‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi': Kevin McCarthy reviews Rian Johnson's much-anticipated film

- A couple of important notes before I jump into my review of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi:”

(SCROLL DOWN FOR KEVIN'S FULL VIDEO REVIEW)

1.) This review is spoiler-free. Below you will just find my thoughts on the film. There are no story or spoiler points.

2.) Rian Johnson did shoot parts of the film with IMAX cameras. Therefore, when you see the film in IMAX, it will jump to the full screen for certain shots. If you saw “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” in IMAX, Abrams shot the initial sequence with Finn & Rey flying the Millennium Falcon for the first time, with IMAX cameras. The 70 mm IMAX film experience of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was incredible so if you can find a 70 mm IMAX print of “The Last Jedi,” that would be your best bet. 
 
3.) My “Star Wars” films rankings:

  • “The Empire Strikes Back”
  • “A New Hope”
  • “The Force Awakens”
  • “The Return of the Jedi”
  • “The Last Jedi”
  • “Rogue One”
  • “Revenge of the Sith”
  • “The Phantom Menace”
  • “Attack of the Clones”

I liked “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” I did not love “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Please read those sentences very closely because I fear that we live in a time where when you just “like” something that is this heavily anticipated, it means the movie is somehow awful or a massive let down. I don’t know when we got to a point where “liking” something means that it’s ultimately negative.

Monday evening, I was a having a discussion about this very subject with one of my best friends. We both felt this strange idea that any type of negativity we displayed about this film, as “Star Wars” fans, would lead people to believe that we somehow hated the film. That couldn’t be further from the truth. As a massive fan of “The Force Awakens,” “The Last Jedi” entertained and geeked me out enough to recommend the film but unfortunately, I walked away ultimately feeling underwhelmed with a minimal desire to see more of this story continue in Episode 9. I just felt the film had pacing issues and unnecessary comedic arcs that affected the film’s overall tone. A review like this is very tough to write because there’s so much I liked about the film, but there’s also much I disliked.

As I’m sure you can already tell, I’m conflicted about my feelings and still processing what I saw. I am going revisit the film for a second viewing and I’ll add an update to this review after that viewing.

When the film works, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” can be an incredibly fun, gorgeously photographed, well-acted crowd-pleaser. There are moments in Johnson’s film that rank among some of the best in the “Star Wars” franchise. You will know and feel these moments when you see them. I saw the film with a sold-out crowd where people, including myself, were cheering like little kids. It was an incredible atmosphere to be in and there were moments of pure geeky bliss. When these moments happen, the film is firing on all cylinders and it puts you in a mindset that you’re watching one of the best “Star Wars” films. Though, it’s the moments surrounding these scenes that present the overall conflicted and underwhelming feeling I have as I type these words. They created a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde reaction from me as I would go back and forth disliking aspects of the film to loving elements of the film.

 This shift from mediocre to awesome reminded me of how I felt watching Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One.” The Darth Vader sequence in that film is one of the greatest scenes in the history of “Star Wars,” but it doesn’t make up for the problems I had with the overall film; i.e. forgettable characters and storyline. Yet, since it ends with that Vader moment, you leave the theater on such a high that it’s hard to think back on what you saw previously. “The Last Jedi” has moments on that level that I worry will serve to protect the film’s overall problems.

Shifting to “The Last Jedi,” let’s start with the positives. Johnson has definitely crafted a different type of “Star Wars” film that takes risks with tone and storytelling. That is a great element to have and it’s beautiful that we can hear Johnson’s voice among this massive franchise. You can feel Johnson’s passion running through the veins of this film as he adds his signature to one of the greatest franchises in the history of cinema. There are shots in this film that are among the most beautiful in the franchise; specifically, the way Johnson uses the color red. As you’ve seen in the trailers, red is a leading character in the film and there’s no shortage of it. There’s no question that Johnson is one of the best directors working today as displayed by his work with “Brick” and “Looper.” Johnson is a filmmaker who also believes in shooting on film and that magical grainy quality of 35 mm film comes brilliantly across in “The Last Jedi.”

The action sequences are incredible and what serve to be the best moments of the film. Johnson seamlessly mixes practical effects with CGI to a point where it all just feels very grounded and realistic. We all know that films today have become absurdly CGI-heavy because filmmakers rely entirely too much on computer-generated effects. The key to CGI, as we saw with Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park,” is to do everything you can practically and then use CGI to fill in the elements that are impossible to pull off on-camera. CGI should just be a tool that you can use if you have to. With “The Last Jedi,” you can feel the film’s reality in the massive landscapes, the practical ships and creature effects. There’s just something amazing about looking at these creatures and knowing they are really there on-set being operated by someone off camera. The technology behind BB-8 still blows my mind and you’d be surprised to know how much of BB-8 is practically done on-set. There are just so many opportunities where Johnson could have used CGI, but you can tell where he and Abrams, on “The Force Awakens,” went the extra mile to keep things as practical as possible.

Obviously, I won’t go into the story details, but I do want to talk about the introduction of two new characters that I enjoyed. Let’s start with Kelly Marie Tran’s character: Rose. I loved this character, her arc and what she stood for. Tran is a bright and shining star in Johnson’s film and one of the few characters I’m very excited about learning more about as the franchise continues. Another character that I loved was Laura Dern’s Vice: Admiral Holdo. Unfortunately, I can’t say why I love her character but I will say that she is responsible for one of my favorite moments in Johnson’s film.

Continuing with the positive, John Williams score is masterful. I absolutely love the continuation of his classic themes with the addition of the new themes from “The Force Awakens” and now “The Last Jedi.” The more and more I hear his themes for Rey and Kylo Ren, the more I fall in love with them. When I first saw “The Force Awakens,” I wasn’t blown away by his new music, but it’s grown on me and it fits beautifully into the franchise.

Performance-wise, Andy Serkis is brilliant as Supreme Leader Snoke and is featured in my favorite scene of the entire film. There is a scene with him that will blow your mind and have you jumping out of your seat. The performance-capture technology on this character looks incredible and the part contains masterful voice work from Serkis. Serkis has mastered the technology of performance-capture as his work brilliantly comes through the CGI-version of the character. You have to understand that Serkis is acting like every other actor in the film. As with his Oscar-worthy performance in “War for the Planet of the Apes,” he performs the character on-set and then the performance is translated digitally to the character of Snoke we see on-screen.

As with “The Force Awakens,” Adam Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren is brilliant. To me, he’s the most interesting character because of his conflict with the light and the dark side. In “The Last Jedi,” we explore that conflict much more and I thought he played it so well. Driver has a unique ability to capture the audience with his internal conflict. He wears it all on his face. That conflict blended with Rey’s character end up being the most interesting elements of the film. Daisy Ridley is fantastic as Rey and her scenes involving Driver are something I wanted more of in the film. There was so much to explore there, emotionally and I felt that Johnson tapped into that but didn’t go far enough with it. Carrie Fisher’s performance is much better and much fuller in “The Last Jedi.” Fisher has more screen time and serves as more of an emotional core to this particular story. I felt Johnson handled General Leia much better than Abrams in “The Force Awakens.”

On to the negatives and I will be very vague/spoiler-free here. Let’s start with the first act of the film. The first act of the film features major pacing issues combined with unnecessary comedic moments that ultimately hurt the tone of the film. Unfortunately, a lot of this comes from Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker character. Obviously, I can’t say anything specific, but I don’t like the direction Johnson took Luke’s character in this film. Luke is unnecessarily grumpy and comedic to a point where it just turned me off from the character in the first act. In fact, it got a point where I just became bored with the character. It’s tough to say exactly what I mean, but I just wanted so much more from the moment when Luke and Rey first meet. As you saw at the end of “The Force Awakens,” Rey finds Luke where she hands him his lightsaber. Abrams ended “The Force Awakens” on that moment and the big question is what will happen next. To me, what happens next was very underwhelming. I don’t fully understand why it was taken in that direction but you will see what I mean when you see the film.

Again, it’s very hard to discuss what I didn’t love about the film without giving away spoilers. In keeping with the vague tone, I just didn’t leave the theater wanting another episode. At the end of “The Force Awakens,” I was blown away and couldn’t wait to find out what happens next. I was so upset that I had to wait two years to find out what would happen next. When I left the theater after “The Last Jedi,” I didn’t have any need or want for another episode. I felt this film brought enough closure to certain elements that I didn’t find myself wanting more.

I wanted to love this film. I really did. I just liked it and that’s OK. I’d give it 3.5 out of 5 stars. It doesn’t reach the level of “The Empire Strikes Back,” “A New Hope,” “The Force Awakens, “The Return of the Jedi” or even “Rogue One.” In fact, I’d probably put it on the same level as “Rogue One.”

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