IF THERE were any concerns that Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy had prematurely handed control of a future Star Wars trilogy over to director Rian Johnson, as announced last month, those worries have just been vanquished.
“The Last Jedi” (opening Friday), as directed by Johnson, is being mostly praised in the first wave of reviews that landed midday Tuesday.
On Metacritic.com, 42 of the first 44 reviews have been positive, providing “Last Jedi” with an average score of “85” — so far the second-best tally in the history of the Star Wars cinematic franchise, trailing only the 1977 original, “A New Hope” (92). It currently scores a 93 percent “fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes.
Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper”), in his Star Wars debut, was tasked with continuing the Star Wars resurgence that was jump-started under Disney with J.J. Abrams’s “The Force Awakens” (2015). Johnson also faced the high bar of directing the second film in this trilogy, summoning parallels to 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back,” which is widely considered to be the best Star Wars film ever.
Johnson’s first order of business wasn’t box office. Most of the audience is built in at this point, as “Last Jedi” tracks for a $425 million global opening, reports Variety.
No, the director’s first mission centered on deepening the Skywalker family saga so that he can safely hand it back to Abrams for the third outing in this trilogy.
The early word now: Abrams, in turn, will have his work cut out for him to top the successful Johnson, who has “a wilder, generous, far-flung imagination,” writes Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune.
The Los Angeles Times’s Justin Chang calls “Last Jedi” the franchise’s “most exciting iteration in decades — the first flat-out terrific ‘Star Wars’ movie since 1980’s ‘The Empire Strikes Back.’ ”
Chang continues: “It seizes upon Lucas’ original dream of finding a pop vessel for his obsessions — Akira Kurosawa epics, John Ford westerns, science-fiction serials — and fulfills it with a verve and imagination all its own. No less than Abrams, Johnson is a pop savant steeped in ‘Star Wars’ arcana, and you can sense his reverence for the legacy with which he’s been entrusted.”
IGN’s Joshua Yehl likewise praises writer-director Johnson as having delivered the best Star Wars film in more than 30 years, writing: “Johnson packs the eighth episode in the Skywalker saga with genuine surprises of all kinds, which all amount to a thrilling, emotional, and funny film that is easily the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back.”
Balance, of course, is central to creator George Lucas’s concept of the Jedi Way, and Johnson has pulled off one tough balancing act — even if “Jedi” runs at a daunting 2 ½ hours.
The Hollywood Reporter is among the outlets that dings “Jedi” for its length but applauds Johnson’s energy and panache:
“Maybe the film is a tad too long. Most of the new characters could use more heft, purpose and edge to their personalities,” THR’s Todd McCarthy writes. “… But there’s a pervasive freshness and enthusiasm to Johnson’s approach that keeps the film, and with it the franchise, alive, and that is no doubt what matters most.”
Similarly, Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Nashawaty heralds a few sublime scenes while also nicking “Jedi” for its run time.
“There are a handful of truly spectacular moments in The Last Jedi — some as visually sumptuous and others as emotionally poignant and raw as anything in the intergalactic ring cycle so far,” he writes. “… That said, I’d stop short of calling director Rian Johnson’s undeniably impressive initiation into the Star Wars fold the masterpiece that some desperately want it to be. The film simply drags too much in the middle. Somewhere in the film’s 152-minute running time is an amazing 90-minute movie.”
And despite the long film’s middle-section pacing, Vox’s Alissa Wilkinson finds redemption in the third act: “There are images in this movie that provoke awe and delight, and creatures that feel lifted out of half-remembered childhood dreams. And though it briefly appears to lose steam in the middle, that’s short-lived, with a third act harboring sequences that feel like a maestro conducting a concerto the size of the cosmos.”
The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday, while noting the extreme challenges of treading well-worn narrative turf, spotlights “Jedi’s” affecting depth of emotion:
“There’s no way for the latest trilogy of Star Wars films to capture the novelty and sheer exhilaration of the original films, but Johnson and producer J.J. Abrams understand the spirit and emotion of the thing,” she writes. “When the feelings come in ‘The Last Jedi,’ and they do come, they’re deep and they’re real. Go ahead and try to watch the penultimate scene without crying, or pretending not to.”
Mark Hamill, returning from three decades away from the Luke Skywalker role (except for the mere hint of him in “Force Awakens” two winters ago), provides a needed gravitas behind the gray whiskers. That serves the film’s themes of aging well.
“You don’t see many sci-fi action extravaganzas that are about late middle-aged disappointment, about wondering what it’s all about and whether any of it was worth it,” the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle writes. “It’s this element that gives ‘The Last Jedi’ an extra something, a fascinating melancholy undercurrent.”
Maintaining the balance amid the bright reviews, though, are the darker ones that throw shade.
Among major outlets, Variety’s review is especially damning. Although “Jedi” meets the “relatively high standard for franchise filmmaking, Johnson’s effort is ultimately a disappointment,” Variety’s Peter Debruge writes. “If anything, it demonstrates just how effective supervising producer Kathleen Kennedy and the forces that oversee this now Disney-owned property are at molding their individual directors’ visions into supporting a unified corporate aesthetic. … But Johnson was either strong enough or weak enough to adapt to such pressures, and the result is the longest and least essential chapter in the series.
“That doesn’t mean it’s not entertaining,” Variety continues. “Rather, despite the success of ‘The Last Jedi’ at supplying jaw-dropping visuals and a hall-of-fame-worthy lightsaber battle, audiences could presumably skip this film and show up for Episode IX without experiencing the slightest confusion as to what happened in the interim. It’s as if Johnson’s assignment was to extend the franchise without changing anything fundamental.”
Also less than positive is the Toronto Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor, who writes: “We must once again rejoice in lightness and suffer in the dark. Nifty new animals, a maturing villain, a flagging heroine, muffled humour — as it seeks to uphold a giant cultural legacy, this unfolding trilogy struggles to maintain a balance that often seems just out of reach.”