By Rich Heldenfels
While I have laughed at times during previous "Star Wars" movies, I did not expect to do so as quickly as "The Last Jedi" made me.
Let's face it: the "Star Wars" saga is often solemn stuff, relieved occasionally by a wisecrack or an amusing mechanical or furry sidekick. (Yes, there are more furries in this film.) But the newest movie demonstrates an early confidence in its storytelling by turning briefly into sketch comedy – then following it with a blistering battle sequence rife with death and destruction.
That battle scene makes another, larger point repeated throughout "The Last Jedi": writer-director Rian Johnson wants to be clear that, even in a vast and fantastic space adventure, the price of warfare is paid with human lives – and by the torment of many human souls.
The fights, and the comedy, were potent enough for a long, early stretch of "The Last Jedi" that I had to write "This is so good" on my notepad.
Unfortunately, not long afterward, I wrote "so much narrative" -- because "The Last Jedi" struggles as it tries to balance several different story threads – and to satisfy the seeming requirement that every "Star Wars" movie contain long passages of dialogue about the Force, the Dark Side and who is beholden to each.
"The Last Jedi" picks up right after the end of "The Force Awakens"; the Resistance is struggling against the First Order, and its fate may depend on whether the bold Rey (Daisy Ridley) can persuade Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to leave an ancient Jedi sanctuary and take up the Resistance's cause.
But Luke is damaged goods, not least because of his dealings with Ben Solo (Adam Driver), Han and Leia's son, now the brutal Kylo Ren of the First Order. Ben, and the Order's Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) have unfinished business with Rey. The Resistance, meanwhile, still boasts Leia (Carrie Fisher), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) -- but uncertainty about tactics.
Indeed, the strategies on both sides of the war do not always seem to make sense. But they do set up some stirring sequences in space, across huge landscapes and, for one of the best dramatic pieces in the film, in an extended light-saber fight. The adventure then is weighed against the emotional battles occurring, which is where Luke does most of his fighting, and other characters are drawn in. Hamill gives one of his best live-action screen performances here, a lovely turn aided greatly by Ridley's working with him.
Still, the need to serve characters who are often dealing with separate tasks in distant places makes a heavy narrative burden for "The Last Jedi," and one it cannot always bear. Splitting into two films – one about Luke and Rey, another dealing with the epic battles – might have worked better; after all, "Star Wars" is already a long series, so what's an extra chapter or two among fans?
Then there's Carrie Fisher. "The Last Jedi" is dedicated to "our princess," who died in December 2016. She had completed her scenes but, according to published reports, had not finished additional recording of her dialogue; the technical fixes do not always work. At the same time, it is at once joyous to see her as Leia once more, and sorrowful to know that – future CGI tricks aside – this is the last time we will see her. There's one scene in particular that should make fans mist up. That may be enough reason for some to see "The Last Jedi"; for the rest, there's plenty of big-screen excitement.
"The Last Jedi" confident in its laughs and pain
By Rich Heldenfels