Light spoilers ahead.
During a review for last year’s Rogue One, Red Letter Media’s cynical squeaking mascot Rich Evans pointed out a contradiction in the Star Wars universe: despite taking place in an entire galaxy far far away, Star Wars has very limited elbow room to expand and be appreciated by audiences. Even if someone made Saving Private Ryan in the Star Wars universe, audiences won’t take to it unless it has a silly droid, stormtroopers, the force, X-Wings, TIE fighters, lightsabers and references. There’s a reason why Disney declared warehouses full of expanded universe books, comics, games and cartoons entirely moot: general audiences don’t know or don’t care, they want the exact same feeling they felt whenever they first saw Darth Vader emerged from the shadows in 1977. A stretch,maybe, but perhaps writer/director Rian Johnson saw this video, rubbing his hands together while putting the finishing touches on his vision for Star Wars and saying to himself, “challenge accepted.”
Johnson now lays his (and Disney’s) cards on the table with Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Admirably, the eighth installment in the biggest sci-fi franchise in cinema starts right where its previous installment (2015’s The Force Awakens) left off. The villainous First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), is attacking the base of the Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher), after destroying the order’s Star Killer Base. Accompanied by ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), First Order defector Finn (John Boyega) and mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), the Resistance tries to outrun the First Order and its lead military man General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Meanwhile, student of the newly-woken force Rey (Daisy Ridley) is off on a remote planet in the hopes of recruiting a new member of the Resistance: jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), living in self-imposed exile after failing to train his nephew, the Sith student Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rey looks to learn more about the force and reunite Luke with Leia, but Luke is still haunted by his failure and his nephew is still trying to hunt him down to make the jedi extinct.
The Last Jedi has done the seemingly impossible task of being unmistakably a Star Wars movie, and yet a completely unique and new experience compared to the nine previous movies. There are elements of The Last Jedi that highlight the best aspects that Star Wars has to offer: epic space battles, undercover heists, droids as comic relief, heartwarming dialogue about hope and togetherness and those sweet, sweet lightsabers. But Johnson and his filmmaking team have put their own stamp on those pieces of hardware that make the Star Wars engine run. The special effects here may be the best of the entire series, more dynamic than the ones in The Force Awakens and cleaner than those in Rogue One. The costumes and set designs, practical and digital, are impressive as well by sticking to the scrappy blueprint laid out by J.J. Abrams’s reestablished universe and making the world around the characters more barren. John Williams’s iconic score remains as prominent as ever, yet it takes more time to build to grand crescendos opposed to jumping into action scenes head on. Part of that is probably because The Last Jedi , unexpectedly light in the action department, takes more time to build the duality between Rey and Kylo, introducing and establishing Rose Tico as a definitive new supporting payer, and reaffirming the presence of Luke Skywalker in this franchise.
But it’s when The Last Jedi throws curveballs at the audience that it becomes fascinating. Johnson’s script throws in so many bait-and-switch moments in the plot throughout the 152 minute runtime, trying to feel out anything that could possibly work in a Star Wars movie. It’s a bold move to have the journey of Rey and Luke’s rediscovery of the force and confronting both of the truths they so vehemently deny occupied by the discount-Furbies known as the Porgs, along with the fate of the Resistance being obliterated by a gigantic First Order ship put in the hands of a stuttering Benicio Del Toro performance at an intergalactic casino. The Last Jedi isn’t impervious to having an idea or two fall flat: the additions of Del Toro and Laura Dern come close to feeling like afterthoughts, having Leia spend most of the movie in a medical bed feels wasteful and Finn and Rose’s side-quest to the casino nearly derails the movie’s plot. Luckily those weak points are elevated by the characters in them and the movie’s breakneck pace that allows the runtime to fly by. Johnson’s script also excels at giving characters vital arcs, specifically the origin of Rey’s parents, Luke’s disenchantment with the force and the continuously-interesting journey of Kylo. While it’s clear that Poe and Finn have been officially confirmed as side characters whose jobs are to just carry the non-Rey scenes, at least Johnson gives them free reign to show charisma and connection with other characters in scenes.
While there is a stocked supporting cast willing and able for Johnson’s galactic gambit, The Last Jedi unequivocally belongs to Hamill. The 34 years that have passed since we last saw him has turned Luke Skywalker into a completely different character, and Hamill is all the more game for it. His bitter demeanor can’t hide the natural charisma he brings to every scene while understanding the weight of what’s happened in the movie’s universe. Hamill’s presence in beige robes and a scruffy beard makes him look like ancient space Jesus, but he’s still crippled by his past failures and as unsure of himself as he was when he first met Yoda. The Last Jedi is a lot of things, but it’s greatest achievement is bringing Luke Skywalker’s character full circle and Hamill doesn’t overstep his boundaries nor does he use being older and mysterious as a crutch. He owns every single frame he’s in as the last mystic beacon of the force and as a damaged man trying to find any remaining solace left in the universe.
Hamill’s partner through for most of the movie, Ridley, is the one with the twinkle in her eye and the pillar of Star Wars’s trademark emphasis on hope. While she may have lost some of her scrappy energy that made her a star in The Force Awakens, she makes up for it by keeping up with Luke’s psychological trial by fire and never seeming confused or bored by the lack of action around her. But Ridley herself has another partner throughout the movie: Driver, who continues to excel at filling out Kylo Ren’s backstory and motivation. His motto throughout the movie is “let the past die,” emphasized by him smashing his own helmet within the first ten minutes of the movie. Driver seems well aware that he has to shake off the emo Darth Vader fanboy comparisons made at his expense in The Force Awakens and instead treat Kylo as an entirely new villain. The reserved pain in Driver’s face throughout the movie makes his rage and stances of power all the more intimidating and satisfying to watch.
The rest of the cast only make smaller impacts, but still leave good impressions. Marie Tran in particular makes a strong blockbuster debut as Rose, who seems to fill the role of peppy sidekick with a heartfelt backstory that Rey had before she took off to find Luke. She and Boyega, who still owns a perfect mix of pratfalling comic relief and genuine screen presence, make the unnecessary side quest work through sheer chemistry alone and keep the massive war the movie lays out grounded. On the villain side, the almighty Andy Serkis finally gets to stretch his legs and ham it up as the villainous Snoke who is as gleefully evil yet imposing as Ian McDiarmid was as Emperor Palpatine. Domhnall Gleeson’s Hux is basically a sniveling rag doll Kylo and Snoke get to throw around, but at least he takes it in stride. Isaac still has cockiness and spirit to boot as Poe, but he still takes a backseat to what’s going on around him. Sadly, the most disappointing element is the late Carrie Fisher. Despite having a more prominent role here than in The Force Awakens, she’s not given much else to do. It’s not only eerie to see her mostly bedridden in the movie, but sad that Dern is basically used as her stand-in for giving hopeful speeches about the Resistance. At least in The Force Awakens she stood as the war hero with her feet in the muck trying to find Luke and reconnecting with Han Solo. Here her character lacks the spark she was once given with any character, notable aside from Poe.Fisher’s performance as Leia will live on forever, but it’s a shame to see her go out with a whisper and not from a bang that Fisher herself always brought.
The Last Jedi is the first legitimately different Star Wars movie since The Phantom Menace rolled the dice and got snake eyes 18 years ago. This time however, the risks are almost entirely rewarding as The Last Jedi radiates its own atmosphere, plot development, character progression and personality. If Johnson is truly the next gatekeeper of Star Wars’s future, he seems to have unlocked the secret formula to making the franchise last beyond its original troupes in the 20th century and ignore its mistakes made in the 21st. The Last Jedi proves that it’s fine to have the usual bells and whistles of Star Wars tacked on, but they should service something riskier and more character-driven. The Force Awakens brought back anticipation for Star Wars, but now The Last Jedi brought back anticipation for a conclusion to Star Wars. Much to Rich Evans’s dismay, the canvas of Star Wars has finally been widened.