One of the greatest creations of cinema has been Star Wars. Like the force, it’s something that seems to unite us all, that flows through each of our lives. I waited until Tuesday to see the film with my family, Star Wars is the sort of thing you want to see with loved ones, so that’s why this review is coming so much later than the other noise. What my family and I saw was something of true wonder and love. Rian Johnson has long been one of my favorite directors, and he’s delivered perhaps my favorite of the Star Wars saga, if not the best.
This film is a great example of what happens when you give an independent creative the funding to match their ambition and the space to let them create. Like what Matt Reeves did for the Planet of the Apes films, and what James Mangold did for the Wolverine films, Rian Johnson just takes the property to a whole other level of filmmaking and storytelling. Full Disclosure: Rian Johnson’s Brick was my favorite film of 2005, and his Looper was my favorite film of 2012. He is ambitious and crafty if nothing else in how he constructs his films – both in the look and the story – and he brings that same fervor to Star Wars. He walks the balancing act of making this middle film his own while still acting as part of a larger story. He expands the characters, but even moreso expands the themes of Star Wars and the mythology of the universe to create an intimate feeling blockbuster about legacy. It’s a lot of fun, as a Star Wars film should be, but it also manages to reach new emotional and dramatic depths with its characters and themes. It’s a high wire act that only a filmmaker as determined and enthusiastic as Johnson could pull off.
Johnson brings along his cinematographer Steve Yedlin, and his work is a joy. There’s a kinetic energy to his photography, every camera movement feels purposeful in telling the story and character that usually doesn’t happen in films as big as this. Each shot just feels so sure of itself and what it’s showing you. They film the action in fluid takes, letting the fight choreography shine. Johnson and Yedlin also have terrific use of color in informing the mood and ideologies of characters, there’s a classicism about it that harkens back to the original trilogy. There are certain shots where you think you’re watching an art film due to how bold and informing the colors are. It proves a film can be moody and colorful at the same time, it doesn’t have to be dour on either front.
Johnson creates a film that challenges conventions and familiarity. You will not see what is coming, and it’s so refreshing to be taken by surprise by a blockbuster. Even though the film is the longest in the franchise at 2 and a half hours, it never feels slow. Each scene, each little moment, feels essential. A great barometer for knowing if the movie is slowing down or hitting dead weight in scenes is when you decide if you’re okay to go to the bathroom during it or not. Kind of like if you’re performing at a concert and you know the song is bad if people leave to go to the bathroom. Members of my family had to use the bathroom, but couldn’t find a good spot to leave during. Everything in this film is just so important and engaging, you can’t pull yourself away for a second.
It’s a film about confronting death and purpose, and in letting others carry the legacy of your life, about finding hope in defeat. It does not give easy answers to questions you might have, instead suggesting that in order for us to move on we have to let go of the old and embrace the uncertainty of what the new and the future holds. It’s the most challenging Star Wars film made, and that’s something that should be celebrated, that a film this big can still move you and dare you to dig deeper. I’ve heard a fair amount of criticism for how this film departs for something more unique, and I don’t understand it at all. This is a brave, bold film and should be commended for being a distinct chapter. Let the past die, and the new live. A Star Wars film should move you, should be unique, and The Last Jedi does all that and more. The force is strong with Rian Johnson, and I can’t wait to see what he does with the original Star Wars trilogy he does next.