By Rob Vaux
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro
Written by: Rian Johnson, George Lucas (characters)
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Studio: Walt Disney, Lucasfilm Ltd., Ram Bergman Productions
Run Time: 2 Hours, 32 minutes
It says a lot that in a pop-culture landscape littered with spoilers – where we’re eager to digest the contents of a movie well before it comes out – that blowing any details about a Star Wars movie means Death by Internet in the most brutal manner imaginable. It also makes a critics’ job very hard, because how do you talk about it in anything but the vaguest terms? “We’re back with Luke and Rey on the island and then stuff happens and BB-8 is cute and hey, it’s awesome!” It’s doubly frustrating for The Last Jedi because writer-director Rian Johnson has a lot to say. He’s not content to just sit back, answer our questions, and throw some cool X-wing battles at us. He really wants to delve into the essence of what this universe is all about: kick us out of our comfort zone and get to the root of it all.
That eventually comes back to Luke (Mark Hamill), powerful and wise but in some ways still the same angry teenager he was in the original trilogy. He’s consumed by his perceived failures, bitter about his fate, and resigned to the notion that interfering in the galaxy’s affairs is a big mistake. His would-be apprentice Rey (Daisy Ridley), eager to help her friends and looking for answers about her own destiny, has to shake him out of his lethargy. And the clock’s ticking: things are not going well for Team Good Guy, and with the First Order closing in on her friends in the Resistance, the time to act is now.
Going beyond that goes into spoiler territory, and to speak further of the story itself threatens to ruin any number of the movie’s marvelous surprises. Johnson packs a lot of them in, integrated effortlessly with a loaded plot and a surprisingly high number of prominent characters. A few of them get a little goofy, but what is Star Wars without some goofiness? The remainder simply soar.
The Last Jedi works well first and foremost by keeping all of its various story threads straight, edging up the excitement levels, and letting each character develop without feeling busy. He even throws in a few fresh faces, such as Laura Dern’s purple-haired admiral or Kelly Maria Tran’s earnest grease monkey. Both play surprisingly large roles considering how many over figures need screen time, and yet no one feels short-changed or ignored. (The late Carrie Fisher gets the best of it, with a curtain call for Leia that makes us miss the actress all the more.)
Not only that, but everyone’s arc moves in an interesting direction: developing the characters, their conflicts and how they choose to act in the face of the seemingly insurmountable. That applies to the villains too, particularly Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), confronted with the consequences of his actions in The Force Awakens and responding in a manner that no one quite expects. The Last Jedi scores a lot of points partly by defying our expectations without anything feeling gimmicky or forced, but mainly by throwing these figures into serious dilemmas – where the answers aren’t always clear – and seeing how they’ll respond.
It’s a solid blueprint for the kind of storytelling Star Wars excels at, well-oiled by self-depreciating humor and some terrific action sequences that find new ways to deliver the Republic-serial perils that have become the franchise’s stock in trade. A bit of awkward pacing mars the final act, which feels like an unnecessary coda after the film’s biggest fireworks display has come and gone, but that’s a minor quibble at best. This is the kind of movie you don’t want to end, and while not every question is fully answered, the revelations here prove immensely satisfying.
In and of itself, that would be more than enough to make The Last Jedi everything Star Wars fans could hope for. But Johnson doesn’t rest there. He dives headlong into the very notion of The Force: what it is, how it works and why even the wisest practitioner struggles to understand its purpose. His ideas move the saga in a new direction, but one still very much in keeping with everything that’s come before. It’s still Star Wars, and yet it’s something entirely different: a natural evolution from the previous eight movies suggesting that we might only have begun to scratch the surface of this universe. The characters all feel the impact, which makes their battles far more than the usual good-guys-vs-bad-guys clichés and approaches something genuinely profound. Star Wars has always reach fitfully for such heights, but The Last Jedi climbs higher than anyone could have expected. The view is simply tremendous.