Whereas J.J. Abrams' The Force Awakens was a jubilant nostalgia-filled romp to the first film in the original Star Wars trilogy, Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi energizes the saga's legacy with new breadth, complexity, and intelligence. The Force is strong with this sequel. With strong Dolby Vision / HDR10 visuals, a solid Dolby Atmos soundtrack, and in-depth bonus features, The Last Jedi on Vudu UHD is Recommended for 4K enthusiasts who don't collect 4K Blu-rays, even though this presentation lacks a certain wow factor that comes with the best demonstration-worthy titles.
MILD SPOILER WARNING -- please skip this portion of the review if you want to remain 100% spoiler-free.
If The Force Awakens is an homage to the film that launched the Star Wars empire — in a good and highly entertaining way that felt more like nostalgic tribute than boring duplicate — then The Last Jedi is essentially an echo of The Empire Strikes Back. To be more precise, writer and director Rian Johnson models his follow-up to JJ Abrams' 2015 film after Irvin Kershner's 1980 epic space opera in spirit only, following many of the same plot points and beats without completely seeming familiar or a rehash. Picking up directly where the previous film left off, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trained in the ways of the Force by a bearded and somewhat disheveled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), now a Jedi Master living in monk-like seclusion, which is not all that different from Luke's encounter with Yoda (Frank Oz). We're even given an unexpected twist concerning Rey's parentage, one which some fans find frustrating while others see as wholly in line with the plot's central theme.
That theme is perfectly encapsulated in a single line spoken by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) — "Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to." — which opens a whole slew of possibilities, directions and packed with poignant meaning, providing this sequel with a darker tone than its predecessor. There is the most immediate and obvious interpretation of Kylo wanting to remove every trace of his former self and family in order to be an individual, an opinion he urges in Rey to adopt during their Force-granted mental conversations. This also seems to include harboring feelings of regret and guilt, as expressed by Luke feeling responsible for Kylo embracing the dark side of the Force or possibly being arrogant enough to think he could bring back the Jedi Order. But on a deeper level, the theme points to the danger of turning the heroes of the past into mythical, romanticized icons without faults. As Luke plainly demonstrates, heroes can be inspiring but are most definitely flawed and capable of poor judgment, and for Kylo, that means no longer idolizing or emulating his grandfather, Darth Vader.
Likewise, we see something similar occurring when General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher in her final role) leads her resistance forces away from General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and the First Order. In the opening moments, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) disobeys orders, and his defiant arrogance results in the loss of many lives, significantly shrinking Leia's already small army and causing his demotion. As this trilogy's Han Solo comedic relief and unabashed machismo, Poe's fragile hauteur and confident swagger are more dangerous than beneficial when it comes to saving lives. There is a hunger in him to be a hero and perhaps even to be acknowledged for his misguidedly perceived courage. Being recently demoted, he is no longer privy to Vice Admiral Holdo's (Laura Dern) plan, and his hurt pride agrees to Finn (John Boyega) and Rose's (Kelly Marie Tran) side adventure to locate a hacker named DJ on a casino planet named Canto Bight. This subplot is not all that different from Han and Leia's detour to Cloud City, which also goes nowhere except for a carbon-frozen Han. And in a similar fashion to Empire, cross-cutting to Canto Bight introduces some slapstick tonal fluctuations and pacing issues that somewhat stall the movie.
Beyond the script's emotional weight and complexity, Johnson's The Last Jedi is also one of the most visually beautiful and elaborate of all the films in the franchise. Thanks to the amazing camerawork and photography of Steve Yedlin (Looper, Brick), audiences are treated to some mesmerizing action sequences and stunning, artist-like scenery — one involving the jaw-dropping obliteration of a Dreadnought and another showing a showdown against a line of AT-M6s at sunset. But given that, the production is not without some faults, such as BB-8 coming to the rescue when hijacking an AT-ST or Finn and Rose escaping Canto Bight by causing a pointless stampede. Arguably, the chief missteps in the story are Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) being another Boba Fett — doing little except look cool — and Leia suddenly using the Force with little warning or foreshadowing.
In spite of these minor flaws, the film is simply excellent and thoroughly engaging, ranking as the best entry in the series since The Empire Strikes Back.
Vital Stats: 4K Digital Copy
Episode VIII makes its home entertainment debut as a digital copy two weeks prior to the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, Blu-ray, and DVD releases (there's also a 3D release, but not here in the US where we are based). On Vudu, this 4K UHD digital copy includes Dolby Vision and HDR10 HDR options, Dolby Atmos audio, and nine special features. As I write this, it costs about the same price as the Blu-ray packaging and five dollars less than the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray set.
Although we're reviewing this digital copy via Vudu, The Last Jedi is also available through the following streaming services:
--FandangoNOW: 4K (HDR10, no Atmos)
--Google Play: HD
--Microsoft Movies & TV: 4K (HDR10, no Atmos)
--Movies Anywhere: HD
--YouTube Movies: HD
At this time, it appears Vudu, Microsoft, and FandangoNOW are the only places to enjoy The Last Jedi in 4K. Please do let us know if this changes.
The Last Jedi force-projects itself onto Vudu UHD with a sharp and often gorgeous 2160p HEVC encode -- in both Dolby Vision and HDR10 -- that easily bests the HD streaming version, but suffers from a few flaws that prevent this transfer from earning top marks.
For anyone familiar with The Force Awakens or Revenge of the Sith on home video, The Last Jedi looks as good as any modern-era Star Wars film. This movie is brimming with impressive imagery and it's all sharp and clear. From the pores and makeup on actors' faces to costumes to the real-work sets to the CGI creations, Episode VIII is meticulously rendered from top to bottom. While not the most colorful film in the series -- much of story takes place inside ships and caves -- the filmmakers have implemented a blazing crimson color scheme for Snoke's Throne Room and the film's climactic battle on the salty planet of Crait. Compared to the film's more subdued sections, the vivid red sequences really pop, especially thanks to UHD's wider color gamut capabilities.
In comparing the UHD stream to the HD stream, the upgrade is obvious. The UHD version is sharper and more colorful, with improved contrast in both shadows and bright areas. If you get a chance, check out the film's climax in both formats. The UHD iteration -- with its many, smoky backlit shots -- is much more handsome. Also worth noting; HDR grading has been known to ruin the photorealism of certain visual effects shots (think of the flaming guitar in Mad Max Fury Road), but fortunately that's not the case here.
While the overall experience is a positive one, The Last Jedi lacks a certain HDR wow factor you'll see in titles like Pacific Rim or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Those movies are far more colorful by design, of course, but where the best HDR grades reveal details in bright areas, The Last Jedi lacks highlight-detail in various lightsabers, explosions, and lighting fixtures. More problematic are the elevated black levels during space sequences. To be more specific, there are stunning shots and compositions in the space battles, but most shots with stars rarely achieve true, inky blacks. Interior locations fair better -- Kylo Ren standing in shadow, for example -- but lesser displays (and/or those without Dolby Vision) may experience some crushing.
Overall, The Last Jedi looks quite good in UHD, but falls just shy of our favorite 4K demo material thanks to elevated black levels and blown-out highlights. Still, it's easy to recommend this over HD streams.
The Last Jedi sparks a rebellion on Vudu UHD with a Dolby Digital Plus-based Dolby Atmos mix that sounds quite good, but lacks the articulation, aggression, and refinement one experiences on demonstration-worthy soundtracks like Blade Runner 2049 and Mad Max Fury Road.
There was a time when we all looked at Star Wars soundtracks to be The Best of The Best. Lucasfilm and THX pushed the boundaries of stereo and surround mixing and paved the way for a world where we can have cinema-esque experiences in our homes. The Last Jedi, much like The Force Awakens, sounds quite good, but it's missing a certain immersive wow factor. Sure, it's more dynamic, for example, than Thor: Ragnarok on Vudu. Dialogue is clear. The sound effects are vivid and well placed around the audience (it's more of a 360-degree experience rather than overtly hemispherical). And John Williams' score -- which plays a bit like a Best of Star Wars compilation -- is wonderfully involving. You can hear each instrument, and there's no tinny sense of compression as the score fills the entire hemispherical soundstage.
That said, if you judge Dolby Atmos mixes by how much the filmmakers show off overhead speakers, you may be disappointed. Outside of Williams' orchestrations and the occasional spaceship flyby, overhead channels are rarely engaged in interesting and immersive ways. For the most part, this mix plays like a 7.1 mix where the score (and little else) is lifted upwards. Further, LFE levels are moderate. There are a few heavy explosions and force moments that wake things up here and there, but nothing you can feel in your chest. Along these lines, the sound effect panning is accurate and clear, but various interior and exterior locations never feel sonically real. My favorite tracks do a bit of world-building -- you know what the environment sounds like when there's no score -- but this track is a bit more traditional.
At the end of the day, I enjoyed the overall sound qualities and fidelity of The Last Jedi on our 2017 KEF Q Series speakers and KUBE 12 subwoofer (reviews HERE and HERE), but find the track doesn't compete with top-tier Dolby Atmos mixes.
The Last Jedi Vudu digital copy includes "nine" bonus features, eight of which you'll also see on the 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray and Blu-ray releases, and one which was included as a bonus for pre-ordering. Here's the list, with descriptions provided by the studio and/or me, as presented on Vudu:
The Director and the Jedi – Go deep behind the scenes with writer-director Rian Johnson on an intimate and personal journey through the production of the movie—and experience what it’s like to helm a global franchise and cultural phenomenon.
Feature with Commentary – Unlike a Blu-ray where you can flip to a different audio track, you can find Rian Johnson's audio commentary listed under Vudu's bonus features.
Deleted Scenes with Commentary
Balance of the Force - Explore the mythology of the Force and why Rian Johnson chose to interpret its role in such a unique way.
Lighting the Spark: Creating the Space Battle – Get a close-up look at the epic space battle, from the sounds that help propel the action, through the practical and visual effects, to the characters who bring it all to life.
Snoke and Mirrors – Motion capture and Star Wars collide as the filmmakers take us through the detailed process of creating the movie’s malevolent master villain.
Showdown on Crait – Break down everything that went into creating the stunning world seen in the movie’s final confrontation, including the interplay between real-word locations and visual effects, reimagining the walkers, designing the crystal foxes, and much more.
Andy Serkis Live! (One Night Only) – Writer-director Rian Johnson presents two exclusive sequences from the movie featuring Andy Serkis’ riveting, raw on-set performance before his digital makeover into Snoke.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (featurette) – A short EPK style look at the movie that was included as a bonus for pre-ordering the film on Vudu. Nothing but fluff, really.
UPDATE: If you purchase or redeem The Last Jedi via Movies Anywhere or purchase the movie via Google, Amazon, FandangoNow, iTunes, or Vudu and SYNC your account to Movies Anywhere, you get access to one extra bonus feature:
Score Only Version of The Last Jedi – Watch the entire film with no dialog or sound effects. Just sit back and enjoy John Williams' iconic music.
2nd UPDATE 3/26/18: This bonus feature is now also available via iTunes.
Following in the footsteps and in the spirit of The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars: The Last Jedi comes with a darker tone and more complex theme than its predecessor, giving audiences a highly-engaging follow-up that genuinely surprises and is arguably the best in the franchise since Irvin Kershner's 1980 epic space opera.
As a 4K UHD digital copy, The Last Jedi offers a noticeable upgrade over HD streaming options -- the Dolby Vision and HDR10 versions are sharper and more colorful -- but falls short of perfection. Likewise, the Dolby Atmos mix is less articulate and aggressive than the format's best, but John Williams' orchestrations have rarely sounded better. Bonus materials are numerous, in-depth, and very well made.
If you own a 4K display with a Dolby Atmos system and no longer collect physical media, The Last Jedi on Vudu is easily Recommended. For the rest of you, for the perfectionists, wait for the disc and hopefully access to this version will be included in that set.