The Last Jedi: Star Wars for everyone and no one

Millions upon millions of eyes will scrutinize every single frame, nuance, bit of dialogue or perceived misstep in writer/director Rian Johnson’s new film.

Granted, you’ve probably never heard of the 44-year-old director unless you’re an ardent fan of his indie noir feature “Brick” or his time-traveling, action adventure “Looper.” But moviegoers everywhere are familiar with Johnson’s latest work, the long-awaited eighth episode in George Lucas’s space opera epic “Star Wars” series.

“The Last Jedi” has brought in over $220 million domestically since it opened Thursday, making it the second highest grossing film on an opening weekend of all time behind 2015’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

As such, everyone from casual moviegoers to hardcore sci-fi nerds has an opinion on one of the most talked about films this decade.
It’s easy to nitpick such a broad, bombastic film series, but “The Last Jedi” seeks to please many masters, most of whom have widely varying opinions about what a “Star Wars” film should be.

Some will say it’s too long, that it tries too hard to be humorous, that it isn’t funny enough, that there are too many characters or not enough of “insert your favorite character here.”

Everyone is right, and yet everyone is wrong at the same time. More so than any other film franchise, “Star Wars” is a series widely open to interpretation.

As moviegoers, we are allowed – and outright expected – to make each and every installment our own, that there is a place for all of us in the “Star Wars” universe.

It’s the same notion that makes us question whether or not we like “The Last Jedi” because it isn’t what we dreamed it would be. And that’s okay.

The eighth episode picks up right where “The Force Awakens” left off, with Leia and her Resistance fighters on the run from The First Order and emerging leader Rey seeking out a now mythical Luke Skywalker to turn the tide of the war.

In what will be likely her final appearance on screen, Carrie Fisher gives a measured, layered performance as former princess turned rebel general Leia. The warmth and gravitas she’s able to bring to the role grounds “The Last Jedi” in a firm sense of place, giving Johnson’s film unanticipated but much appreciated emotional depth.

The same can be said of Mark Hamill in his return as Luke Skywalker. Like Fisher, Hamill’s performance in the role gets better with age and his reluctant mentorship of Daisy Ridley’s Rey provides several of the film’s best moments.

For as iconic of characters as Luke and Leia are, neither has been portrayed as carefully or with as much forethought than in “The Last Jedi.”

The three main heroes from “The Force Awakens” – Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe – all return for this installment and do solid work. However, pedestrian storylines for Boyega and Isaac leave the talented actors with little to work with and marginalized compared to Ridley, on whom the franchise has rightfully placed all their hopes.

While Ridley does solid work as the young defender of the light side of the force, Rey’s dark side counterpart Kylo Ren proves to be more than formidable in the always steady hands of veteran character actor Adam Driver. Given more to work with in his second time as the heir apparent to Darth Vader, Driver does the best work of the entire film as the eternally conflicted, yet increasingly evil son of Leia and Han Solo.

Johnson serves his film well by removing Kylo Ren’s Vader-inspired mask, allowing audiences to see the external and internal scars on Driver’s face. There’s so much rage in pain within Driver’s eyes; his complex performance leaps off the screen at every turn.

While Ren projects strength and brash self-confidence, the conflict within betrays him. The nuance displayed by Driver, especially when paired against Ridley is stunning. It could very easily be the best cinematic villain since Heath Ledger’s sinister Joker in 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”

Johnson’s film could rightly be accused of needing some extra time in the editing room. “The Last Jedi” races off in several directions all at the same time and ping-pongs back and forth between them at a frantic, haphazard pace.

Many of Johnson’s unique visual choices, however, will soon go down as iconic moments in the history of the franchise, most notably a stunning battle sequence inside a First Order ship and the film’s climatic ending, which may leave viewers simultaneously in awe and in tears.

It’s highly doubtful that “The Last Jedi” will make much of an impact come awards season, though this doesn’t mean at the latest Star Wars film isn’t a contender for one of the year’s ten best. In the hands of a decorated auteur like Johnson, “The Last Jedi” is proof positive that cinematic creativity in blockbuster filmmaking can enhance a film’s quality without jeopardizing the bottom line.

Audiences will laugh, they’ll cry and they may even complain a little (or more realistically, a lot). But this isn’t to say that “Star Wars: Episode VIII” doesn’t deliver on the promise that “The Force Awakens” started.

“The Last Jedi” isn’t the “Star Wars” installment anyone wanted. It’s the one we all deserve.

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