Review: 'Last Jedi' is a fresh, exhilarating new journey for 'Star Wars' fans
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By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer
After the energetic rehashing of The Force Awakens, Star Wars: The Last Jedi stakes out thrilling new territory in the mythology, emerging as one of the franchise's best.
As the middle chapter of a trilogy, The Last Jedi is in a precarious position: It must tell a complete story, but still leave the audience wanting more. It must have an arc, but leave the major resolutions for the next chapter. The Empire Strikes Back walked that line beautifully, but the less said about Attack of the Clones, the better.
The Last Jedi and its director, Rian Johnson, also strike the perfect balance with humor, pathos and adventure, gracefully echoing what has come before while charting its own path. It's a spectacular accomplishment, the very essence of a great popcorn film.
As fun as I thought The Force Awakens was, there's no denying it purposefully hit the same story points as the original Star Wars, even occasionally crossing the line between faithful homage and gimmicky remake. The Last Jedi avoids that with style and wit and passion and, yes, grandeur.
The film picks up shortly after the conclusion of The Force Awakens: Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a far-off planet, hoping to be trained in the ways of the Force. Hot-shot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) drives the straggling Rebel Alliance in battle against the evil First Order, led by the triumvirate of bad-seed Solo/Skywalker spawn Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the fantastically craven General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and the disfigured embodiment of evil, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, via motion-capture). And former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) is still recovering from wounds he suffered in battle with Kylo Ren.
That's what you already know. I'll tread lightly from here to avoid spoilers.
Rey finds that Luke is no Yoda and has absolutely no desire to train her. Eventually — painfully — she uncovers the reason why, which is tied up with why Kylo Ren broke bad, and it's not solely Luke telling her the story. She and Kylo develop a psychic bond that gives her hope that she can reclaim him for the Light, much as Luke did with Darth Vader.
Meanwhile, Poe squabbles with General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) about the best course of action against the First Order, whose massive weapons of war dwarf anything the Resistance can muster. After a dazzling but devastating opening battle, the stakes are incredibly high, leading to the film's third major plotline — Finn and plucky engineer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) come up with a plan that would give the Resistance some hope in escaping the First Order. That involves them jetting off to a hoity-toity resort planet, where they encounter a delightfully shifty Benicio del Toro.
Johnson has a fantastic grasp on combining the major thrills we expect with some deeply felt character moments: Luke's story arc is meaty, and Hamill knocks it out of the park. Ridley's Rey is even better than she was in Force Awakens, the living embodiment of hope. Isaac's Poe is smirky and engaging, but he's thankfully not always right. Dern and Tran both play wonderfully satisfying new characters who add to the mythos. Driver's soulful performance is hypnotic and humanizes the villain beautifully. And Fisher ... Sigh. Dammit, I miss her so much. She's fantastic here, and it's physically painful to realize she won't be in the final chapter.
Moving on. The look of the film is stunning, as well. From Luke's isolated island hideaway to Snoke's crimson-red throne room to the extraordinary new planets we visit, Johnson marries CGI and practical effects marvelously, and he brings new life as well to the battle sequences — both those in space and in some gripping lightsaber duels that are the best of the franchise.
There's some circularness to the plot — not as in Johnson's previous film Looper, but in the repetitiveness of the struggle to destroy one big weapon after another. And Finn and Rose's journey does feel a bit like a MacGuffin that leads nowhere. Those are the only major flaws, though.
It all culminates in a cross-cutting finale that feels familiar but has incredibly high stakes. You might have noticed that I've used the word "hope" a few times in this review; that echoes the film's own use of the concept. It may be down to a flicker here — a feeling familiar to the audience, perhaps — but it still lives, though not without struggle and sacrifice. But it ultimately has to survive an idea Kylo Ren expresses about destroying everything that has come before, with both the textual and metatextual meanings that implies. Fortunately, Johnson finds a perfect balance that propels the trilogy to the next, conclusive chapter. I just can't wait.