I’ve been a Rian Johnson fan ever since I saw his wildly original debut film Brick. I was legitimately excited to hear he was writing and directing Star Wars: The Last Jedi. After J.J. Abrams had gotten basic storytelling values back into the series with The Force Awakens, I felt like the filmmaker who did science fiction so assuredly in Looper could take the whole saga in a bold new direction. That’s not what happens in The Last Jedi. Instead, Johnson squishes himself into the broad outlines of Star Wars fans’ expectations. We don’t get the full Johnson here, and I’m sorrier about the fact than I am about my wordplay. Still, the movie rattles along more than efficiently enough to satisfy fans of the saga, so I’ll probably be in the minority with my issues and my double entendres.
Picking up the story, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has gone on a mission to coax Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) back to the Resistance, only to find the legendary warrior is now an embittered hermit who’s determined that the Jedi religion will die with him. Meanwhile, the Resistance itself is in tatters once again after an attack by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) leaves General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) incapacitated, so Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a healed-up Finn (John Boyega), and a mechanic named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) hatch a half-baked plan to save the last of the good guys by sneaking aboard the Imperial destroyer that’s chasing them and sabotaging the ship’s tracker.
The preceding summary only begins to cover the amount of plot in these 150 minutes, with internal mutinies in both the Empire and the Resistance, not to mention Rey flitting off with the idea that she can reclaim Ren from the dark side. With all this going on, Johnson can’t always keep careful track of the characters as they’re flung to far corners of the galaxy. He does get better use out of Driver in this film, partly by having Kylo smash his mask in a fit of rage early on so we can spend the rest of the story watching the conflicting emotions on the actor’s face. Even so, the whole subplot where Kylo and Rey can mysteriously communicate with each other across the galaxy doesn’t pay off as it should. He writes rewarding supporting turns for Benicio del Toro as a mercenary hacker who’s unabashedly out for himself and a purple-haired Laura Dern as the Resistance’s new leader, showing off an elegant, feminine style of leadership that loses nothing in authority. Johnson’s not afraid to get dopey with the comic relief, as in Luke’s first training session with Rey or an early scene when Poe calls General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and resorts to juvenile tactics to try to buy time for the insurgents. The script, unfortunately, gets marred by a motif where different characters refer to the “spark of hope” behind the resistance, which showcases a soggy side of Johnson’s writing that we haven’t seen.
He makes up for it with the amount of cool stuff he puts on the screen. The extraterrestrial flora and fauna include the porgs, nesting creatures that look like winged guinea pigs (and which Chewbacca finds tasty when they’re roasted on a spit). The undisputed visual highlight here is the mineral planet of Crait, inhabited by fox-like animals with crystals growing in their fur. The climactic battle takes place here, with every footstep and laser blast kicking up red salt underneath the white surface, making the sequence beautiful as well as dramatic. That’s one of the movie’s handful of legitimate “whoa” moments, with another one coming when Johnson shows us what happens when a spaceship jumps to light speed with something in the way.
As you might expect, there’s quite a lot about the movie that I can’t discuss here without giving away too much of the plot, but I will say that The Force Awakens didn’t get enough credit for how gracefully it was able to include characters from the original trilogy while handing off the story to a set of new characters. The Last Jedi continues that transition in a way that will gratify those who were around for the beginning of the series. In other words, let the space exploration continue.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Rated PG-13.