The Star Wars film universe is now three movies deep into its third act — after the original trilogy and the trio of much-maligned prequels — and it’s already clear that this Disney-owned rebirth shows no sign of stopping. Stand-alone films like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story will be the main way forward with both young Han Solo and Obi-Wan Kenobi getting their own upcoming features, but the true heart of the franchise sits in the continuing tale of characters and themes we first met decades ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi hits theaters this weekend, and like 2015’s The Force Awakens, it’s focused as much on building these new characters as it is on saying goodbye to old ones. (Don’t worry — there are no spoilers as to the latter below.)
We open on the First Order’s fleet approaching a rebel base intending to destroy it and everyone within. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) looks on with glee as the destruction begins, but evacuees — including General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) — escape the surface and prepare to jump to safety. The ensuing battle sees pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) risk lives to take out a devastating weapon, and after a quick demotion for his actions the surviving rebels make their light-speed jump. Impossibly, though, the First Order tracks them and begins picking off the already sparse rebel ships. Tough decisions are made, and desperate plans are put into motion as doom draws closer.
Elsewhere on a small island on a forgotten planet, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is hoping to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to rejoin the rebels and help kickstart the fight in their favor. His disinterest is palpable, but Rey’s insistence leads him to offer some training and concede the dark truths of what transpired between him and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) years prior. Rey’s training sees her distracted by two things — brief “windows” opening between she and Ren that allows them to see and talk to each other, and a pull towards darkness emanating from beneath the island.
The Last Jedi splits its attentions between these two threads, and while one half delivers spectacularly with heart, thrills, and some truly beautiful story beats… the other replaces Rey, Ren, and Luke with a disappointing series of empty action, pointless subplots, and rough dialogue.
Happily, what works does so with real wonder and awe as Rey discovers truths about both herself and Luke that alter viewers’ perceptions of their heroes in bold and exciting ways. The two also share some of the film’s sweetest and funniest laughs as writer/director Rian Johnson‘s (Looper) script gives them smartly humorous interactions that they bring warmly to life. The island is a gorgeous locale offering beauty and isolation in equal measure, and its non-human populace is equally engaging with carp-like nuns, a bipedal walrus that Luke lactates for a liquid breakfast — yes, you read that right — and a porg flock that never grows as annoying as their already ubiquitous pop culture presence might have you fearing.
Time spent here works well to build characters and themes, and both are strengthened even further in scenes pairing Rey and Ren. Their brief conversations come as she learns that the Force is “the tension, the balance, that binds the universe together” as opposed to a simple breakdown between good and evil, and these threads weave together to form doubts about motivations and the inevitability of character arcs. Ridley and Driver are the beating heart of the film with performances that take hold of viewers’ attention and emotions, and it’s their story-lines that captivate up through and beyond the film’s stunning high point involving torture, anguish, and a mesmerizing fight set-piece.
Far less successful is the time spent with the rebels on the run from Hux and the First Order. Not only is it centered on the slowest space chase in sci-fi history, but subplots featuring Poe, Finn (John Boyega), and Rose (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) go absolutely nowhere. Sure we get introduced to DJ (Benicio Del Toro) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), but it’s with actions that fail to connect either through sheer stupidity or the simple truth that their absence wouldn’t change the story in the slightest. They’re obvious filler, and as is the Disney way (witness their Marvel films) the studio’s never met a character that couldn’t be jammed into a movie for no reason other than the misguided belief that more is better. Finn and Rose’s adventure in particular offers some additional action beats and a visit to a casino — think the Mos Eisley Cantina scene from Star Wars, but for the 1% — but it is meaningless noise.
The film is a series of points both high and low, and it’s nowhere more clear than in the humor. Several beats work well to bring a smile, but others fall tone deaf to the carnage and pain surrounding them. From the very beginning Hux’s scenes are made to feel like lost reels from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, and poor Boyega can’t catch a break as Finn is saddled with lame one-liners at every turn. Some oddly unintelligent choices are made too, often at life-threatening times, and what should be moments of real drama instead leave viewers shaking their heads. One scene late in the film deserves the same scorn heaped upon Charlize Theron’s doomed run from a falling spaceship in Prometheus. Good gravy is it ridiculous.
Still, while there’s plenty that disappoints there’s also much to appreciate. As mentioned above, every scene featuring Rey and Ren — both apart and together, but especially together — is electric with energy, tension, and excitement. Luke is nearly as compelling, and Hamill fully embraces his return. As with The Force Awakens, Leia isn’t given all that much to do here, but Fisher’s passing unavoidably adds real weight to her every moment shared with new characters, old characters, and viewers themselves. Johnson and company also craft thrilling action beats throughout, and even when they stumble in their narrative power they still deliver adrenaline rushes and excitement.
The Last Jedi continues what Star Wars began and The Force Awakens magnified. It’s a simple story, stretched to lengths but populated with character, beauty, action, and cheese. It may take place in a galaxy far, far away, but once again the message hits home. Don’t fight what you hate, save what you love. To that end there’s more than enough to love here.