The Last Jedi – 21st Century Masterpiece | Star Wars Critical Review
Far more than the nostalgic re-tread that was J.J. Abrams The Force Awakens, the second entry in the Star Wars sequel trilogy is a beautiful, touching entry into the generation-spanning saga. From appropriately epic space battles to moments that genuinely surprise and delight, The Last Jedi might well be one of the defining moments in a series that has already done so much to shape so many lived-experiences. If Star Wars, as a whole, continues to define childhoods (and adulthoods), then it will be The Last Jedi that will likely come to define saga itself in the years to come. This film is, in short, everything it should have been and more.
Movie Criticism is a strange beast. Much maligned by critics, the prequel trilogy set the stage for the glowing critical reception which The Force Awakens received. The Abrams-helmed film, which implicitly chastised Lucas’s over-use of CGI in his second trilogy, was reviewed less as a movie than as a referendum on the aesthetic and tone of the original set of films. From practically the moment it was announced, The Force Awakens sold itself as a return to the physical sets and practical effects of the 1970s and 1980s – and film critics, on the whole, responded with unbounded enthusiasm. When The Force Awakens was released, the reviews were glowing and, far too often, uncritical. Critics rightly lauded the performances of the cast of newcomers, even as they ignored the film’s many flaws: a sparkling first act that faded into a turgid second movement that was as rhythmically lacking as anything in the prequel trilogy. The third act of the film was criticised for so closely re-treading the finale from the original Star Wars, but even that was not enough to sour the redemptive media narrative.
According to the critical consensus, The Force Awakens was a sensation. But a slow-burning backlash is shedding light on the failure of the critics in 2015. Given the right conditions, film criticism can become a referendum on the petty and the subjective – a way to settle old scores by implication. The Force Awakens certainly has its strengths, but its weaknesses were largely ignored at the time of its release. It seemed to harken back to a simpler age of blockbuster storytelling and, whatever issues it had, its reward was a glowing media narrative that is only now starting to breakdown. To put it bluntly, The Force Awakens was not reviewed as a film so much as it was reviewed as a rebuke to Lucas.
I mention this because The Last Jedi’s achievements and weaknesses need to be appraised appropriately. Reviewing The Last Jedi is as much about understanding the moment-in-time which the film occupies as it is about appraising the material which appears on screen. That being said, there is a timeless quality to this film which will ensure that it is appreciated long after its current media narrative becomes a matter of history. The Last Jedi, much more so than J.J. Abrams’ predecessor, is a movie which works outside of the flurried excitement that seems to accompany every new trip to a galaxy far, far away.
This is not another good Star Wars movie. This is the first truly good film in the new trilogy – and to compare it to The Force Awakens and the critical success that film achieved is to do Rian Johnson and his collaborators a deep disservice. The Force Awakens had praised heaped upon it and whilst some of it was deserved, much of it was not. The Force Awakens, whilst a net-positive for the Star Wars franchise overall, had issues that only become more acute as its novelty continues to fade. The Last Jedi is the film that deserves its predecessor’s exuberant praise.
None of that is to say that Johnson’s new film is perfect – far from it. The second act drags, with subplots that don’t necessarily pay off, even as they present new themes and ideas to the audience. This can lead to the film feeling unbalanced, with some sub-plots likely to bore sections of the audience. But even with its faults taken into account, when this film does succeed, it does so with such gusto and aplomb that its weaknesses hardly seem to matter. If the second-act-drag is a problem, then viewers can at least rest assured that problematic subplots serve articulate the core themes of the new trilogy, adding significant depth to the good-evil dichotomy of the previous films. In a film ostensibly about space knights, The Last Jedi offers meaningful theses on what it means to stand-up-to power, wartime profiteering, insurmountable gulfs between rich and poor, belonging, and the value of failure. That these themes turn what could have been yet-another nostalgic re-tread into a movie which, like the first (with its allusions towards Vietnam), speaks to the politics of today.
Of course, film criticism means little to an audience emotionally invested in an ever-evolving artefact of their own childhood and my opinions, consequently, don’t mean very much. Just as The Force Awakens is increasingly finding itself the target of more direct criticism than it ever received in 2015, so too is The Last Jedi immune from my attempts to laude praise upon it. For better or worse, it turned out to be exactly what I wanted it to be – and it is impossible to disentangle my emotional response from this film from my critical one.
The point is this – audiences will respond to The Last Jedi based upon their emotional attachment to (and expectations of) the franchise. If this film hits the notes they expect or subconsciously demand, then it will thrill them, regardless of the film’s actual quality. True criticism for The Last Jedi will come long after the last scrap of turkey has been consumed this holiday-season. For now, understand that The Last Jedi is, for a particular type of Star Wars fan, exactly what it needed to be.