As satisfying as The Force Awakens was, as the dust settled, it became clear than J.J. Abrams had basically remixed A New Hope for a new generation without bringing new ideas to the fore (heck, Abrams went for yet another Death Star, the most cumbersome of weapons). Considering this development, concerns over The Last Jedi being another Empire Strikes Back weren’t unfounded.
Enter Rian Johnson. The writer/director behind the brainy indies Brick, Looper and The Brothers Bloom explores corners of the Star Wars universe never seen before on screen, without breaking the mold. Chief among them, a scenario beyond the battle between good and evil that has characterized the saga. Johnson also takes full advantage of the visual possibilities and deliver the most unique-looking episode of the franchise, without becoming a CGI hodgepodge like the prequels.
I won’t be spoiling the plot here. Suffice to say, the Resistance is in shambles. Even without a massive, impractical weapon able to destroy planets, the strength of the Empire is overwhelming. There is also conflict within each side. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has fallen out of favor with Supreme Leader Snoke, following his defeat at hands of Rey (Daisy Ridley). Among the rebels, Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) can’t agree over the best way to avoid annihilation, with General Hux (Domhall Gleeson) breathing down their necks.
Meanwhile, Rey struggles to get Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to rejoin the fray. The Jedi knight is not over the events that led to Kylo Ren switching teams and is not particularly inclined to go through the same motions with another gifted, unruly student.
This is just the setup. Each strain of Episode VIII unfolds in compelling ways, and converges in an spectacular third act.
Unlike previous episodes, The Last Jedi relies heavily on the performers and boy, do they deliver. Maybe it’s because of the goodwill generated by her untimely demise, but Carrie Fisher is phenomenal as Leia: The leader of the Resistance is burdened by casualties but her resolve is unshakeable. Mark Hamill is asked to bridge his brash younger self with a cautious, misanthropic present and pulls it off. Of the new generation, Adam Driver is the MVP: More comfortable in Kylo Ren’s skin, Driver makes the character’s tortuous journey believable, even relatable.
The movie goes out of its way to present Rey and Kylo as sides of the same coin. They may be in opposite corners, but they recognize in each other a kindred spirit, a connection that pays off tenfold. There are several of these dichotomies peppered through the film, which serve to explore the nature of power, the darkness inside all of us and the generational divide.
The Last Jedi has a conflicted relationship with the past, both at internal and meta level. There is a desire to break with it, but at the same time, an acknowledgement of its tremendous power. The tension that comes from these opposing forces serves the movie well. Whatever side you stand, you can see the appeal of the other.
The quality of the space battles has improved exponentially. Rian Johnson -who has already been tapped for a new trilogy set in the Star Wars universe- brings new elements to skirmishes between rebels and the Empire. The opening dogfight is one for the ages.
Overall, this is a profoundly satisfying episode without apparent weak spots (it’s a notch disjointed, but nothing unbearable): You’ll laugh, cry and be in awe, which is more you can say of any movie out this decade. There is a question The Last Jedi presents that has escaped every other Star Wars installment: Who benefits from the conflict between the Empire and the Resistance? The answer is as pedestrian as is topical, and has the potential to blow the franchise wide open. Four out of five prairie dogs.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens Friday the 15th. Advanced screenings Thursday night.