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.)