler-y things I want to talk about, so fair warning. If you haven’t seen the film yet, definitely go see it. A lot of passionate opinions are flying around the interest, and I encourage you to go and see for yourself what you think. For those who have seen the film and want to discuss it, full speed ahead!

Final warning: Many spoilers, there are!!!

One of the most divisive things about this film is the portrayal of legendary Jedi Luke Skywalker. Luke ended “The Return of the Jedi” on a bittersweet but triumphant note, becoming a powerful Jedi Knight and redeeming his father from the darkness. The Luke we meet in “The Last Jedi” is a very different — and very broken — man. When Rey visits the island where Luke has retreated in self-imposed exile, she finds a grumpy, bitter hermit who refuses to train her in the ways of the Force.

Some have disagreed with this portrayal of Luke, and admittedly, it does take a bit to adjust to. Luke was one of the most idealistic and optimistic characters in the original trilogy, and it’s jarring to see a much darker version of the character. Personally, though, this is exactly what I wanted to see from Luke, and it gives Mark Hamill a chance to turn in an incredibly powerful performance. I thought it was fascinating to see how Luke dealt with the aftermath of his choices and — yes, his failure. We learn that his own moment of fear and flirtation with a dark path pushed his nephew, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren, away from the light.

Failure is actually one of the primary themes in this movie, and Luke isn’t the only character to experience it. In a lot of films we’re used to seeing the good characters succeed, so it was a nice change of pace to watch the heroes have to adjust their plans when things didn’t go quite right.

Yet this broken Luke sets up one of my favorite moments in the movie, where he rises above the past and displays a breathtaking new Force power — the ability to project himself across space. Again, some have said they would have preferred he actually show up to duel his nephew in person on the salt planet, but I loved how they handled the final scene, allowing Luke to win a victory for the light side on his own terms — a twist that leaves Kylo absolutely broken. I’m glad to see that at the end, Luke finally found peace and became one with the Force, wrapping up the film with a beautiful moment where he stares into a twin sunset.

The darkness rises…

Speaking of Kylo Ren…this was another highlight of the film for me. I thought Adam Driver was great as the conflicted Kylo — the “Anakin” we deserved in the prequels but didn’t quite get. He did a great job showing the anger, the pain, and yes, even the loneliness that Kylo experiences as he sacrifices his family, his heritage, and pretty much everything he has for the First Order, only to be mocked and belittled by Supreme Leader Snoke. It’s telling that he was able to kill his father, Han Solo, in the last film, but can’t do the same for his mother, General Leia Organa.

This inner conflict leads to an unusual connection with Rey, who sees the light still flickering in him and wants to try to turn him from the darkness. I really enjoyed the film’s other new Force power — Kylo and Rey’s extended telepathic chats — and how this allowed their characters to play off each other.

…And light rises to meet it

Originally, I was hoping Disney would pull a surprise twist and send Kylo to the light and Rey to the dark, and they actually do tease us with this. My favorite moment in the film (and one that got big cheers from the audience at my theater on opening night) is when Kylo turns on Snoke, and he and Rey fight the red-armored Praetorian Guards back-to-back in Snoke’s throne room. It’s a thrilling scene that ranks up there with Darth Vader’s appearance at the end of last year’s “Rogue One” for me.

Rey and Kylo each think they’ve gained an ally…only to find that the other refuses to make the compromises they ask. Part of me still kinda thinks it would have been cool to see a “dark Rey” but I’m okay with how things were handled. I also don’t think Kylo’s internal struggles are entirely over, and his connection to Rey (that reaches beyond her potential use to him as a tool in his quest for power) may pull him back to the light. Anyway, there’s lots of interesting material to build on between these two characters in Episode IX, especially since Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley interact so well.

A hero’s journey

Another criticism of “The Last Jedi” I have heard is that the side plots aren’t quite as compelling as the Luke/Rey/Kylo arcs. While those three characters are definitely the most exciting part of the film, I thought the other characters had good arcs as well. It was cool to see hotshot pilot Poe Dameron take on more of a leadership role, and I thought his mutiny was an interesting twist. It was also cool to see Finn fully invest in the Resistance by the end of the film. I didn’t really see his initial plan to desert as cowardly per se; he was more focused on wanting to help Rey and wasn’t sure if he wanted to sign up for a full-scale rebellion against the First Order.

It’s very bittersweet to see Carrie Fisher again, and it’s hard not to wonder what role General Leia would have played in Episode IX, were it not for Fisher’s tragic, unexpected passing. But it’s lovely to see the princess from the original trilogy grow into a wise, mature leader in this film, and she gets to share a brief but special moment with her brother, Luke Skywalker.

Letting go of the past

It is fair to say that the new characters introduced in Episode VIII aren’t *quite* as compelling as “The Force Awakens” alums Rey, Kylo, Poe, and Finn. We only really get to see a hint of Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo. And while Kelly Marie Tran’s mechanic Rose Tico adds a nice note of innocent idealism to the film, I didn’t find her as compelling as the main cast. I feel like a bad person for saying this, but I think having her die in the film’s final act (i.e. dying as she saved Finn, rather than just getting injured) would have been a more powerful and poignant way to handle her character.

Another complaint I’ve heard is that a lot of favorite characters — like Chewy, R2, and C-3PO get minimal screen time. However, I really don’t think this is an oversight or meant as a disservice to the fans. Another theme of the film is letting go of the past, and this film signals that a new era is coming. As much as we all love the characters from the original trilogy, it is time to tell a new story and pass the torch to new characters like Rey and Kylo. Some may disagree, but I feel the original characters have been treated respectfully in this new trilogy and have been able to pass their legacies on to a new generation of heroes in a really cool way.

A few minor complaints

The film does have a few humorous moments that feel out of place. Like at the beginning of the film, when Luke takes the lightsaber from Rey and tosses it over his shoulder; I wish he would have thrown it down or handed it back to her, or something more serious. I also thought Leia’s Force power moment (with her “flying” through space) stretched plausibility; I liked seeing her use the Force, considering her lineage, but I wish they’d done this scene a little differently. Also, I feel kinda sad that we still didn’t get much screen time for Captain Phasma. I think if they hadn’t hyped her character so much, fans would have been happier with what we got.

Questions still to answer

Supposedly we learn Rey’s parents in this movie — Kylo tells her that they were just ordinary people who abandoned her on Jakku. I’m still not sure I believe that. I don’t think Kylo was lying per se, but I think he may be misinformed. Rey’s mysterious vision in the dark side cave also hasn’t been fully explained, and I want Episode IX to circle back to this scene. I also think that even though Snoke is dead, we’ll learn more about him in Episode IX.

Random closing thoughts

Anyway, I’ve spent about two hours and more than 2,000 words on this review, and I really need to wrap things up. ? Here are a few more random, closing thoughts:

• The cinematography on this film was absolutely gorgeous. From Luke’s isolated island to the salt planet to the sci-fi casino on Canto Bight, this is a breathtaking film to watch. Another jaw-dropper is when Vice Admiral Holdo rams into a First Order ship while accelerating to hyperspace. This scene is completely silent, and you can hear the gasps in the theater.

• The Porgs were super adorable. Yes, they pretty much exist to help Disney sell merchandise (I must confess, I already have two stuffed Porgs, so I guess their strategy is working). However, they don’t take over the film, and they don’t talk, so never fear, they aren’t the new Jar Jar Binks.

• It was a fun surprise to see Yoda again, and I’m really glad it was the eccentric original trilogy version. He helped Luke re-center himself and find balance within the Force again.

In short, I thought this was a great film that takes the Star Wars saga in an exciting new direction. It’s a powerful and emotional movie that lingered with me a long time after I left the theater (I saw it Thursday night, and I’m still buzzing). I know some fans had a negative reaction, but I’ve seen the film twice so far, and I loved it even more the second time. I actually saw the movie on two different days in two different cities, and the audiences clapped and cheered at the same moments.

And if you didn’t enjoy it? I encourage you to try watching “The Last Jedi” a second time. I had come up with so many theories and expectations for the film ahead of time that it was actually easier to watch it the second time, without all that baggage in the back of my mind. But even if you didn’t like it, that’s okay too! I’d love to discuss what did — and didn’t — work for you!

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