When most film franchises achieve titanic size, they find themselves enslaved to formula and expectations. The heroes and villains don’t really change because to do so would risk alienating the fans. The fear of destroying a successful status quo keeps the artists from truly challenging their characters and their audience.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” does not to give into that fear. Writer and director Rian Johnson continues the saga in an unexpected, but supremely rousing and emotional, fashion that dramatically changes its characters and setting.
The movie picks up immediately after the ending of “The Force Awakens,” with the Resistance escaping from the First Order. Under the leadership of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), the good guys narrowly evade destruction. But the First Order has created new technology that allows its Star Destroyers to track our heroes through lightspeed. To throw the First Order off the Resistance’s tail, Finn (John Boyega) and a mechanic, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), must find a codebreaker who can help them disable the First Order’s tracking device aboard an imposing starship.
Finn, Rose, Poe and Leia’s story is a classic “Star Wars” adventure, with harrowing battles, incredible special-effects wizardry and witty banter. Finn finds his own path as a hero, and Rose also gets to fulfill her dreams of taking part in the action. Poe’s arc is intriguing: he learns from Leia that real leaders aren’t always heroic, and that great sacrifices aren’t always worth the reward. Fisher gives a wonderful final performance as Leia, who has some of her finest onscreen moments in this “Star Wars” episode.
The familiarity ends with Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) side of the narrative, where she finds the solitary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on Ahch-To, hoping to bring him back to the fight. But you know the old saying about never meeting your heroes? Well, Rey might’ve done well to heed that advice, because Luke no longer wants anything to do with the Resistance, the Jedi or the Force. He’s been broken by his failure to properly train Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the loss of his fledgling Jedi students. This ain’t your parents’ Luke Skywalker, and Hamill powerfully captures the character’s melancholy and turmoil, but he also finds opportunity to bring humor into the proceedings when Luke finally takes Rey under his wing.
Though Luke occasionally threatens to overshadow her, Rey is still the film’s clear emotional center. Still believing herself to be “nobody,” she seeks identification with a potential father figure, Luke, to fulfill the void within herself. Her journey to understand the Force reveals that her future is not defined by the past, people around her or events beyond her control. Rey learns that she is the master of her destiny, and the charming Ridley injects newfound confidence into her character that makes her a worthy successor to Luke.
Meanwhile, Kylo Ren embarks on his own quest to crush any remnants of his ties to Leia and the Jedi. Driver gives an excellent turn as a conflicted Kylo fueled by ambition but held back by compassion. He makes Kylo sympathetic, tragic and despicable all at once, a far more interesting character than his master, Snoke (Andy Serkis). Kylo’s actions eventually kick the narrative into overdrive, and his decisions in the climax are shocking.
All in all, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” upends old character dynamics and takes some controversial turns, but in many ways, it also resurrects the old spirit of “Star Wars.” Back in 1977, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia Organa and Darth Vader were just characters, not icons. They were players in a larger story. When the saga achieved fame, it became too wrapped up in its iconography, and the stories suffered for it. Because of his popularity, Vader became Space Jesus in the prequels, and George Lucas made him a whiny, unlikable teenager to portend his dark future. Even “The Force Awakens” included the Millennium Falcon, Luke’s original lightsaber, Darth Vader’s helmet and a Death Star 3.0 for nostalgic purposes.
“The Last Jedi” doesn’t concern itself with protecting revered status of its icons. Rian Johnson and co. have opened up a mythology beyond Darth Vader and his lineage, giving space for new characters to grow and earn the love of a new generation of filmgoers. This saga isn’t just about the Skywalkers anymore—it truly is about a galaxy far, far away.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”
Running Time: 152 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Score: 5/5 stars