The Force Awakens was a fine re-entry into the world of Star Wars, even as the film seemed to be a beat-for-beat copy of A New Hope. But while The Last Jedi is definitely reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back (particularly in its training scenes) and Return of the Jedi (in a scene I won’t spoil), this finally feels like a filmmaker putting his stamp on the series.
Rian Johnson has been one of the best American filmmakers of the last decade-plus. He’s also the last of the class that had to make a few indie and modestly budgeted features before getting called up to the big leagues. But his three features prior to this – the high school noir Brick, the caper comedy The Brothers Bloom and the sci-fi thriller Looper – were all special in their own ways, but with a focus on excellent writing that both served the story and subverted our expectations.
And while The Last Jedi absolutely does that, it has one thing Johnson’s movies never had before: bloat. At two-and-a-half hours, this is the longest Star Wars movie to date. And while the emotional stakes of the story as it plays out supports that scope, its pacing makes it feel at least 30 minutes too long.
The story, such as it is, is basically one long chase: the rebels are on the run from the First Order, trying to find a planet where they can hole up and send a distress signal. Meanwhile, Rey is still trying to convince Luke Skywalker to train her and also return to fight the new incarnation of the Empire. “This isn’t going to turn out the way you think,” he tells Rey at one point. And for the most part, he’s right. The Last Jedi is as much into de-mythologizing the Force as it is relishing in its fantastic fight choreography and intergalactic dogfights.
One of my issues with The Force Awakens was that I never bought the scenes of emotional weight. There was never enough context to believe Kylo Ren’s struggle in particular. That problem has been taken care of here, as the battle for his soul is placed front and center, with brief but crucial backstory filled in. The same goes for Rey, whose past has been the subject of countless speculation and Reddit threads. The answers here are both simpler and more complex than all that guessing.
Blockbusters comparing themselves to classic films is nothing new, but the film I was most reminded of during The Last Jedi was The Dark Knight. Both films are willing to kill off major characters (for actual emotional resonance and not just for shock value), both films let trustworthy characters obscure the truth for a larger purpose, both films are probably too long and might have been better served by putting their last 30 minutes into a third film. But both films also have endless possibilities for where the series can go from here. Let’s just hope Episode IX ends better than The Dark Knight Rises.