Never tell Rian Johnson the odds! The director’s efforts in Star Wars: The Last Jedi prove that science fiction fables can be the jack of all trades: Clever, entertaining and stirring.
That said, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is certainly a “Star Wars” movie — it has the showy exterior, the Jedi lore and the central characters that fanatics have come to love over the course of decades. But where Johnson steers clear of his predecessor, J.J. Abrams (director of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), is his departure from franchise tropes, while still remaining faithful to George Lucas’ source material. Johnson’s main characters both grow and get lured to each side of the Force. Further, the inherently formulaic sci-fi elements blend nicely with stunning tracking shots and seamless CGI. Star Wars: The Last Jedi isn’t a sweeping tonal shift, but the narrative-juggling pays off in a big way in the final act.
More specifically, the film is two and a half hours of space-opera delight, with a powerful through-line — in Rey’s (Daisy Ridley, “Murder on the Orient Express”) malleability and her contribution to a wider balance — knee-slapping humor and most importantly, a cohesive bridge to Abrams’ final effort in the trilogy. Where “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” paid more overt respect to the X-wing flying films that came before it, this boldly shuffles arcs and proves that cinematic worlds can be tweaked just enough to supplant excessive mythology with inclusion and, well, normalcy.
The First Order, led by the snickering and shriveled emperor-type, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, “War for the Planet of the Apes”), continues its rampage on The Resistance, led by a determined General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher). Despite taking heavy losses, The Resistance proves time again that resiliency keeps the intergalactic spark alive. The Resistance is also aided by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, “Suburbicon”) and his trusty sidekick, the droid BB-8.
The two are pulled into a more targeted fight against Snoke as Finn (John Boyega, “Detroit”) and Rose (newcomer to the saga Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance maintenance worker, aim to disable the tracking device on Snoke’s mothership. Meanwhile, Rey is stationed on the island planet of Ahch-To, a sacred Jedi land. She hopes to apprentice alongside former Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, “Kingsman: The Secret Service”), though the latter is dismayed by the Force and jaded after years of trying to revive it. Will Rey and Luke be able to aid The Resistance as they take on the First Order and the rising power of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver, “Paterson”)? Is Ren really the key to it all?
One achievement in Star Wars: The Last Jedi is not so much Skywalker’s obligatory return and stake in the narrative, but the staying power of both Rey and Finn. While Rey carries the weight of the franchise like Skywalker carried the weight of the Jedi, Finn compliments Ridley’s performance with a sturdy, often humorous take. What’s more, despite being relegated to a secondary character — or, rather, a character whose lone pursuit will become enabling Rey’s Jedi mind tricks, Finn still continues to grow naturally — more so than any other personality.
Outside of splendid cinematography from Steve Yedlin (“Looper”), the film also works on a more elemental level: As in the characters who fill up the frames. The current trilogy has featured a growing number of females and characters of diverse and underrepresented backgrounds. Women of The Resistance also impressively hold top leadership positions. With luck, Star Wars: The Last Jedi will serve as a prime example of proper casting.
Despite the film’s admirable attempt to blend Jedi mythology with much-needed exposition, there exists a few moments in the 152-minute run time that are simply stale. That’s not to say the content is unwarranted, but in select spots, the film gives in to the customary fight-then-flight beats — which are often predictable. And while it’s heavy-handed at times, the injected Easter eggs are also appreciated, even when they don’t advance the plot. Diehards who’ve grown attached to the galaxy far, far away would likely agree.
Stacked up against Abrams’ sequel/reboot effort in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Johnson’s film is both unique and strategic. It is an engaging way to occupy space in the middle of a trilogy. Even where his plot wears thin, his characters — old and new — carry the film and propel it to new heights. Nevertheless, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” takes the prize, simply for its awe-inspiring reintroduction to the Force. Abrams’ ability to breathe life into new characters was nothing short of miraculous. Still, Johnson carries the torch.
In “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” Frank Oz’s Yoda once said, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Well, with Star Wars: The Last Jedi it’s clear that Johnson “did” — he succeeded at heightening an age-old but forward-leaning, commercial franchise.