One of the greatest criticisms of J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, the 2015 mega-blockbuster that re-ignited the Star Wars cinematic franchise after a decade, was just how closely it hewed to the 1977 original. As much fun as it was revisiting classic characters like Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), along with new characters like Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), the story beats were almost identical to George Lucas’ original film, so much so that in the end it held few surprises for its audience.
With that in mind, the geek wisdom leading up to writer/director Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi was that this would be the new trilogy’s The Empire Strikes Back, a bleaker sequel that would likely follow the same plot points as the 1980 film. Thankfully, Rian Johnson has instead crafted something that truly stands on its own, a complex and heartfelt sci-fi adventure that is easily the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy.
Without delving into spoilers, The Last Jedi finds the Rebel Alliance in desperate times. Hunted down by The First Order, led by the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and the tempestuous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), what’s left of the Rebel Alliance wind up trapped in space by The First Order with no hope for escape. While Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) each launch plans to help avoid the eventual slaughter of the rebellion forces, Rey is still on the planet Ahch-To, attempting to convince a dejected Luke Skywalker to rejoin forces with the Rebel Alliance.
Luke clearly has no urge to rejoin the fight, and makes the case to Rey that the Jedi need to die off for their failure to stop the forces of the Empire over the years. Living in the ruins of the destroyed Jedi temple, Luke has hidden himself off from the world, convinced that he (and the Jedi) can only cause more harm. Meanwhile, Rey and Kylo Ren begin developing a strong telepathic bond, which Rey hopes is proof that he can be saved from the dark side of the force.
The Last Jedi is very much a sequel, in that it doesn’t offer up a ton of new story — most of the film’s epic 152 minute running time (it’s the longest Star Wars film yet) continues threads from The Force Awakens, but often takes them in new and unexpected directions. There are things in The Last Jedi that we have simply never seen in a Star Wars film before, from the massive, exhilarating battle scenes to an Ocean’s 11-style action sequence through an intergalactic casino and alien race track operation.
The new additions to the cast are extremely solid, including the irreplaceable Laura Dern as the stern Rebel Alliance Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, and breakout star Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico, an effortlessly charismatic Rebel Alliance mechanic who teams up with Finn to hunt down a code-breaker in order to sneak them onto a First Order ship. If you’ve been on any form of social media in the past two months then you’re already familiar with porgs, the wide-eyed little furballs that have already launched a thousand memes — thankfully, they are basically just minor window dressing here, presented to annoy Chewbacca every now and then, but not much else (and to sell a veritable mountain of merchandise, of course).
Rian Johnson, best known for 2012’s Looper, has a great understanding of how to stage a Star Wars film, handling the multiple storylines and characters with ease. The film never feels as jumbled as Rogue One, and each character here is given their moment to shine, especially Carrie Fisher’s Leia, who takes on a much larger role here than in The Force Awakens. The entire film feels like a sort of elegy for Fisher, who died last year just after filming her scenes for The Last Jedi. She plays an integral role in the film, including a breathtaking sequence where we see her exhibit powers no other Jedi has ever displayed in the films up to this point. She also looks like she had a blast making the film, and her enthusiasm shines through in her heartwarming performance. The Last Jedi might also feature Mark Hamill’s best performance as Luke Skywalker, now a tortured hermit trying to reconcile the mistakes of the past with his hope for the future.
Johnson also knows what we expect from a Star Wars film, and he seems to delight in subverting nearly every single expectation we have — he sets up classic Star Wars moments we’ve seen time and time again, and then changes course at the last-minute. The first few times it happens in the film, it’s clear Johnson is onto something — he wants us to expect the unexpected. The Last Jedi clearly stands alone from the other films in the franchise, even as it shares much of the same connective tissue. The end result is the most unpredictable Star Wars film ever — there are constant surprises throughout the film, from small gags to important plot points. It’s hard to understate the joy of sitting through a new Star Wars film and having no idea what’s coming up next.
On a purely visual level, this is by far the best-looking Star Wars film. Johnson has a keen eye for staging battle sequences in a clear and concise way so we never lose sight of the action, while also composing some of the most striking visual moments in Star Wars history, including the red-streaked salt surface from the film’s final battle scene, a sequence that rivals the Hoth attack from The Empire Strikes Back as the most thrilling battle scene in the Star Wars series.
Thematically, The Last Jedi has a lot more on its mind than The Force Awakens did — Johnson places a great emphasis on the Wars aspect of the franchise, showing massive destruction and loss on a level we’ve never seen in a Star Wars film before (who knew the rebels had dedicated bomber units)?
Like all Star Wars films, The Last Jedi is also about hope — how does one continue to fight against insurmountable odds? How can we ensure future generations are given the tools to fix what we have wrought? These may seem like heavy questions for a sci-fi blockbuster, but Johnson ties them all together in an inspiring ending that also serves as the perfect balm for the mess we’re currently experiencing with our own dark forces attempting to spread hatred and intolerance. All we need now is some porgs.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens on December 14.