4.5 out of 5 stars.
A little ways along into “The Last Jedi,” Luke Skywalker asks Rey if she knows what the Force is. She responds that “it’s a power that Jedi have,” and “it can make things float”—which, to be fair, isn’t too far off from the sort of response most moviegoers would likely have to that same question. But as Luke tells her, every word of what she said is wrong. The Force is a balance, between peace and violence, light and dark. It doesn’t just belong to the Jedi, but exists within and around all living things.
It’s the mythology of the Force and the way its characters choose to engage with it that concerns much of “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi.” Writer and director Rian Johnson takes the helm from J.J. Abrams, who in 2015 rebooted the “Star Wars” franchise with Episode VII, “The Force Awakens,” bringing back characters from the original trilogy of the iconic sci-fi series while also introducing new ones. Johnson’s installment doesn’t do much to advance the story itself; in other words, no huge strides are made in the war between the evil First Order and the struggling Resistance. But the film takes a deep dive into developing its history and characters, both heroes and villains, with dazzling battles, humorous asides, and a deeper, more meaningful story that just good versus evil in between.
The film opens about right where “The Force Awakens” left off. After the destruction of the Republic and the discovery of their base, the Resistance is struggling to outrun the First Order forces. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) living in exile on a remote island that is home to the sacred Jedi texts. But Luke has little faith in those texts anymore. Rey obviously believes that she is going to march in, deliver Luke’s lightsaber and a message from his sister, Resistance leader General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and immediately recruit him to return with her, but this isn’t the Luke Skywalker we remember from his last film appearance, in 1983’s “Return of the Jedi.” This Luke is not only much older, but much more jaded than his confident younger self. He failed to train a new generation of Jedi, resulting in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) turning to the Dark Side to serve Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, who we finally see in non-holographic form). After sensing how strong Rey is in the Force, he finally agrees to give her lessons, but theirs is a very different dynamic from the master/apprentice one that Luke shared with Yoda and Obi-Wan. Luke agrees to teach Rey the ways of the Force, but in doing so plans not to turn her into a Jedi, but to show her why it is time for the Jedi to end.
And Rey, inexperienced in the ways of the Force as she is, does lean toward the Dark Side a bit, which scares Luke. This is explored further in her relationship with Kylo Ren, the fallen son of Leia and Han Solo. Kylo is also conflicted as to which side he should embrace. They are both incredibly strong in the Force, and they both a strange fascination with each other: Rey, the scavenger with mysterious origins, and Kylo, the offspring of legends. In this way, “The Last Jedi” explores the Force in ways that no Star Wars film has before; there is no concrete good and evil, but rather an intermingling of the light and the dark.
Meanwhile, the supporting characters go on their own emotional journeys that have surprisingly strong political undertones. Star Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is berated by Leia for taking his heroics too far, while a new Resistance leader, Vice Admiral Holdo (a wonderful strong new character played by Laura Dern) shows him that there is more to being a leader than flashy heroism. Finn (John Boyega) goes on a side mission with another exciting new face, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a technician for the Resistance who isn’t used to associating with others, to the point where she is star-struck when she first meets Finn, the former stormtrooper who changed sides and became a Resistance hero. But it doesn’t take long at all for Rose to shed that awkward, starry-eyed persona and prove just how resourceful and intelligent she is. Rose and Finn travel to a classy casino on Canto Bight as part of their mission; while Finn initially marvels at how beautiful everything and everyone is, Rose points out their superficiality, stating that war and selling weapons is the only thing in the galaxy that would make people this rich. All of these actors deliver strong performances (quick shout-out to Benicio Del Toro’s slimy hacker DJ, and Domhnall Gleeson returning as the so much fun to hate General Hux), but one of the most wonderful and inspiring things to see is how this film continues what “The Force Awakens” started by giving women and people of color an opportunity to be heroes.
Ridley continues to define Rey with her performance in this film, revealing more of the characters’ vulnerabilities that were just hinted at in “The Force Awakens.” Abandoned at a young age, she searches for her parents—and for parental figures—everywhere, especially now that this Force has awakened in her, and she doesn’t know what to do with it. Rey is torn, as is Kylo. In this installment, Driver turns Kylo into more than just a temperamental Darth Vader wannabe. He is utterly alone, hated by the Resistance and put down by his First Order comrades, particularly his master, Snoke. After the events of “The Force Awakens,” you’d think it would be easy to hate Kylo Ren, but Driver unveils so many layers in his performance that instead it becomes almost easy to sympathize with him.
Whereas “The Force Awakens” stuck very close to the plotline of previous “Star Wars” movies—the original one in particular—“The Last Jedi” veers into entirely new territory. Literally, in that the story takes us to a host of new planets and locations, including Canto Bight; Ahch-to, the planet where Luke Skywalker has exiled himself; and Crait, a world where white salt flats are scratched away to reveal a deep red mineral that provides a hauntingly beautiful backdrop for the film’s climax. But the story itself manages to feel very different, while providing enough callbacks to the original trilogy to thrill even the most casual “Star Wars” fan. John Williams provides a new score, with his classic themes from the original trilogy popping up in just the right moments, practical effects work hand-in-hand with computer generated ones, and two of scenes in particular that have strong ties to the original trilogy serve as some of the most moving moments in the entire film. And I mean different in the best way possible. The story throws a bunch of curveballs at the audience that no one will see coming, but these twists and revelations are serve the overall story well. We see a different side of the characters we met in “The Force Awakens,” a different side of the Force, and a different side to Luke and Leia. Well, maybe Leia not so much, but Fisher, in her final film role before she passed away last year, has allowed the character she is most closely associated with to mature beautifully. Leia gets to show her strength in so many ways throughout “The Last Jedi,” mainly in her relationship with her fellow Resistance fighters, as she guides them firmly but also affectionately. But Leia’s Force powers also finally manifest themselves in a way that we’ve never seen before; finally, the other Skywalker twin has her moment.
It’s Luke who is really quite different from where we last saw him, but within the progression of the story and what we learn about what his character went through in that interim between Episode VI and now, it makes sense. And Hamill acts the heck out of it, delivering the performance of his career and of this movie. He’s irritable, he’s sarcastic, he’s cocky, but he’s also scared. And, when the moment calls for it, he’s a hero. Hamill never lets us lose sight of the fact that, beneath it all, this is still the same Luke we remember from the original trilogy, but he brings a complexity to the character here that we have never seen before. From the very first moments he appears on screen up until the very end, he’s a delight to watch, and if anyone would like to start up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar campaign for Hamill, I’m all ears.
Johnson, whose filmography includes “Brick” and “Looper” as well as several episodes of “Breaking Bad,” does a phenomenal job writing and directing “The Last Jedi” which, although it has the longest running time of any “Star Wars” film to date, rarely drags and makes good use of its time. It is chock full of thrilling, beautifully crafted action sequences, memorable dialogue, and hilarious moments. The film has its fair share of cute critters, including the Porgs that seem to have become a fan favorite months before the movie was even released, and BB-8, whose range of talents seemingly know no bounds, but these things work with the story to provide comic relief at just the right moments, rather than undermine it. Because ultimately, “The Last Jedi” is the most intelligent, gorgeous, moving, and meaningful “Star Wars” film since “The Empire Strikes Back.” It isn’t perfect—in fact, for the questions it does answer, there are many more that it doesn’t, and that really need to be addressed in the trilogy’s upcoming final installment for viewers to fully understand certain characters and let them have closure. But while the film opens with thrilling, action-packed space battle, it ends peacefully, in a tribute to the magic that continues to inspire new generations of dreamers and heroes, not just within the “Star Wars” universe, but within the people watching these films.
Runtime: 150 minutes. Rated PG-13.