Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
Rated PG-13, 152 min.
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher, Billie Lourd, Laura Dern, Oscar Isaac, Benicio Del Toro, Kelly Marie Tran, Gwendoline Christie, Jimmy Vee
There are certain needs you expect to be met when stepping into the theater to see a STAR WARS movie. You want to experience the awesome thrill, sense the magical wonder and see the spectacular spectacle unfold before you. It’s supposed to be transportive in its ways of world-building and deeply impactful in terms of its narrative connotations. It’s a hero’s journey unlike any other. Though I’ve been left feeling out in the cold by THE FORCE AWAKENS, and practically frostbitten by ROGUE ONE, director Rian Johnson’s STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI gives off a significant more amount of heat than its modern era (i.e. Disney/ Lucasfilm era) predecessors. It certainly captures the sense of awe and imagination of what we love best about that universe. While it’s not entirely without faults, it is entirely entertaining.
The First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis) and sniveling General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), is quickly taking over, but not without the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), interfering with their oppressive domination. Characters are scattered all over. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) are on different tangential quests. Some of their missions involve beloved characters like Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). One involves a planet-trotting adventure with new badass hero, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). And, of course, still as pissed off as ever, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is out to crush all hope left in that galaxy far, far away.
Similar to THE FORCE AWAKENS, there are loads of thrilling sequences Johnson constructs that speak to the kid in all of us. It’s easy to get an electric charge from how he handles the necessary elements of homage. The unabashed fan service moments – whether that be through subtle, or not so subtle, callbacks to the original trilogy – don’t feel like an oppressive onslaught as they did in Episode VII. Johnson hooks his new, imaginative ideas into existing lore perfectly. And no need to worry about midichlorians here. They give us porgs and those don’t turn out to be anything less than splendid.
What’s more is that Episode VIII excels even in the quiet, pensive, and restrained edges. There’s time for the gravitas of these characters’ actions to settle with the audience, where you feel the burden they’re shouldering. The thematic text speaks to the light and the dark in humanity – politically and socio-economically. Shades of black and white also color hustler DJ’s (Benicio Del Toro) worldview. The subtext takes on a poignant, almost meta quality in its sentiments about legends and their legacies.
“Goose pimple worthy” fight sequences – the big action set pieces that make your eyes (and maybe mouth) widen in amazement – are sprinkled throughout assuring the audience they’ll never get bored. Johnson’s marvelous visuals work in tangent with John Williams’ resplendent score, augmenting the characters’ narrative drive. Nevertheless, there is one fight sequence that looks absolutely breathtaking, and will assuredly make you cheer at the fanfare (as the people in my screening did), but whose underlying motives may lead to some questions.
During one particular montage, Johnson, along with editor Bob Ducsay, rhythmically cross-cut between the range of female personalities as a heartrending nod to these women’s empowered choices. While I do wish this sequence carried a bit more emotional heft in the build-up, I can’t help but commend it for being something the film makes room to acknowledge. That said, you might feel the push-pull of the story’s progressive, and unfortunately occasionally regressive, elements. Yes, we now have more dynamic, diverse, smart, strong female characters in this universe. However, take a closer look at how they’re utilized. One “smart, strong female character” heroically puts her life on the line for a dude for flimsy reasons. We’ll take it, but with a disclaimer attached. Another female character is noticeably undermined almost the entire time by a male character. His hero’s journey is laid out clearly in the beginning, with two women – on separate occasions – telling him to, as the phrase goes, “check yourself before you wreck yourself,” yet it’s very lax on arriving at any resolution (satisfactory or otherwise). The filmmakers never force (pun intended) him to learn anything from these warnings. This thread is left dangling in the wind, for now, at least. Perhaps it’s all fluid as these are episodic, but there’s no reason characters can’t learn different lessons in each episode. This seems to be how they’re advancing Rey’s character growth, so, you know, small blessings.
Despite the gripes, overall, THE LAST JEDI is a force for positive change. There’s room to advance the franchise in new and exciting ways. It’s just a matter of whether or not they embrace the evolution.
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI opens on December 15.