When Disney and Lucasfilm brought Star Wars back to cinemas in 2015 with Episode VII, The Force Awakens, they did so amidst a fanbase that was both hungry for and troubled by the release of a new film in the immortal space-opera series. George Lucas’ largely atrocious prequel trilogy had burned many a loyal fan and it was hard to believe that handing the reigns over to one of the biggest studios on the planet would somehow restore the integrity of a franchise that had captured the imaginations of millions since the original Star Wars released in 1977. Fortunately, The Force Awakens mostly lived up to the hype, with director J.J. Abrams delivering a rousing, though at times derivative, new chapter that would go on to become the third highest-grossing movie of all time and give Disney the green light to start pumping out new Star Wars films on a yearly basis. Now two years later, Star Wars is taking something of a different gamble on hiring Rian Johnson, whose biggest prior directing credit was the well-received 2012 time-travel flick Looper, to oversee The Last Jedi. Abrams could be excused somewhat for playing it safe with The Force Awakens, given how much was riding on its success, but Johnson is under a different kind of pressure to not only produce a better sequel but one that represents the middle chapter in a trilogy, which is never an easy thing to tackle from a story perspective.
It’s a good thing then that The Last Jedi not only improves upon The Force Awakens in every conceivable way but is so good that it ranks among the best things the Star Wars franchise has ever produced. Yes, it’s Empire Strikes Back good.
Quality isn’t the only thing The Last Jedi has in common with Episode V though, as the film also shares a number of thematic similarities with Empire. Much like that film, The Last Jedi finds the Rebels — sorry, Resistance — in a desperate situation. With The First Order launching a full-scale retaliation following the destruction of Starkiller Base at the conclusion of The Force Awakens, Episode VIII opens with the Resistance feeling the full brunt of their enemy’s power. Make no mistake: this is arguably the most “Star Wars” of Star Wars movies, with much of the film taking place in the cold emptiness of space as the war between the two sides escalates. I was actually reminded of Mad Max: Fury Road of all things in terms of the way The Last Jedi sets up its cat and mouse pursuit between the First Order and Resistance fleets. The film is right up there with Empire and Revenge of the Sith in terms of being the darkest installment in the series but it’s also filled with some huge laughs — many of which can be attributed to the adorable Porg creatures, who you will absolutely adore. Johnson expertly balances these tonal shifts and knows when to lean into the dramatic moments and when to pull back and give viewers a breather.
Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has sought out Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who was notably absent for all but the final scene in The Force Awakens. Hoping to learn from Luke and seek his aid in the fight against the First Order, Rey discovers a much different figure than she had envisioned, one who appears to have given up on the Force and indeed, the very idea of the Jedi Order he once saved from the brink of oblivion. Hamill is simply sensational in his long-awaited return to the role that made him a star, delivering a performance that demands a reevaluation of how we interpret legacy and what happens when our heroes no longer believe in themselves. To say any more would be giving too much away but suffice it to say, the film hinges on the relationship between Rey and Luke and that it goes to some truly unexpected places says a lot about both the strength of the performances and Johnson’s script.
Really though, it’s hard to find much to complain about regarding any of the major characters. Whatever its faults, The Force Awakens succeeded in introducing an all-new cast of characters who were immediately likable and engaging, and The Last Jedi gives everyone something interesting to do. Oscar Isaac continues to be charming as hell as hotshot pilot Poe Dameron, whose reckless flyboy antics actually end up forming the basis of a pretty significant plot point. Poe’s best buddy Finn (John Boyega) also returns and gets to be a “big deal” once again, as he’s paired with newcomer Rose Tico, played by the wonderful Kelly Marie Tran. Boyega and Tran are easily the film’s most adorable pair and have some of the film’s most fun moments, but never at the expense of character development. Tran’s Rose, in particular, is given a surprisingly emotional arc, as she wrestles with the recent death of a sibling while trying to maintain an air of hopeful optimism in the face of overwhelming odds. However, it’s Adam Driver who really goes for it as Darth Vader-wannabe Kylo Ren, unearthing new depths to his character that helps make him one of the most interesting on-screen villains in contemporary pop culture. Of all the characters in The Last Jedi, I’m most looking forward to seeing where Driver takes Kylo Ren next in Episode IX.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention Carrie Fisher’s final performance as General Leia Organa. Fisher takes on a bigger role here than she did in The Force Awakens but it still doesn’t feel like enough, as it’s hard to set aside the reality that this is the last time we’ll get to see the late actress portray one of cinema’s greatest and most beloved female heroes. As with most things in the film, it’s hard to talk about Leia’s role without giving things away but rest assured that The Last Jedi treats both character and actress with the reverence they deserve.
I previously mentioned that The Last Jedi shares some similarities with The Empire Strikes Back but Rian Johnson also takes inspiration from Return of the Jedi and unfortunately, these moments don’t work quite as well. One pivotal scene in the film feels almost like a shot-for-shot remake of a specific scene in Episode VI, which cuts the dramatic tension down a bit due to the sense of deja vu it elicits. The good thing is that it doesn’t take long for this scene to cast aside those Return of the Jedi parallels and completely subvert expectations, resulting in one of the film’s most surprising twists. Still, for as much as The Last Jedi does a considerably better job of balancing its homages to the original trilogy than The Force Awakens did, the film still manages to stumble occasionally when it comes to mining the old films for ideas but that’s a small gripe considering how well Johnson is able to interrogate the legacy of those films and their characters.
I was also surprised by how intimate The Last Jedi feels. Make no mistake: this is an ambition film that is grandiose in every sense of the word but considering it’s set in an entire galaxy, we don’t actually get to see very much of it. There are really only a few different major settings to speak of, a byproduct of the film’s intense focus on the war between the Resistance and First Order. The result of this is that the film at times feels a bit claustrophobic, which may or may not be an intentional creative decision, but I just know I was thankful when Finn and Rose travel to a casino city midway through the film, if only for a change of scenery and a reminder that there is a still a vibrant, living galaxy out there (it also helps that Canto Bight, the city in question, is wonderfully designed.) I’m still not sure whether or not I enjoy the film’s relative minimalism when it comes to setting but at least each location in The Last Jedi stands out as a unique entity, unlike the derivative forest and desert planets introduced in The Force Awakens.
The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars film put out by Disney thus far but there’s so much more going on in Rian Johnson’s film that it feels like a disservice to simply say it’s better than The Force Awakens and Rogue One. In spite of their many faults, one thing that can be appreciated about the prequels is that they dared to be different and didn’t feel the need to repeat the look, feel, or indeed the plot of Episodes IV-VI. The Last Jedi may contain echoes of the Star Wars of yesteryear but for the most part, it doesn’t feel derivative. This is a film that recognizes that the binary good/evil, light/dark side dichotomies of George Lucas’ original Star Wars saga are an outdated storytelling model and indeed, the notion of the Jedi being benevolent upholders of truth and justice is directly challenged in some pretty shocking ways. The Last Jedi frequently turns subtext into text, giving voice to theories and discussions that have taken place for years among die hard fans but in ways that fit with the natural progression of the series. Of course, The Last Jedi is also a rousing space opera with some of the greatest action scenes in the series to date (let’s just say if The Force Awakens’ climactic lightsaber battle left you wanting, you won’t be disappointed). The film is exciting, heartfelt, funny, and rewards longtime fans of the series with some truly powerful moments. Luke Skywalker was right: “This is not going to go the way you think.” The Last Jedi will shock you with some of its twists but more importantly, it will probably remind you why you fell in love with Star Wars in the first place.
I just feel bad for J.J. Abrams in having to follow this up with Episode IX. May the Force be with you!