When Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theaters two years ago, my reaction to it—like that of many people—had two distinct phases: initial elation (it’s erased all signs of the prequels!); and, later, mild disappointment at the over-reliance on nostalgia and recyclings from the first trilogy (another Death Star?). This was always going to be a tricky balance—long-awaited fan fulfillment versus something genuinely fresh—and I suggested at the time that final judgment on the movie would depend in part on its sequels: If they branched out in new directions, The Force Awakens’s flaws would be easily forgiven; if, on the other hand, “we again find our heroes lassoing AT-ATs on a snow-covered planet”—à la The Empire Strikes Back—it would be a bad sign for the franchise.
Well, the writer-director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi does feature another battle with AT-ATs on a snow-covered planet. Also: another Imperial/First Order effort to wipe out a rebel base with staggeringly powerful, space-based weapons; another subplot about a Jedi traveling to a distant planet to be mentored in the Force; another alien-filled cantina (actually, a casino this time around); another infiltration of an enemy vessel to turn off a crucial piece of hardware; another light-saber battle between former master and pupil; and a crucial scene that bears notable resemblance to the Luke-Vader-Emperor climax of Return of the Jedi.
Yet Johnson tweaks these callbacks far more cunningly than his predecessor, J.J. Abrams, did his own in The Force Awakens: He flips their sequences, he toys with their meaning, and—in that crucial scene especially—he sets up certain expectations and then confounds them. Does the movie, like its predecessor, rely on familiar tropes a bit more than it should? Yes, I think it does. Is it, at a solid two-and-a-half hours, considerably longer than it needed to be? Yes, that too. But it’s still a pretty damn good movie, arguably the best the franchise has offered since Empire.
The movie opens more or less where The Force Awakens left off. The young would-be Jedi, Rey (Daisy Ridley), has traveled to meet her first-trilogy counterpart, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), on a craggy island on a faraway world. The question is whether he will agree to serve as her mentor in the Force, as Obi-Wan and Yoda served him way back when. Alas, bitter and scraggly-bearded, Luke initially responds with a variation of “Get the hell off my lawn, kid!” But Johnson ultimately has more interesting things in store for both of these characters, as well as for Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the Darth Vader wannabe who has a complex and tortured history with Luke, and who spends a good portion of the film telepathically linked with Rey.
Meanwhile—this is a film whose multiple plot strands require a lot of meanwhiles—Rebel General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) have their hands full with their fleet’s pursuit by a First Order armada they cannot escape thanks to its possession of a newfangled “tracking device.” The weakest of the major plot threads involves Stormtrooper-turned-rebel-hero Finn (John Boyega), who travels to (another) distant world to find a “codebreaker” who will help him infiltrate the First Order flagship and turn off the aforementioned tracker. (Yes, it might as well be a chapter titled “MacGuffin.”) Yet even this storyline is enlivened by the presence of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a gung-ho rebel mechanic who develops an all-too-adorable crush on Finn. Alas, they don’t get the codebreaker they’d hoped to recruit—who’s played by a devilishly mustachioed Justin Theroux for all of his five seconds on screen—and instead they have to settle for a nameless rogue played by Benicio Del Toro, whose louche insouciance is not as charming as he imagines it to be.
But Del Toro is a rare disappointment among the cast, as Johnson—who directed the excellent Looper and the better-still Brick—has generally imbued his characters with lively wit and vigor. The tone is set early, with a comical “Hello, is someone on the line?”–style communications exchange between Poe and First Order General Hux. (The latter is played by Domhnall Gleeson, who has turned his knob for arrogant sneering up to 11.) Isaac’s Poe gets more to do than he did in the previous installment, though much of it is confined to bickering with his superiors, first Leia and then Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), who dismisses him—not unreasonably—as a “trigger-happy flyboy.” Fisher is awfully good as the weary but stalwart, gravel-voiced Leia, making the actress’s tragically premature death last year after production had concluded especially heartbreaking. (She was reportedly intended to play a crucial role in the trilogy’s third installment, as Harrison Ford’s Han Solo did in the first and Hamill’s Luke does in this one.)
Woven in among the inevitable space battles and blaster shootouts and narrow escapes, the most interesting relationships in the film are among the Jedi-triangle of Luke, Rey, and Kylo. “I came to this island to die,” Luke informs Rey early on. “The Jedi have to end.” The reasons for his despair involve his training of Kylo and the latter’s journey to the Dark Side, and they are unpacked not once, but twice—first by Luke and then by Kylo, with a critical difference in their competing accounts. Indeed, The Last Jedi probably does the best job of any Star Wars film of capturing the allure of the Dark Side and the spiritual turmoil that would lead to—and also result from—its embrace. This was, of course, the central goal of George Lucas’s prequel trilogy, at which it failed utterly, in part because Hayden Christensen, who played Anakin Skywalker (soon-to-become Vader), was a terrible actor.
The same is not remotely true of Driver or Ridley, who share many of the strongest scenes in the film, even if they are frequently communicating with one another psychically from across the galaxy. The dramatic centerpiece of the film, however, finds them together with the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (played in yet another motion-capture performance by the maestro of the medium, Andy Serkis). A great deal takes place during this scene—which also features a red-armored Praetorian Guard that is among the many visual highpoints of the film—and it would be unfair of me to reveal anything substantial. I will note, however, that Rey finally learns the secret of her parentage, and it may well not be what viewers anticipate.
“Let the past die,” Kylo tells Rey at one point. “Kill it if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you were meant to be.” In the wake of the overly derivative reboot of The Force Awakens, I wanted Johnson to take this precise advice to heart in The Last Jedi more often than he did. But he did so often enough—and never more clearly than in an early scene with Kylo Ren. Rebuked by Snoke, his superior (“You’re no Vader. You’re just a child in a mask”), he takes his Vader-y helmet and smashes it to bits, never to be seen again. It’s an admirable statement of intent on Johnson’s part—and one that, not at all incidentally, enables him to make use of Driver’s full range as an actor.
The Last Jedi is a fine film and a highly promising addition to the Star Wars canon. But I can’t help but hope that the next installment in the current trilogy—for which J.J. Abrams is slated to retake the reins—is willing to take still greater chances: to grasp more of the franchise’s storied past in its hands and fling it the way of Kylo’s helmet.