Movie Review - 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' Heightens the Franchise but Its Villains are Lacking

After the epic cliffhanger of The Force Awakens, eager anticipation has been building the past few years to see a continuation of the story. Fan theories abounded about Rey’s parentage, what her vision meant, and what Luke had been doing on the island of Ahch-to. What was Luke going to say? Did he turn to the Dark Side? Is he a grey Jedi? All of these questions have answers in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But do they really matter? In the end, it’s the story, the characters, and the overall storytelling that we should care about. Thankfully, Star Wars: The Last Jedi excels at all of that. The story is crisp, action-packed, tense, funny, and full of heart. Old and new characters go beyond The Force Awakens, showing more depth while learning something new in the process. More importantly, the movie presents themes and questions that, frankly, The Force Awakens doesn’t even come close to touching. Themes like the economics of the war machine, the morality of rebellion within the ranks, and if the world is just an endless cycle of light and darkness come up and they all heighten the story. In many ways, The Last Jedi is the perfect sequel. But, that doesn’t mean it's flawless. Far from it. One of the biggest complaints many had about The Force Awakens is its striking similarities to A New Hope. From the desert planet Jakku that resembled Tatooine to the cantina scene to the bigger Death Star, The Force Awakens beat for beat mimicked it almost beyond an homage. If that bothered you, then there’s a good chance The Last Jedi is going to bother you, too. It has a good mixture of plot points between Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi. Also, with such a crisp and taut story, it struggles with letting things breathe and allowing time for characters to naturally grow. But, of its flaws, the biggest and most glaring are the villains. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, Star Wars: The Last Jedi starts where The Force Awakens left off. The Resistance is in full retreat from The First Order. While Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries to recruit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) continue their desperate fight against Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Hands down, Rian Johnson was a great choice to write and direct this film. He has a solid sense of narrative, conflict, and tension that just works. Nothing felt contrived or forced (No pun intended) and each character had their own struggles to work through. Narratively speaking, everything flows and clicks really well all the way up to around the third act. Packed with so much intrigue and tension, you’ll be sitting on the edge of your seat, frothing at the mouth to know what happens next. But, then the third act comes along and things unravel a little bit. If anything, they become more clear and within that clarity, it's difficult to care as much. Mark Hamill slips into the character of Luke Skywalker like a glove. Witnessing him portray the old Jedi is like being a kid again watching the A New Hope for the first time. While Harrison Ford did a decent job being Han Solo, there is something off about his portrayal of the rogue. Hamill, however, does a great job balancing a character as he once was but also as he should be in his old age. With so much time passing, he needs to be different. But, then, there are scenes where its like he never changed at all. Those scenes are some of the best, making his performance one of the better aspects of the movie and well worth the wait. All the actors bring their A-game, though. Daisy Ridley shows vulnerability but also strength in Rey’s character, continuing to make her solid lead with some added dimension this time around. John Boyega’s Finn is as naive as ever which gives his character some room to grow and learn a few things. They also give Poe Dameron’s character more time to develop rather than just being the hotshot pilot Finn rescued. Kylo Ren, meanwhile, has his own struggles and Adam Driver does a good job brooding while also putting on a little rogue charm. But just a little. Another great element of the film is how much of it actually feels like a war movie. The running joke of Star Wars is the actual lack of wars that happen, at least in the first movie. Of course, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi fix some of that but overall, it’s less of a war movie and more of an adventure story. In The Last Jedi, Johnson really doubles down on making it feel like a true war struggle. The imagery harkens back to Saving Private Ryan at times and the story shows the actual cost of war for all the characters, even minor ones, rather than just glossing over it. It’s nice to see the storytelling heightened by these little touches. The biggest issues are difficult to mention because walking down that road is rife with spoilers (but I promise I'll be careful). First, much of Rey’s journey is a conundrum and doesn’t exactly feel entirely satisfying. There’s also the issue of copying former films. It's apparent but maybe not as glaring as The Force Awakens. Again, some might be more bothered by it than others. Also, while plenty of time is given to the heroes to develop, the villains are mostly neglected. In The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren’s villain is perhaps one of the best Star Wars villains since Darth Vader, and maybe even better. He had great inner conflict and to some degree, we could actually relate to him. Much of that continues in The Last Jedi but as things progress, a gaping hole starts to grow. The villains lack intimidation. At the end of the Empire Strikes Back, the third act brings down the hammer. Vader tortures our heroes and sets a trap for Luke Skywalker. The cost of losing Han Solo not to mention the darkness surrounding Vader and Skywalker’s epic battle treats Vader like a boogeyman. The depth of his voice and the darkness of his presence set a tone which made you feel genuinely afraid. In other words, Vader is intimidating and scary and it raises the stakes for our hero. In The Last Jedi, the intimidation factor exists, especially in the beginning, but as things progress, it slowly seeps out of the story like a sieve. Some of the lack of intimidation also is a result of the humor. General Hux isn't exactly scary in The Force Awakens, per se, but that speech he gave before committing genocide certainly made him look like a psychopath. In The Last Jedi, however, he’s played for a fool and a stooge, kind of like the Nazis in Hogan’s Heroes. It's funny, yes. But villains are meant to be feared. Much of Kylo Ren's intimidation, meanwhile, is neutered by his arc (which I'll not talk about). When he is intimidating, it's almost too little and too late and perhaps a touch over the top. Of all the villains, Snoke and Phasma are the biggest disappointments (I'll just leave it at that). There's little doubt The Last Jedi is a solid installment in the franchise and deserves to be seen in the theater. In many ways, Rian Johnson transcended the mythology, building on what J.J. Abrams did in The Force Awakens and making it even better. Which, frankly, is exactly what you would want in a sequel. It certainly answers plenty of questions, but it also leaves many hanging and that might be the point. Fans wanting every question answered or better answers to questions might feel unsatisfied. But, honestly, this insatiable desire for answers to questions might be the wrong approach to enjoying Star Wars. It’s always been about the characters and a good story. And, in that regard, The Last Jedi succeeds overwhelmingly.  Photos courtesy of: Walt Disney Studios.

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