Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a work of art that is packed with the wondrous sights that only people with real vision can create. All of the big set pieces are visual delights, and they’re almost enough to distract from some of the glaring flaws that punctuate the film throughout. But even with some unsatisfactory plot ideas and faulty space physics, The Last Jedi is entertaining, engrossing, and a fine addition to this new kind of Star Wars universe.
The film picks up essentially right where Episode 7 ended. The Rebels are evacuating just as the First Order is closing in on their base to destroy them. After some heroics by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), the Rebels make a daring escape only to be reacquired by the First Order which has somehow tracked the Rebel fleet through hyperspace. Realizing that they can’t outrun their pursuers, all the Rebels can do is stall for time, keeping the First Order fleet at arm’s length while Finn (John Boyega) and new addition Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) attempt to disable the First Order’s tracking technology. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) does her best to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to rejoin the Rebels. While doing so, however, she begins to discover a special connection with other people who are sensitive to the Force.
The Last Jedi is gorgeous. In a time when CGI can bring any whim and fancy to believable life, it’s rare that a film capitalizes on this advantage in truly artistic ways. Not so here. In every new scene, there’s always something magnificent to behold. Single combat happens against a backdrop of burning wreckage or as fiery embers flit about. Land craft battles happen on crimson planets covered in layers of salt, tracing blood red scars along the ground to detail the skirmish. And epic space encounters end in muted tones and stark black and white images. The visuals are among the most stirring in any Star Wars film.
The story and the events that happen in it, however, are awkward. The film starts off with a joke that only modern audiences living on Earth would appreciate, but would be confusing for people living long ago in a galaxy far, far away. There are also issues with the logic in some of the space battles. Early on, Rebel bombers are employed to destroy a high-value target, but instead of being able to fire their payload from a distance, these slow-moving space craft must fly above their target and drop bombs World War II style. The scene is dramatic as the slow-moving bombers require a fighter escort, and the stakes ramp up as fewer and fewer bombers survive on their approach. The problem is that in deep space there is zero gravity, so bombers need not be so slow and bombs cannot fall without gravity to pull them down. With all of the drama standing on a false foundation it’s hard not to feel like the film is trying to manipulate the audience.
There are other questionable moments throughout the movie. One of the biggest is a drawn-out sequence on a Monte Carlo-like planet that just seems like busy work to give characters something interesting to do, especially considering what the effort amounts to. Some characters’ actions also don’t feel developed enough. So when they attempt something self-sacrificing, the emotional value is missing because audiences don’t understand why the character is making the sacrifice. Finally, there are questions that are raised in regards to the limits of the Force. Perhaps there are explanations in books and other ancillary media to explain why we see Force powers that weren’t established before, but for audiences who are only familiar with the movies, some of the actions will feel convenient.
Daisy Ridley continues to be a highlight among the cast mainly because her character actually has some depth to explore rather than actions to perform. Also elevating the movie is newcomer Kelly Marie Tran who has a lot of ground to cover in everything she says, but manages to dress up the exposition she spouts just enough to keep it tolerable. Disappointingly, Mark Hamill’s return as Luke Skywalker doesn’t add much to the film in terms of acting or character. The staid and refined Jedi master that audiences were probably expecting has been replaced by a kooky hermit that would be fatally off-putting were it not for the character’s history.
Finally, there’s a strong theme of “letting go of the old” running throughout The Last Jedi, and writer/director Rian Johnson appears to have taken that theme to a meta level. Some of the subplots that were set up in Episode VII appear to have been discarded completely in Episode VIII. Some of these abandoned subplots are relatively minor, like a character following in the footsteps of an idol. Other abandoned subplots are major, like something that fans have been hypothesizing about for two years. To have these goals and mysteries resolved so unsatisfactorily will disappoint many.
But…this is Star Wars, and it can be forgiven for any sin committed by any temporary steward of the brand. No doubt someone in the future will fix the leaks and bridge the gaps. Watching a character survive deep space without any protective gear, I came to a realization: The intellectual property of Star Wars is too strong and the fanbase is too loyal to let a few bad story decisions ruin an otherwise excellent film. In any other movie, this scene would be unforgivably hokey. In Star Wars, hokey is part of the experience audiences expect.