Only one thing bothered me while watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth installment in a series that blazed onto screens in 1977 and 40 years later is, improbably, stronger than ever: why don’t they have transporters? How is it possible that, among all these alien species, not one has invented technology that just “beams” someone (or thing) out of harm’s way? It would save a lot of time. Then again, who needs to save time when you’re having this much fun wondering how a stranded hero will be rescued from an exploding ship?
Of course, this isn’t Star Trek, and, perhaps more importantly, the Star Wars saga isn’t set in the future, but “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Those familiar opening words are Pavlovian at this point, and they set our inner-child alight, and we settle in for a ride like none other. Oh, and what a ride it is, The Last Jedi ().
To be honest, Star Wars has always been less about cold, hard tech and more about the personal. Even the droids, with their assorted bleeps and bloops, seem to have souls. Like so many classic stories, Star Wars explores the relationship between good and evil, but with Last Jedi, the exploration goes further, into the murky, grey areas that lie in between. It’s human conflict on a breathtakingly epic scale.
And that’s a point the new film, thrillingly directed by Rian Johnson, makes in full force. J.J. Abrams successfully relaunched the series in 2015 with The Force Awakens by essentially rebooting 1977’s A New Hope, but Johnson, unemcumbered by having to deal with introductions, goes further. The Last Jedi could easily be this current trilogy’s Empire Strikes Back, and while it certainly has the right amount of gravitas to equal what many still consider the best Star Wars of them all, it moves to its own beat, takes new risks, throws in nostalgic essentials, and adheres to a time-tested formula with both rigorous adherence and respect, as well as a deep, genuine, very apparent affection for both the core material and its multitude of fans.
The new film is not just magnificent, it’s spectacularly magnificent. It’s easily the best Star Wars since 1980’s Empire, and if it doesn’t quite match that film’s narrative density, it’s certainly not for lack of trying. Johnson has crafted a storyline that pays tribute to the past but also stares headfirst into an uncertain future, taking the story in powerful unexpected directions. The visuals are intense and strong, particularly during the final, dazzling 45 minutes. The score, by John Williams, has never been more potent or meaningful. The action is mind-boggling and masterful, and features a jaw-dropping lightsaber battle that is going to be nearly impossible to top.
The new locales are inventive and, at times, rapturous, including a mineral planet that “bleeds” red when its sands are disrupted and is home to a den of crystal pups, which, in addition to being utterly adorable serve a vital purpose. (There are also puffin-like Pogs, but they feel like a merchandising ploy more than anything else.) The movie’s themes are deep and resonant, particularly with regard to the characters of the impulsive, conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, giving a performance of almost Shakespearean dimensions) and the inquisitive, equally conflicted Rey (Daisy Ridley), whose search for personal meaning has led her to the hut of the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), currently living a hermit’s life of self-imposed exile.
Johnson splits the storyline into three distinct, neatly crosslinked portions. Rey attempts to convince a soured Luke to help the badly decimated Resistance fend off the First Order, which is presided over by the grey-skinned, ghoulish Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Meanwhile, “hot-shot flyboy” Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, who has more to do this time around but still comes off a bit stiff) must contend with the consequences of actions taken in the film’s mind-blowing opening sequence, as well as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), a purple-coiffed nemesis who has taken command in the absence of Leia (Carrie Fisher) and seems destined make a huge strategic mistake.
Finn (John Boyega), meanwhile, emerges from his coma and embarks on a covert mission with a spry mechanic (the delightful Kelly Marie Tran) that takes them to an elaborate alien casino that makes the Cantina on Mos Eisley look like a petting zoo. The storylines are expertly woven together by Johnson — no easy task — and converge in a way that is satisfying, poignant, and thrilling. It’s the kind of conclusion you dream for in an epic — big, bold, and yet grounded and human, with just the right grace notes of humor. Try not to be wrapped in blissful glee watching the film’s final crescendo. I dare you.
It’s no spoiler to say that there are things that are, sadly, known. This was Fisher’s last film before unexpectedly passing, but her role is much larger than you’d expect, and she brings an essential heart and warmth to The Last Jedi that is soothing and calming. She’s never been better; future installments will miss her radiance. Similarly, Hamill gives a finely honed, resonant performance and the film is a way to honor both the character of Luke, so vital to the series as a whole, and to the actor himself.
Torches, however, have been passed, and Ridley’s Rey is the new centerpiece. “You have no place in this story,” growls someone to Rey, and the assessment couldn’t be more off base. Rey is the lynchpin of The Last Jedi, and her curiosity — and innate compassion — leads her to make a fateful decision that will no doubt inform the ninth installment, due in 2019. “This is not going to end the way you think it will,” Luke, who is adamant that “it’s time for the Jedi to end,” says to Rey. Indeed, it does not.
Far be it from me to spoil the ride, other than to say the ride is well beyond amazing. Those few critics who are complaining about The Last Jedi should be exiled to Hoth. The Last Jedi deserves nothing but acclaim, and Johnson, an incredibly adept director who has an instinct for human pathos, deserves to be handed as many future Star Wars films as he can manage. The film is two and a half hours long, making it the longest installment of the series. And yet, you never want it to end.
Star Wars is not just ingrained in our culture, it is our culture. It targets our emotions and strikes with a deep, profound, lasting impact. It is our modern day myth — our Iliad, our Odyssey, our contribution to the never-ending stories that keep our lives full and our imaginations forever fueled. It’s a force to be reckoned with.
Star Wars is rated PG-13 for mild violence. Opens Friday, Dec. 15, nationwide, at area theaters. Visit Fandango.com.
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