If Star Wars: The Force Awakens taught us anything, it’s that there’s no “happily every after” in the Star Wars universe. Empires fall, but they rise again. And like empires, republics rise and fall again. A cynic would add, “Especially not when there’s tens of billions of dollars to be made from Stars Wars fans, diehard or otherwise,” but cynicism has no place – or at least shouldn’t have a place – when it comes to writer-director Rian Johnson’s (Looper, The Brothers Bloom, Brick) follow-up, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the middle chapter in a third trilogy that will eventually span nine films. Temporarily borrowing the directing reins from J.J. Abrams (Abrams will direct the ninth and presumably final entry in the Skywalker Saga), Johnson has succeeded beyond even the highest expectations, delivering a Star Wars not for 2017, not for 2019, but for a soon-to-be-classic that will rightly take its place with A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back as the best the Star Wars franchise has to offer.
Moments after the obligatory fanfare and opening crawl, Johnson drops us into the middle of a heated space battle between the newly ascendant First Order and the rapidly diminishing forces of the Resistance, all that’s left of the New Republic destroyed by the First Order’s Starkiller Base. The Resistance struck back, permanently disabling the Starkiller Base, but not before losing the New Republic’s capital homeworld and most of the fleet. With Rey (Daisy Ridley) unavailable for Resistance duties, pursuing Jedi training under the reluctant tutorage of a bitter, depressed Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Finn (John Boyega) still in recovery mode, only Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, sorely missed) remain to lead the fight against the First Order. But Poe and Leia are not alone. Resistance fighters, nameless, but not faceless, equal to the task of self-sacrifice and heroism needed to defeat the First Order surrounds them.
To call The Last Jedi a war film seems like an obvious point. It’s in the title of every entry. Conflict between opposing forces, totalitarian fascism on one side, liberal democratic on the other, has been central to the series from the moment George Lucas first imagined a science-fiction/fantasy film. For Lucas, the parallels to World War II (and not the dogfights), the Vietnam War, and even the fall of the Nixon administration provided fodder for Star Wars: A New Hope and the subsequent sequels and prequels, but for Lucas, the real conflict was up close and personal, between fathers and sons, mentors and their students, and nebulous, all-encompassing Force always in need of balance. In short, the “war” in Star Wars served as background or backdrop. The Last Jedi brings the war closer to home, to the freedom fighters facing life-and-death with every major and minor turn of the battle. With just a few deft strokes, a word here, a glance there, a repeated shot of a bomber pilot scrambling for a detonator, Johnson brings each one of them to brief, vivid life.
The parallels to The Empire Strike Back are there too, but Johnson breaks away from the shot-by-shot or beat-by-beat remake/soft reboot approach that threatened to relegate The Force Awakens to a carbon copy of a much better or at least more original entry in the series. Johnson knows his audience. He knows – or at least expects – his audience to be familiar with the original trilogy (a fair expectation, given how deeply and profoundly Star Wars has permeated pop culture over the last four decades). For every familiar moment or beat, Johnson introduces a twist or turn. Rey may have been expecting a Yoda-like mentor in Luke, but gets something else altogether. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy “Motion-Capture King” Serkis) continues to mentor Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Perpetually in rage mode, Vader fanboy Ren wants to bring the galaxy completely under the control of the First Order. Ren’s possible redemption – a key element of the original trilogy – plays out against Rey’s inevitable seduction by the Dark Side. Poe receives counsel on the ways of war (i.e., avoid fighting a war of attrition with a superior enemy) with a mentor of his own, Leia.
Unfortunately, that leaves Finn, the third member of the new trilogy’s central duo and arguably the second most important character, with little, if any relevance or importance to the main plot. In probably the weakest, non-essential storyline, Finn joins a new character, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), on a super-secret mission (no spoilers here, of course) that separates the three main characters for most of The Last Jedi’s running time. Finn and Rose’s story does allow Finn to revisit old fears and anxieties before finding the inner hero he apparently lost when he attempted to confront Kylo Ren at the end of The Force Awakens. The storyline also allows Johnson to insert topical social and political commentary about the equivalent of the 1% in the Star Wars galaxy (arms dealers, aka the military-industrial complex) and skepticism about the aims and goals of a seemingly perpetual war (i.e., profits for arms dealers and manufacturers). Restoring balance to the Force never seemed naïve.
Whatever the reason, Finn and Rose’s story adds a solid 30-40 minutes to a two-and-a-half-hour running time (the longest in the series). It feels like a tangent because ultimately it is. That’s not a knock on Finn, Rose, or the actors who play them, but a definite knock on a film and by extension on Johnson, for failing to integrate Finn and Rose into the overarching storyline and giving them something meaningful to contribute beyond playing dress up on a First Order ship. Excise their tangential storyline and the results look the same for Rey, Poe, and the rest of the Resistance. Ultimately, however, it’s a minor, not a major, flaw, driven less by story than by the need to make Finn look busy until the next film, not to mention, of course, the colorful, multi-species location they visit as part of their super-secret mission (think of the merchandizing possibilities, because Disney/LucasFilm certainly did).
Rey spends the better of an hour with Luke, but it’s a necessary hour. Luke has life an Force-related lessons to impart before Rey can venture back into the galaxy, as haphazardly trained and ill-prepared to meet Kylo Ren as Luke was when he left Dagobah for his first, fateful meeting with Darth Vader in a city above the clouds. That’s where Johnson turns any expectations that we’re seeing a loose, corporate-mandated remake of The Empire Strikes Back on its head. In shot after shot, scene after scene, Johnson charts a new, exciting course not just for The Last Jedi’s third act, but also for the still untitled ninth film. The Last Jedi answers several key questions left over from The Force Awakens. Like any worthy middle chapter in a trilogy, however, Johnson asks entirely new, unexpected ones. And with uniformly strong performances from the returning cast (Mark Hamill gives an award-worthy performance that will be likely overlooked during Oscar season) and new members (Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern as a Vice Admiral who clashes repeatedly with Isaac’s Dameron), awe- and wonder-inspiring visual effects courtesy of Disney’s money machine, The Last Jedi gives Star Wars fans everything they could have asked for from the new trilogy: character, story, and spectacle, all in perfect or near perfect balance.