Note: This review features no major, experience-ruining spoilers about Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Rian Johnson’s new Star Wars: The Last Jedi was supposed to be the modern Empire Strikes Back. The expectation stemmed, in part, from the ominous nature of the film’s advertising and the fact that J.J. Abrams’ 2015 Star Wars revamp The Force Awakens was pretty clearly cast in the mold of A New Hope. Jedi, then, would be the new franchise’s darkest entry, which would follow given the involvement of Rian Johnson, fan of noir and dystopias. Bring it on, then; all men must die. Star Wars can become HBO, before it inevitably becomes Marvel. But The Last Jedi is not a bleak, post-Game-of-Thrones bloodbath. It is quite dark at times (winter has, more or less, come for the resistance, but doesn’t it always?), and it has some structural similarities to Empire, but it subverts just as many. Indeed, Johnson seems to relish overturning some of the more arbitrary, sensationalist conventions of a Star Wars Film–the very ones that have conditioned people to always think “What other Star Wars thing is this new Star Wars thing in the mold of?”
There is no single culminating mano a mano saber fight in The Last Jedi. There’s no definitive light-to-dark conversion or even a truly gasp-inducing sacrifice (the ones that do occur feel pretty logical and appropriate). Every main character seems a little broken, or just acting their actual age. Each can only manage selective feats of heroism. The normal act structure of a Star Wars film feels pleasantly muddied; at least, we’re past the The Force Awakens thing of all scenes being of the same basic weight and duration. Johnson changes dynamics and tempo: There are slow, ethereal scenes, fast-paced action scenes, long tense conversations, dreams and half-dreams, and only a couple expository flashbacks. Spirits and real living beings co-exist in a lonely world. The Last Jedi is an actual movie, and a pretty beautifully made one at that. It feels like the work of an individual importing his own humor and playful sensibility into a cinematic universe which comes with a ludicrous amount of baggage.
Some people don’t like muddied waters; I do. Perhaps even more than that, I like the Jabba’s Palace scene in Return of the Jedi and, more generally, the kind of striking and well-placed Star Wars creatures that seem to be part of assembling or distinguishing any new planet or enclave. J.J. Abrams’ creatures in TFA felt like annoying, canny window dressing: stock junk pilferers and thieves that would make easy toys. At least there was a dense and singular vision behind George Lucas’ scores of pixellated, racist aliens in the prequels. Johnson’s critters in Jedi are endearing, distinguishable, and just the right amount of invasive. Even in one or two shots, some create the kind of instant personality that the Salacious Crumbs of old were able to deliver. That monocled alien that looked a little like Rygel from Farscape scrounging for coins and trying to play BB-8 like a slot machine was, for instance, a passing treat. I can imagine sharp little moments like that being truly memorable for a kid.
Johnson’s gags and charming character-building techniques are a welcome reminder that films like these were traditionally fun–occasionally, authentically goofy. Part of the perceived darkness of Empire, after all, is in the mind of the ideal viewer, who was once you: an actual child. In an IMAX theater full of ticket-savvy twenty-and-thirty-something men last night, I felt the many sitting and fuming, perhaps waiting for Luke to lightsaber battle Snoke on a catwalk somewhere or for a lengthy info dump of shocking, unrevealed mythology. As it turns out, I was waiting for something I didn’t know I wanted–the casino on Canto Bight, and arguably the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars movie: star code-breaker Justin Theroux with pencil mustache, white tuxedo, and British accent. He shows up once, and I’d bet, never again in the entire franchise. Chef’s kisses sprang forth from both my hands.
Strikingly, Johnson often builds humor into the movie’s most intense moments. Without giving away too much: There was Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) accidental destruction of property of the Jedi island nuns, Yoda showing up to play a prank and giggle, Poe (Osaar Isaac) constantly getting owned by his female superiors, and above all, Mark Hamill being a nutcase. Let’s pause a moment to discuss Mark: Old Mark Hamill is possibly the weirdest real-life actor to ever get heavy screen time in a Star Wars film. Any sense of traditional acting seems to have been thrown off by years of gargoylish voice work, and he’s craggier than anyone’s wildest imagination. But it’s for those very reasons that he pops off the screen in Jedi, breathing strange, lopsided life into every scene he’s in. When he’s grumpy–most of the time–and puttering about his island, it often feels like this may actually be how Mark Hamill acts around the house. He’s half a prop, half an unusual reminder of what people in the real world act like. Crucially, his moment with Leia (Carrie Fisher, also wonderful) was genuinely affecting. His only interaction with C-3PO is a slightly labored wink which seems ad libbed. It’s good stuff–silly but trenchant, exactly what Star Wars is at its best.
Movie-making should be a fun, freeing enterprise, and this is the first Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi that has felt that way. In the prequels, Lucas was certainly running free, but I’m not sure he had a firm grip on what fun was at that point in his life. Sure, Jedi is too long, like every movie now, and, as with every single Star Wars film, full of confusing, last-minute solutions that prevent every main character from being blown up or shot. Most of this film wasn’t too distracting in that respect. Even when it was, the answer to the problem was usually pleasantly ridiculous: BB-8 waddling up in an AT-ST, cannons blazing, as the ship he and our heroes are all stuck on is burning to pieces.
The most frequent criticism I can imagine people (read: fans unwilling to watch Star Wars movies like normal ones) levying at The Last Jedi is that nothing major happens in it. There is no huge, Empire-like revelation, but what could ever be as huge as the reveal in that film? The events of this film seem self-contained, like it actually sort of works as a movie apart from its context in the franchise. Johnson used his opportunity to explore new ways to portray the Force on film (hallucinatory, like it should be) and build characters–most notably, a villain that doesn’t feel strung awkwardly between emotional bullet points he has to hit. Adam Driver was strong in The Force Awakens, but the “conflict” he exudes even when he has so little to say is a testament to his skill and commitment. Watching his waffling in tremulous close-ups feels more compelling than another big reveal, and another edge-of-precipice saber fight. (This is also the first movie I’ve seen Driver in where I didn’t once think about him screaming “Hannah!”)
By this point, allowing characters like Ren to look truly pathetic and affect relatively little change in the plot feels fresh and interesting in the context of this franchise. Luckily, I also think it’d be neat in a film that wasn’t a Star Wars movie. In many other kinds of movies, we tend to value subtlety of characterization: things like characters not having all the answers, characters betraying others but then feeling guilty about it, characters who point out that good and evil are, on some level, both evil (Benicio del Toro here, in sardonic and cartoonish glory), and so on. I don’t think things should be any different in Star Wars. I also don’t know–in a franchise that has never before been that funny, except thanks to the expertise of its puppet-makers–why all that Sturm und Drang people are thirsty for can’t be counterweighted by some fun at the characters’ expense. Throw in some quivering little space-moles for cut-away fun, a dumb space-horse chase, whatever works. If you have a tasteful person making your Star Wars film, all that stuff can actually play the way it’s supposed to. As crazy old-man Skywalker yells at Rey, everything needs balance, and I think Rian Johnson found his own way of achieving it here.