Middle chapters are hard. They have to move the story along without closing too many doors while not leaving too many open for the final chapter, appearing consequential but not too consequential. But they’re also hard to judge in a vacuum; The Empire Strikes Back is pretty universally considered the best Star Wars movie, but how much of that relies on knowing that Return of the Jedi, for all its Ewoks, follows through on all of its narrative arcs? If Episode IX builds upon what The Last Jedi lays out in a satisfying way, The Last Jedi may well be thought of the same way twenty years from now. If not, does The Last Jedi hold up on its own merits?
If “its own merits” means “Is The Last Jedi entertaining?”, the answer is a bit mixed. That hyped, pumped-up feeling I got from The Force Awakens was considerably dampened for The Last Jedi, potentially due to Rogue One disappointment, potentially due to simple sequel fatigue. But its also clear that The Last Jedi is just less interested in thrills. Indeed, The Last Jedi is the closest a Star Wars movie has come to art cinema, with no expert action sequences to speak of but a constant barrage of absolutely stunning images. From a particularly blinding light-speed jump to gorgeous speeder tracks on a salt-ridden mining planet, a dolly shot across a futuristic casino that apes a classic, or (most blatantly) an auditory infinity mirror hallucination, director Rian Johnson provides an unexpectedly sumptuous artistic sci-fi vision, all while still feeling very much a part of the Star Wars universe, but the expected thrills (lightsaber battles and aerial dogfights) fall a little short.
But The Last Jedi isn’t principally interested in getting those expected thrills. If The Force Awakens was a celebration of nostalgia, The Last Jedi is a deconstruction of it (its truest kin is, weirdly, maybe Trainspotting 2). The Rebels won at the end of Return of the Jedi, but forty years later, they seem to be back to the start during The Force Awakens. The Force Awakens ignored this sticking point a bit, but The Last Jedi digs into the demoralizing trudging of time, how we (and the world) outlive our glory moments and have to just keep moving past them, slowly. Across numerous characters, illusions of heroism and seemingly predestined paths are shattered. The very definitions of light and dark get reshuffled, but a form of balance finds itself. Things seem to be following a familiar path, until they’re suddenly not.
While it certainly gets more heady in themes than previous entries, The Last Jedi is also more obviously humorous than expected. The antics of BB-8 and the penguin-rat Porg creatures edge right up to the line of too cutesy, but stay *mostly* on the right side of it. While these scenes seem to be taking on a greater proportion of the popcorn-entertainment value of this installment than normal, they also keep the film from verging too far into darker-and-edgier territory. As entertainment, The Last Jedi certainly suffices, but as an entry into the Star Wars canon, it has potential to age into an absolute classic.
OK, I saw it a second time, and loved it so so much more. The headiness of it all maybe distracted me the first time, but upon rewatch, having compartmentalized that the movie was going to be about failure and the deflation of legends, it turns out that it also works really really well as epic entertainment. Even if I still think things like the Throne Room Fight are a bit overrated, and that there’s maybe one too many Porg moments, I’m fully on board with calling The Last Jedi the first capital-g Great Star Wars movie since the originals.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and Mark Hamill
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)