When The Force Awakens hit theaters just two years ago, fans everywhere were delighted – as the first line stated, “This will begin to make things right.” Moving past the Skywalker legend into a new generation of heroes (while also showcasing those faces we knew and loved), the movie kicked off the next era of Star Wars in the right way.
Now, under writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper), Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, has hit theaters, and I am happy to say that the movie pushes the entire saga forward, albeit in unexpected and possibly controversial ways.
Many will look at The Last Jedi and make immediate comparisons to The Empire Strikes Back. In addition to being the middle installment of its trilogy, both movies are built around a separate plotline for each our heroes. After an exciting opening sequence – one of the best space battles in the Star Wars saga yet – we pick up where we left off with Rey (Daisy Ridley), seeking the trainings of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to learn what she can of the Force and bring hope to the fledgling Resistance. Finn (John Boyega), the Stormtrooper gone rogue, is continuing to deal with the stress of his choices, and finds himself working alongside a young Resistance worker, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) gets the most expanded arc, as he learns to deal with the stresses of his higher ranking in the war, and tries to match his hot headed nature with the calmness needed for leadership.
The growth of the story goes beyond just our heroes, however, as the emboldened First Order continues to reign havoc across the galaxy. This seems to cut to the heart of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), seemingly still in chaos after completely turning to the Dark Side – and his fellow leaders, the by-the-book General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, in a motion-capture role).
The script by Johnson is interesting in how the movie – in tune with its focus on a balance of light and dark – manages to be both the most intimate Star Wars film to date, while also pushing the boundaries of what Star Wars is and can be. It’s action packed, it’s filled with humor, but there is also a strong longing in the film – something very human for a series which has always been so bombastic and (although the word is overused now) epic. There are events and sequences which fans will debate for ages to come – and based on the discourse I’ve seen online so far, has been surprisingly derisive for a movie so critically acclaimed.
Performances are, across the board, strong, with our new heroes maturing into their roles, with Driver and Ridley carrying the drama and pathos. The real heart of the movie, however, is Mark Hamill. Having grown long beyond the farm boy hero of the Original Trilogy, this era’s Luke Skywalker has grown more weary of the world around him, yet carries an undeniable peace. His performance is the true revelation of the movie, and considering how little we’ve seen him act on the big screen since Return of the Jedi, perhaps the biggest surprise.
John Williams again provides a brilliant score, with the new themes created for The Force Awakens returning alongside classic motifs, and the visuals are stunning, with Johnson’s longtime cinematographer Steve Yedlin bringing new planets, like the casino planet of Canto Blight and the salt mine planet of Crait, to brilliant life.
When the new Star Wars Saga began with The Force Awakens, many wondered how much of the series would be a retread, but with The Last Jedi, it can be seen how much life, originality and growth can come from a franchise in its fifth decade. As Luke tells Rey – “This is not going to go the way you think.” Time will tell where the film lands on the all-time rankings, but in the end, the Saga continues with greatness.