Toward the end of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, one of our heroes stares out toward a vast, bleached-out vista that’s peppered with low-slung space-junk (I wouldn’t dare say which character it is, or even what planet we’re on; such info would rankle most Force-fans, and we all know a death mark’s not an easy thing to live with). It’s a shot that could have been lifted directly from the original Star Wars trilogy, and thus one of the few moments of pure franchise-fealty in writer-director Rian Johnson’s otherwise rebellious new film, which is the springiest, most assured Star Wars entry in years—and a movie that drops a proton torpedo into our beloved galaxy far, far away. In Last Jedi, old allegiances are frayed, family bonds are lightsaber’d in half, and even an ex-farmboy like Luke Skywalker must contend with a deep, depressive existential crisis. It’s the gazillion-dollared, 152-minute equivalent to setting fire to all of your childhood Star Wars toys in the backyard, and getting high off the fumes that follow.
The Last Jedi begins not long after the events of 2014’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, director J.J. Abrams’ sleek if occasionally slavish regional production of 1977’s A New Hope, and a movie that united orphaned desert-scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) against Kylo Ren, the millennial foul-kin bad-guy sired by Han and Leia (and played, with brooding-beefcake woundedness, by Adam Driver). But unlike some of the previous Star Wars films, which often allowed years to pass between installments, The Last Jedi doesn’t have time for downtime, plunging immediately into a deep-space skirmish between General Leia’s Resistance fighters and the evil First Order (commandeered by Domhnall Gleeson’s sneering, delightfully peeve-faced General Hux). By now, we all know what a good Star Wars fight looks like: Soaring TIEs, roaring laser-blasts, and lots of aerial acrobatics. Those are all present here, of course, but so is a wordless face-off between Kylo Ren and Leia, as well as a daring, ticking-clock on-board mission that Johnson mounts with Ackbar-rattling tension—the first indicators that Last Jedi is more interested in reinventing the thrills of Star Wars than it is merely re-reawakening them.
Last Jedi then hyperdrives to the lush Jedi temple where, at the end of Force Awakens, we saw Rey approach Luke (Mark Hamill) with his old lightsaber—a moment that ended with the strange old hermit giving her the silent treatment. As it turns out, Luke’s failure to properly train his nephew—thus giving rise to Kylo Ren—has prompted him to essentially tune out the Force, and to turn against his once-idealistic, hubristic former Jedi self. So he lives mostly solo, aided by a team of cranky-alien carekeepers, and drinking green milk provided by local space-anteater-thingees (he’s also surrounded by porgs, small island-dwelling bird-critters that are one part Furby, one part gag-gift slipper).
The original trilogy made good use of Hamill’s kewpie-cute, oft-twerpy boyishness, but Last Jedi finds him shaggy and feral—he looks like he just walked out of the inner sleeve of Led Zeppelin IV—and weary from decades of high-casualty family battles. Yet there are flashes of sarcasm to Old Man Luke, who’s played by Hamill not as a sad, elder sage, but as a I’m-getting-too-old-for-this-Sith crank and occasional trickster (he gets one of the movie’s biggest laughs before uttering a single line). The Star Wars movies have never been especially funny, at least not intentionally so, but Last Jedi has a surprising lightness at times, and never more so when Luke and Rey are locked in some intra-generational squabble.
In The Last Jedi, almost everyone is trying to shut down or eradicate some part of their past, and you get the sense that Rian Johnson was (politely) attempting to do the same thing with Star Wars itself, jettisoning the series’ long-running penchant for quasi-mystical mumbo-jumbo, and pushing the films toward a more intelligently designed version of faith.
As the jaded Jedi and his unwanted guest begin an uncomfortable, at times combative, training session, the dwindling members of the Resistance are huddled under the command of Leia, who’s trying to keep her small fleet intact—a task that’s occasionally undermined by the hot-dog maneuvering of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Carrie Fisher passed away shortly after completing her Last Jedi scenes, and it’s heartbreaking to see how much more at-ease she is here than she was in Force Awakens, as fully in command of her character as Leia is in command of her team. And while Leia gets in a few good lines, as always, Fisher’s best moments are the ones in which her face holds the screen in silence, her regal warmth a force of its own.
Speaking of which: There are a lot of staring-toward-the-screen scenes in The Last Jedi, which is full of psychic-connection chats between characters, and which pushes the metaphysical powers of the Force further than any previous Star Wars film (though it does so, thankfully, without once mentioning those dreaded midichlorians). There’s plenty to marvel over in Johnson’s movie, from the bloody-chic decor of Supreme Leader Snoke’s throne-room to the intriguing background beasties to the seat-levitatingly awesome third-act dogfight. But what’s most impressive is the way it illuminates the connective power of the Force, which is depicted here not as some hokey religion, but as a transcendent form of communication and understanding. In The Last Jedi, almost everyone is trying to shut down or eradicate some part of their past, and you get the sense that Johnson was (politely) attempting to do the same thing with Star Wars itself, jettisoning the series’ long-running penchant for quasi-mystical mumbo-jumbo, and pushing the films toward a more intelligently designed version of faith.
Still, for all of Johnson’s efforts to refine the franchise, this is a Star Wars movie, which means you still get some of the series’ primo balderdash dialogue—more than a few scenes are saddled with heated Huxposition—not to mention the inevitable low-tech-versus-big-gun third act. Many of Last Jedi’s weakest moments, including a pointless and way-too-literally-cartoonish Maz Kanata cameo, are leftover sins from The Force Awakens, which had more characters than a Mos Eisley Cantina trivia night, and which set up a few relationship dynamics that Johnson doesn’t so much ignore as put on hold. And as for its length: Two and a half hours of Star Wars is a lot of Star Wars, and for those who remember the (relatively) brisk delights of The Empire Strikes Back or A New Hope, it’s hard not to walk out of the theater feeling as though you’ve got a case of hibernation sickness…
…but then, a few hours later, you’ve got your senses back, and you’re ready to revisit Last Jedi yet again, if for no other reason than to reinforce your own psychic link to what you’ve just seen. At one point in the movie, a character issues a warning: “This is not going to go the way you think.” It’s a line that could have been included in Last Jedi’s opening crawl, and one that also sums up the film’s many unexpected pleasures. It’s a movie that lures you in with the familiar and the beloved, only to instead turn into something wiser, deeper, and more true than you could have ever guessed. It’s a trap, and a near-perfect one at that.