Cast: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Issac, Kelly Marie Tran, Gwendoline Christie, Domhnall Gleeson, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro, Lupita Nyong'o, Anthony Daniels
Director: Rian Johnson
I’m just going to come out and say it: Star Wars: The Last Jedi is exactly the Star Wars movie we needed. It’s a work of staggering vision and ambition. A heady cocktail of blockbuster spectacle, thrilling action, rich emotional moments, cheeky humor, shocking twists, and charming throwbacks. To put it simply, it’s every fan’s wet dream.
With The Force Awakens in 2015, JJ Abrams and Lucasfilm proved there was a way to bring Star Wars back and to satisfy our nostalgic connection to it by giving us a story that recalled many of the themes and ideas of George Lucas’ original 1977 film. In Jedi, on the other hand, writer-director Rian Johnson boldly takes us into unchartered territory, delivering what easily feels like the freshest Star Wars film in a long time, and one that advances the mythology and the legacy in really surprising ways.
The new film doesn’t just hit the ground running, it practically blasts out of the gates with a spectacular space battle between Rebellion ships and the evil First Order, before quickly taking us back to the remote island hideout where Rey tracked down Luke Skywalker at the end of The Force Awakens. Grizzled, brooding, and wallowing in guilt over reasons that I won’t spoil for you, Luke is a shadow of his former self.
But the secret to Luke’s isolation and abject despair is just one of a handful of crucial questions that are raised over the film’s 152-minute running time. Who is Rey, and who are her parents? Has Kylo Ren been lost to the dark side completely? The filmmakers are clever not to lay out all their cards at once.
There’s a lot to process in this outing, but Johnson never skimps on the giddy excitement that Star Wars is expected to deliver to the fans. So all the deep character stuff is nicely rationed out as the screen lights up with thrilling aerial dogfights, tense lightsaber duels, and multiple race-against-time rescues and escapes, all set to John Williams' operatic score. There’s a lot of planet-hopping going on too, including a stop that Finn (John Boyega) makes with his new companion, fellow Resistance fighter Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) at a Las Vegas-style resort island in pursuit of a master codebreaker. That scenario somehow ends in a stunning stampede of suddenly freed race-creatures.
There are, of course, other pleasures to be had like renewing one’s acquaintance with old friends. Carrie Fisher, who passed away last year after completing her scenes, brings such gravity to her scenes as Leia. Good luck trying to hold back the sniffles each time she shows up on screen. Mark Hamill, who does the bulk of dramatic heavy lifting in Episode VIII, offers a poignant performance as Luke Skywalker, leaving his imprint all over the film.
Oscar Issac once again turns on the charm as hotheaded pilot Poe Dameron, who spends much of his screentime clashing with a new authority figure (Laura Dern). To be fair, the script gives every character – returning, and new – at least a few moments to make their presence felt. From Chewbacca balking at the sight of the porgs having invaded the cockpit of the Millennial Falcon, to BB-8 saving the day on more than one occasion, to C-3PO and R2D2 reconnecting with Luke…or even a cameo by a wise old chap; you’ll do well to expect the unexpected here.
The film’s strongest track, however, involves Kylo Ren, and Adam Driver imbues him with a wounded, troubled, quality that serves the character well. His scenes with Rey, played with grit and earnestness by Daisy Ridley, are some of the best and reveal an as-yet-unexplored dynamic of the Force.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi does feel overlong, and there are flabby parts here and there. Yet it’s seldom boring because the pace is brisk and Johnson brings a lightness of touch that feels entirely new. The film is ultimately a triumph of inventiveness and unpredictability, and delivers jaw-dropping visual imagery of the kind that this franchise hasn’t seen.
I’m going with a big four out of five for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Johnson, whose previous writing/directing credits include smart indies like Brick and Looper, makes the transition to Blockbusterland with the ease of a pro. It’s hardly surprising that he’s been entrusted with creating a new trilogy in the Star Wars universe. The galaxy is safe on his watch.