When Luke Skywalker says at one point, ‘This is not going to go the way you think’, in The Last Jedi, it’s almost as if director Rian Johnson is indirectly telling the viewer that in case you were worried that his latest movie is going to be a remake of The Empire Strikes Back – given the fact that the previous entry in the saga, The Force Awakens, was essentially a remake of the A New Hope (a friend called it The Force Remakens) – he is going to make you really happy about what he has done with this.
I’m happy to report that The Last Jedi, gave me almost everything that I wanted to see in a Star Wars movie. It’s the richest, most refined and satisfying entry in the entire saga. (I’m still debating whether I liked it more than Empire, which I regarded as the best one so far) I wanted to see something different and got something different. It’s a wondrous adventure story steeped in the saga’s mythology and expanding on everything that came before it. Johnson, whom I view as one of the most promising directors of this generation (I like him more than Abrams, actually), was the right person to helm a story of this magnitude. You can see his determination in every frame.
I don’t know how much of J.J Abrams’ input was in Awakens, because it looked to me like a perfect example of “committee filmmaking”, and I was hugely disappointed by the end result. I understand that the producers were making “something for the fans” – because that’s the justification they gave for it – but it simply didn’t work for me. And even though I happen to be a big fan of Abrams, I felt that Awakens was by far the weakest addition to his filmography.
Johnson, on the other hand, brings a much-needed elegance to the saga which was missing since Empire. There are homages to Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone in few scenes; and during a discussion with few friends, someone brought up the silent film Wings. I’m sure we’ll discover more references on repeat viewings. This shows that it came from the mind of a filmmaker who has been dreaming to make a Star Wars movie ever since he was a little kid. There are ideas and images that we haven’t seen before; even Carrie Fisher (R.I.P) got to do something that Leia hasn’t done before. One major surprise had me saying, “Holy shit!” – a moment that I did not expect at all. It almost made me get out of my seat and jump excitedly.
The much-revered original trilogy — with all its spectacular space battles, lightsaber duels and spiritual discussions serving as its embellishments — was essentially a big parents-and-children story of mythic proportions; about how the children didn’t want to repeat the same mistakes that their parents did; about how fear led people to unwise decisions with terrible, far-reaching consequences. The prequel trilogy, less respected than the former, went into exploring those unwise decisions made by an iconic character of the original trilogy — and all-time favorite villain – Darth Vader. Yes, he was lured by the dark side; but he turned out to be a badass, three-dimensional villain. And we learn later that he was not completely evil, which made him much more sympathetic.
These films were also about the men who chose to become surrogate fathers to youngsters who had to be separated from their real fathers because they had to be shielded from the lure of the dark side of the force. The third trilogy began by introducing us to new characters – who may or may not be related to characters from the original trilogy – and showed us that just because something happened once, doesn’t mean that it won’t happen again. This explains the appearance of Kylo Ren, a young man who seems to have made the same mistake that his grandfather did. I didn’t think he was an interesting character when I saw him in Awakens – his behavior resembled that of an embittered, raging teenager — but Johnson has turned him into one here. (Adam Driver would’ve made a much better Anakin Skywalker.)
The turbulent history involving Kylo and Luke is explored in flashbacks and you get to see that Luke, despite becoming a full-fledged Jedi, still hasn’t mastered all his flaws. There are remnants of fear inside him and Johnson does some very interesting with this fact in this flashback. He is now living as a cynical recluse on an unknown island on a planet called Ach-To, which was where we saw him at the end of Awakens. When Rey approaches him and mentions the atrocities of the New Order, he doesn’t want anything to do with it. This is the finest performance of Mark Hamill’s career. He makes you forget that this is the same who screamed, “Noooooooooo!!!!” in Empire. Some of the stuff that Johnson did in this movie, especially towards the end, is absolutely spellbinding.
Instead of keeping the main trio – Rey, Finn, and Poe – together all the time, Johnson separates them this time, sending each of them to a different place with a different objective. This is a funnier film than Awakens; a small prank call gag in the opening battle sequence makes a mockery of General Hux’s threats. The humor is less cheesy this time around. I’ve seen few critics call the sub-plot involving Finn and a female fleet technician called Rose unnecessary. I thought it was fun. These two take a journey to another planet to find a codebreaker (played by Benicio Del Toro), and the whole thing is a movie in itself. It’s like Johnson’s own Indiana Jones movie, with a Jumanji-like setpiece involving animals running amok inside an opulent casino. You also get to see a little bit of Empire and The Return of the Jedi here. And because of this, The Last Jedi almost feels like a final chapter.
Speaking of set pieces, Johnson has staged some of the most spectacular and rewind-worthy battle sequences and lightsaber duels this saga has ever seen. I found Awakens lacking in this department — and Abrams moves his camera a little too fast. Johnson doesn’t overdo anything; each set piece is coherent, neatly choreographed and of the right length. The predominant color is red; and not since Kurosawa have I seen someone use colors this way. One beautifully choreographed lightsaber duel – filmed against a vibrant, red background — evoked a similar duel from The Phantom Menace; and the climactic battle sequence takes place on a Hoth-like planet with white salt on its surface and a red mineral underneath. When the battle begins, it looks as if the earth is bleeding — which looks fantastic in 3D.