The Force Awakens was a fun and exciting start to a new Star Wars trilogy but it’s main job was to wipe the taste of the prequels out of everyone’s mouth, which it did by playing it safe and rehashing a number of plot ideas and beats from the original trilogy, specifically A New Hope. With that being done, I know personally I was ready for a Star Wars movie that went in bold new directions and that’s exactly what we got from Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi.
Following the events of The Force Awakens, specifically the First Order’s annihilation of the Republic government, the Resistance is barely surviving and things get even more dire when the Resistance realizes the First Order can track their fleet through hyperspace, leaving them trapped on the run and running out of fuel. In one of his many brash moves, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) sends Finn (John Boyega) and new ally Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to covertly find a hacker who can secretly get them aboard Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) ship and disable the tracker, against the wishes of both Leia (Carrie Fisher) and new commanding officer Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) but he’s not the wise Jedi master she was hoping for and she’s also somehow linked via The Force to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The Rey/Kylo/Luke storyline is easily the most compelling with Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver developing a complicated relationship via their connection that’s equal parts hatred and sympathy and Luke being broken and bitter over his failure to train a new class of Jedi and, specifically, what happened with Kylo/Ben, which gets conflicting and interesting points of view about what exactly caused Ben to turn. It’s not what a lot of fans wanted but Hamill absolutely nails this new, older version of Luke, easily delivering his best performance of the franchise. Despite his overall grim demeanor though, there’s still some light, wry humor in the Jedi Master that deliver, at least for me, some great laughs, although some of the other bits of wacky humor are hit or miss or just plain weird. The main plot of the Resistance fleet being whittled away is also incredibly tense and results in a meaty character arc for Poe, who gets to grow beyond “that cool pilot guy” as he learns what it takes to be a great leader and that going into situations half cocked eventually will catch up to you. Carrie Fisher’s final performance only makes this plot resonate even more and Laura Dern’s new character Admiral Holdo is a great addition and foil to Poe. The only sideplot that doesn’t really work and feels tacked on is Finn and Rose’s quest to find the hacker on a Monte Calroesque casino planet, Canto Bight, even with the presence of Benicio Del Toro. The Last Jedi is definitely too long and this sidequest doesn’t help things as far as the lengthe and pacing; if you were trimming things, this could be one of the first things to go and it really feels like they just needed to figure out something for Finn to do since he wasn’t getting the meatier, character developing plots of Rey or Poe, although the main quartet of new characters (Rey, Kylo, Poe, Finn) all continue to be exceptionally acted and are even better than their already great introductions in The Force Awakens.
Visually, The Last Jedi is absolutely stunning, which is one the things you can always expect from Rian Johnson. One of the cool things is that Johnson seems to be leaning hard into the things that inspired the original trilogy, like World War 2 films and samurai movies. The Last Jedi introduces things like the Star Wars equivalent of B-52 bombers and settings like Snoke’s vibrantly red throne room flanked by guards in bright red samurai armor. The climactic battle also makes incredible use of red as the Resistance battles First Order walkers on the planet Crait, where every laser strike and speeder ski digs up red trails of dust. Almost all of the action is incredibly realized from the opening starfighter battle to the desperate final surface battle and some of the most unexpected and fantastic lightsabers duels of the franchise.
The Last Jedi is an exciting and bold take on the Star Wars legacy, still bringing a ton of what we’ve come to expect but also burning things down and setting things up to forge a new path forward with the exceptional new cast. Hopefully with JJ Abrams coming back for Episode IX we actually can move forward in this new direction and not retreat back under a blanket of nostalgia.