THE greatest Jedi mind trick writer-director Rian Johnson employs in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is to engage in a brilliant act of subversion. Since the franchise debuted in 1977, Star Wars has always played well inside the lines, never really straying from the things that define it. Those lines were drawn in the Tatooine sand by Episodes IV to VI. The much-maligned prequel trilogy (Episodes I to III) played well, well within those lines.
When directed J.J. Abrams restarted the series with 2015’s “Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens,” he basically lensflared everything within the lines. But Johnson simply decided he was going to do things that would surprise Star Wars fans. From script to film, Johnson knocks the space socks off audience members by staying two steps ahead of expectations, making “The Last Jedi” the most surprising, unpredictable film in the series.
He starts off by continuing from the exact moment the previous Episode ended—that’s never been done before either. Then he fills two-and-a-half hours with all the Star Wars stuff he could find to great effect.
The Resistance is on the run, with General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) trying to stay ahead of the murderous First Order led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trying to convince Luke Skywalker (grim Mark Hamill) to train her while Rey has some unfinished business with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Finn (John Boyega) wakes up. To say more about the plot would really give away too much but suffice to say Johnson finds something for everybody to do, include two different battles, a casino planet caper, several surprising character deaths and a pulse-pounding conclusion that changes the Star Wars landscape forever. There’s a great reappearance here, too, by a character we haven’t seen for a while, and it isn’t Luke.
Those character deaths stick, too. Part of what makes “The Last Jedi” work is a kind of death poker Johnson plays, with viewers thinking, okay, that character’s dead. Oh, wait, nope. And so on. The same works for the characters who don’t die. Johnson really takes the gloves off in this area.
Away from all the combat and chases, “The Last Jedi’s” most interesting aspect involves the one-on-one relationship between certain characters. The Rey-Luke relationship showcases this the best, but this is also true of Rey and Kylo, and hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and new character Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).
While Ridley remains something of an enigma, Driver makes Kylo Ren a really complex piece of work. Viewers will be asking, what exactly is his deal? The same is true for Luke, and Hamill gets to fill in those lost years with a powerful performance. Fisher puts in a wry, nuanced turn in her last appearance. Boyega brings a frenzied energy to his returned Finn.
We’ve already seen what happens when a Star Wars film goes really, really dark—the excellent 2016 “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” For all the talk of it being dark, the 1980 installment “Star Wars: Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back” didn’t become the greatest Star Wars film by just being dark. It became the greatest by its deft balance of dark and light.
Some obvious callbacks to “Empire” aside, “The Last Jedi” manages the same feat. The grittier developments are balanced by the mythology expansion and character development. Johnson, who famously loved the original trilogy as a child, even manages to take the time and savor the glorious visuals of the franchise in some scenes. There’s a palpable sense of his joy and creativity at work here. There’s also a meaningful shift here from the icons of the original trilogy to the icons of this new, ongoing trilogy.
“The Last Jedi” succeeds because it challenges what audiences think a Star Wars film should be but still retaining the wonder of it all. Ultimately, the packed “The Last Jedi” slots in as the third best Star Wars film—“Empire” remains the best because it is the perfect Star Wars film in every way and you cannot get more iconic than “A New Hope.” It’s a tour de force for Johnson and while he won’t be directing the next Episode (that’ll be Abrams), fans can take comfort in the fact that Johnson will essentially be creating the new trilogy that’s just been announced.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is, in the end, really about the nature of legends and the power of myth. And, as this film has shown, you don’t get any bigger in the modern myth-making business than Star Wars.
Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is now showing in cinemas.