J.J. Abrams had an unenviable task two years ago when he set out to make what became The Force Awakens: reboot Star Wars without changing anything. And to his credit, he did just that by making a shockingly giddy reinvention of that galaxy far, far away that also played like the greatest hits of what came before. But for all his success, the rewards found in The Last Jedi prove even greater. At last we have, for the first time in ages, a Star Wars movie that’s all too happy to go where we don’t expect.
To be sure, Rian Johnson’s evocative and often exhilarating sequel continues the post-Disney mandate to remix elements that bask in the familiar. Hence why the First Order is even more imperial this time, striking back against Resistance forces who look increasingly like rebels; Jedi and evil sorcerers alike sit in chairs while skeptically sizing up would-be apprentices; and we even get an epic battle on a planet that may as well be called Salt Hoth given how powdery white those crystals look when the AT-M6 walkers stomp across the landscape like mechanized buffalo grazing during the dregs of winter.
Yet within all this repetition, Johnson uses his solitary writing and directing duties to massage and then manipulate our nostalgia. His film subverts and seduces, twists and turns, and frankly challenges us just when the audience dares to get too comfortable. It also gives a needed shot of adrenaline to the numerical Star Wars films that, by the end, leaves you uncertain what is up and what is down, or what is light and what is dark. Still, most will be delighted to jump to lightspeed to find out. That alone makes this vision far less ominous than the marketing suggests.
Without giving too much away, The Last Jedi is largely a 152-minute chase across the stars. After a spectacular opening battle, the rebellious and tattered Resistance, led by an unsinkable General Leia (Carrie Fisher), spends much of the film fleeing through the cosmos with the First Order nipping at their heels. Despite suffering a grievous blow at the end of the last movie, Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke has regrouped his armies and is unfazed as he reinstates fascist rule throughout the galaxy.
Intriguingly, however, no matter how high the stakes are raised in this intergalactic grudge match, the most compelling events are occurring on a little island that looks an awful lot like Ireland. In actuality though, it’s Ahch-To, and it is there that this movie picks up right where The Force Awakens left off. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has come to recruit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) back into the good fight. Unfortunately, she finds him… less than receptive. Worse still, not only does Luke refuse to get back onto the Millennium Falcon, but this last of the Jedi also demurs from training Rey in his ancient religion. Instead he views his guest as first a nuisance and then later as something akin to his last pupil, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). She’s dangeorus.
As it turns out, there are many similarities between Rey and Ren that extends beyond their names, and the more it haunts Luke, the more resistant he becomes. Thus Rey is tempted to seek answers from the other party of this failed master and padawan relationship, just as the First Order begins closing the gap between itself and the wounded Resistance Fleet.
Remarkably in spite of its length, The Last Jedi is mostly able to keep things moving at an even keel and with a tonal dexterity that is unusual for the franchise. While the movie borrows more than a few elements from the beloved middle chapter of the original Star Wars Trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back (plus some of Return of the Jedi too), Rian Johnson has infused the material with his own decidedly playful sensibility. With more than a hint of self-deprecation, the movie flips on a dime from the reverential and earnest awe that Abrams placed in his worshipful predecessor to gags with the sharpest sense of humor this side of Jabba’s Palace. (Seriously, the little Porg aliens who infest Ahch-To threaten to steal the whole film.)
This is not to say that The Last Jedi ever risks erring into the realm of comedy, or even the pseudo-comedies of Lucasfilm’s sister Disney division, Marvel Studios. There is simply a noticeable dedication to freshen up what is considered appropriate Star Wars, all while maintaining the genuinely gee-whiz delight that has long been entrenched in this saga. The effect intentionally buttresses the familial melodrama that comes in the film’s second half, which crescendos nicely into a grandiose opera by the finale.
But to get there, it can at times feel overstuffed, even at two and a half hours. Cut and cropped at a dizzying pace, the top-heavy editing of The Last Jedi suggests Johnson had to still squeeze his already fast-paced yarn into its luxurious running time. This is all the more peculiar since much of the narrative that doesn’t involve Rey, Kylo, or Luke can sometimes appear irrelevant during the middle. For instance, Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) attempt an espionage mission that takes them to what is the Star Wars equivalent of the French Riviera. It’s a casino city named Canto Bight, and their adventures here push the Rick’s Café sensibilities from the original Star Wars’ cantina sequence to their limit. Nevertheless, this entire subplot amounts to a whole lot of padding while the real tough and revelatory decisions are made on Ahch-To.
In an even more supporting role is Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron. While Poe still plays third banana to Rey and Finn, his increasingly complicated relationship with Leia and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) is one of the stronger elements of the picture, and provides the Star Wars universe with another wonderfully realized female leader. It also allows Isaac to ever more defiantly slouch into the Han Solo role of the next generation, a neat feat for an actor who was supposed to have only cameoed in The Force Awakens.
Still, the movie belongs to its revered history. Hamill plays Luke as gnarly and grim, and almost wholly unlike the farmboy or heroic Jedi we remember from 35 years ago. Leia is conversely even more like the late-great Carrie Fisher this time around: She’s dry, sardonic, and lovably deadpan. Developing the wit of Hollywood royalty to accompany her onscreen princess title, Leia’s grace and Luke’s mercurial misery are what ties the film together. This movie is very much about them accepting the past and bequeathing their future to young people who are more than just the franchise’s fresh crop this time around—they’ve become true heirs.
The heavy lifting Johnson does—balanced with more than a little fan service—causes The Last Jedi to be Star Wars’ true legacy film. With the torch already passed before the opening crawl, the protagonists now wield this heritage as swiftly as a lightsaber, and when it comes down to the pairing of Ridley and Driver, the movie crackles with real force. Much of the film is about Hamill letting go of the past, but with Ridley and Driver bringing considerable heat and shadings of equivocacy to their roles, they each promise a future for Star Wars more layered than good versus evil, or Jedi versus Sith. (Driver also confirms Kylo to be one of the decade’s best baddies.)
It is in their scenes together the film finds its true spark, and it’s one that lights up the movie’s numerous and impressive action sequences. With a painterly eye and the showmanship of an old school Western epic, Johnson draws each battle and lightsaber sequence with the kind of visual poetry and patience almost forgotten at the blockbuster level—and populates it with characters who are not just lovable, but now are also very, very troubled.
By the end, an ambiguity has seeped into the Star Wars universe, and with it, a new overcast gray hangs above all the players. Yet the contrast just makes them and the hue of their blades pop all the brighter. Every new Star Wars movie since Disney bought Lucasfilm has been heralded as the first worthy successor to the Original Trilogy, but with The Last Jedi it’s finally true.