Although Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is definitely not kidding by warning Rey (Daisy Ridley), “This is not going to go the way you think,” when it comes to Star Wars: The Last Jedi, fans (if not fanatics) should breathe sighs of relief. Following some fumbles and miscalculations in launching the beloved franchise for a new generation, Episode VIII—even after the tragic loss of Carrie Fisher—grabs you by the scruff of the neck, shakes you up, makes you laugh and cry, stirs and renews your hope for future installments.
No, it’s not The Empire Strikes Back–though it references and borrows from it—but Rian Johnson (Looper) has written and directed this one with heart, flair for action, gravitas, love and respect for the best of what George Lucas first invented, plus an insistence on moving beyond the past. It’s no wonder Disney and the Star Wars machine have locked him up for an original trilogy in the franchise. This is a movie in which characters (and, by extension, the audience) get advised to “let go” of what they’ve known. Rather than to hold on to what’s been stifling and stunting them, the film endorses embracing the future, as frightening and painful as that could be.
Stop reading right now if you don’t want to know more, which is really the best way to go into The Last Jedi. Still reading? OK, then. All you need to know is that the narrative begins pretty much where The Force Awakens fades out.
While the ever-dwindling rebels of the Resistance strategize ways of outsmarting and outlasting the First Order–seeking vengeance for the destruction of their Starkiller Base weapon—the fascistic marauders sneak in and pummel the living daylights out of them. General Leia Organa (the late Fisher, highly effective) and her hot-triggered flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, dashing and terrific) clash over how best to defeat the First Order, led by nefarious screw-up and prig (Domhnall Gleeson, excellent).
This is a movie in which characters (and, by extension, the audience) get advised to “let go” of what they’ve known.
Meanwhile, Finn (John Boyega, strangely muted and mostly sidelined this time out) licks the wounds inflicted upon him by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, much stronger in this installment) and joins forces with spunky engineer and possible love interest Rose (hugely likeable Kelly Marie Tran). In spectacularly staged dogfights and aerial chases, they venture to Canto Bight, the tacky, gaudy planet of the Trumpian one percent, in search of a master thief and hacker who might help save the Resistance from suffering continued massive and devastating casualties.
And on a private island on remote planet Ahch-To, Rey (a better and better Ridley) tries to pull the grizzled, embittered, broken Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Hamill) out of his Prospero-like self-imposed exile so that he can help inspire the rebels and teach her the ways of the Force.
The movie—in which the characters are, as in all of Johnson’s work, intelligent and refreshingly human—introduces several new figures besides the aforementioned Rose. Laura Dern gets a big buildup as a ramrod, highly principled, lilac-haired rebel leader who served at Leia’s right hand, and Benicio Del Toro livens up things as DJ, a quirky, wily, morally fluid mercenary hacker. For CG-creature fans, there are a slew of adorable Furby/puffin-like creatures called Porgs, along with a hilarious, cranky cleanup crew on Luke’s magnificent and isolated private island, plus other beasties too beautiful and significant to the plot to mention.
As for the human cast, it is a commendably diverse one in terms of age, gender and ethnicity. Aided by a stirring, character theme-driven score by John Williams, the movie offers some gorgeous and memorable setpieces, including a powerful and dream-like hall-of-mirrors sequence involving Rey investigating her haunted past, a salt-mining planet where the surface bleeds red when anyone or anything scrapes it and some stunningly imaginative and fresh intergalactic vistas. Johnson also introduces a promising new plot strain: a psychic link set-up between Rey and Kylo Ren that, even when they’re galaxies apart, spurs several complex, sexy plot developments that may lead down some twisted alleys in future films.
Despite all the good stuff, there are a few hitches. The constant cross-cutting between three different plotlines sometimes confuses and certainly strangles some of the suspense. The film collapses of its own weight and over-length somewhere around midway through, although it picks up considerably in a rousingly satisfying, action-packed third act. But even with the warts, Star Wars: The Last Jedi feels like a big, dazzling holiday present most Star Wars fans should be able to tear into and enjoy.
Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.