Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi   (2017) dir. Rian Johnson Rated: PG-13 image: ©2017  Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)
dir. Rian Johnson
Rated: PG-13
image: ©2017 Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Rarely have the first 15 minutes of a movie given me more conflicting emotions than those at the start of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. My reservation during the opening crawl gave way to the thrill of a taut, explosive opening action sequence. The source of my initial unease stemmed from a sense of déjà vu.

The exposition contained in the iconic floating paragraphs for writer/director Rian Johnson’s first Star Wars adventure is a little too similar to that of Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The fascistic First Order, under the control of evil Supreme Leader Snoke, is ruthless in its pursuit of the Resistance, lead by General Leia Organa. The First Order is attempting to crush this rebellion so it can solidify its power and rule the galaxy unchallenged.

This familiar set-up gives way to a thrilling space battle as Organa’s Resistance scrambles to flee their headquarters when they come under attack from First Order forces. Johnson stages this sequence with breathless intensity. The stakes don’t get much higher as multiple Resistance bomber ships come under attack from First Order fighters. One by one the bombers, filled with active payloads, succumb to enemy fire before they can deliver their cargo. All Resistance fighters engage in a desperate attempt to protect the last bomber, but the crew member responsible for releasing the hundreds of bombs has been knocked unconscious. Will someone else be able to fire off the artillery before it’s too late?

This sequence is so enjoyable because Johnson taps into the visceral suspense that has always defined Star Wars in its best moments.  He is never quite able to recreate the effect of that dizzying first battle over the course of what becomes a bloated, interminable movie. The action sequences are so numerous that they become numbing. There are plot developments that are ridiculous, even by fantastical science fiction standards. One frustrating action movie trope in particular is so glaring that I was taken out of the movie when I noticed it.

My main issue with J.J. AbramsThe Force Awakens was that it was essentially a rehash of the very first Star Wars movie, Episode IV: A New Hope. Aside from the main conflict of Last Jedi being a reset of Force Awakens in some ways, Johnson has put his own indelible stamp on the Star Wars brand. Where Abrams’ movie felt like self-conscious homage to the original trilogy, Last Jedi represents a step forward in the evolution of the Star Wars universe.

This is most noticeable, and most exciting, in the look of the film. Johnson and his visual design team create some beautiful and arresting images. The last battle of the movie goes on far too long, but the setting is spectacular. This new planet is covered in white, and whenever the top layer is disturbed, a brilliant red substance just below the surface is revealed. As giant machines of war go careening over the landscape, an unforgettable vista of stark white and vibrant red comes to life before our eyes. It will easily become one of the most memorable images in the whole of the Star Wars saga.

Another setting that puts Johnson’s unique cinematic sensibility on display is Supreme Leader Snoke’s throne room. The color red figures in heavily here, too. Our Jedi-in-training hero, Rey, confronts Snoke and his disciple, Kylo Ren, in Snoke’s inner sanctum. The room is a mesmerizing tapestry of bright red and pitch black. It would look right at home among the settings of one of Dario Argento’s sumptuous Italian horror films, like Susperia.

Even though these two settings supply an iconic look to Last Jedi, they feature moments that highlight some of the movies problems. That throne room is the location of a fight scene between Snoke and Rey in which they battle while surrounded by Snoke’s Imperial Guards. These are, presumably, the best, most skilled soldiers in the whole of the First Order’s fighting forces. As the Supreme Leader (of the galaxy, no less), and his enemy fight to the death, these dozen guards just stand and watch, remaining completely ineffectual throughout the fight. Only when the dramatic arc of the scene is spent do the guards at last decide to intervene. This isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, action movie to employ bad guys who only fight the hero when it’s convenient, but the use of the trope here is flagrant and laughable.

Equally laughable is the quick explanation of what the substance is on the ground at the location of the climactic battle. A First Order enemy soldier steps onto the field, preparing for battle. In the trenches below, another fighter looks over at the ground that’s been disrupted. He touches it with his finger, and puts the finger to his tongue. “Salt…,” he exclaims to the soldier standing next to him. I’m not sure if this was a mandate from Disney. Perhaps the executives were worried audiences would be confused and couldn’t properly enjoy the battle scene. It really just serves to stop the momentum of the scene.

Johnson makes a big change in regard to the Force, the power that permeates every object in the universe, and the thing that gives Jedi Knights their power. Given enough time with a franchise, storytellers feel the pressure to heighten the Wow Factor with each new tale. In the worst plot development in Last Jedi, a character is blasted into the vacuum of space, but inexplicably defeats death and is saved with the help of the Force. It sets a boring precedent for future Star Wars installments that the Force is a super power that can save our heroes from any mortal danger.

Added to all these missteps is an over-stuffed plot that leads to an oppressive amount of action sequences and faux climaxes. One subplot has the Storm Trooper-turned-Resistance-fighter Finn, whom we met in The Force Awakens, team up with a new character, spaceship mechanic Rose Tico. The two go on a mission, with the help of droid BB-8, to find a hacker who can disable a First Order tracking device so that the Resistance fleet can make a clean escape. The whole adventure feels like a distraction from the main story. There is also pilot Poe Dameron’s attempt to convince the current commander-in-charge to change her strategy. Meanwhile, Rey has found Luke Skywalker, and tries to convince him to train her in the ways of the Jedi. The movie clocks in at just over two-and-a-half hours, and by the two-hour mark I was praying for a denouement.

The Last Jedi’s crisp, breathtaking visuals and few moments of genuine action-movie suspense can’t overcome its bloated run time and plot blunders. Rian Johnson broke from past Star Wars installments to chart a new course for the behemoth franchise. His vision is bold, without a doubt. Hopefully future pictures in the series will build on this one’s strengths, and eliminate its weaknesses.

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Why it got 3 stars:
- I'll be totally honest: my rating here has a lot to do with the length of The Last Jedi, and the feeling of inertia that exists during most of the running time. This movie is kind of a slog to get through. The numerous action sequences had the effect of beating me into submission, instead of exciting me.

Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Because I was a bit cool toward the movie, I feel that I need to address some of the reasons other Star Wars fans are trashing Last Jedi. It seems there was a concerted effort to bring down the audience rating for Last Jedi on Rotten Tomatoes. Some people associating themselves with the Alt-Right movement feel that the newest Star Wars is terrible because it's pro-diversity and has a "feminist agenda." As if those were bad things. You can read about it here and here. This is pathetic, and while I had what I consider to be valid, considered criticisms of The Last Jedi, I want to make crystal clear that I do not share one shred of common sentiment with these people.
- Kelly Marie Tran as new character Rose Tico is delightful.
- You'd think I would have been more excited about the subplot involving Finn, Rose, and BB-8 searching for a hacker to disable The First Order's tracking device. It leads them to basically a casino world where Johnson gives Finn and Rose some nice dialog lambasting the 1%. I am sympathetic to every point the characters, and by extension, Johnson, are making, but it was the execution that didn't interest me.
- Porgs. are. adorable. Especially the one who tries to roar like Chewbacca.

Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- The Barden Bellas are back, pitches. I quite liked the first Pitch Perfect, but I had a terrible reaction to the sequel a few years ago. Now, what is supposed to be the closing of a trilogy is upon us with Pitch Perfect 3. Check back as I check in on Beca and the rest of the crew.

* 01/08/18- In the original version of my review, I made the mistake of thinking the white substance on the ground of the planet in the final battle was snow, not salt. I have since corrected that mistake after several people pointed it out to me. I regret the error.