There were a few minutes after I finished watching Star Wars: The Last Jedi where I had to keep reminding myself that there is at least one more movie coming in this saga that has occupied 40-some-odd years of my life. I promise to make this review spoiler free (though plot points are discussed), but the fact is that writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) has done a remarkable job making The Last Jedi a film that somehow both stands on its own and fits wonderfully into an ongoing journey, and still feels like its own conclusion of sorts. He fills in details that have remained mysteries since The Force Awakens, leaves a few still lingering, and, most surprisingly, lets us know that some of the things we thought were mysteries, aren’t actually. And in perhaps his boldest move of all, assures us that not everything has to be tied in with what has come before.
Still another remarkable achievement of The Last Jedi is that it earns nearly all of its emotional beats on its own merits, and not simply by tapping into the nostalgia well that runs deep in every Star Wars fan. Of course, reunions and revisiting old haunts play a part in this movie. I think the biggest chill I got was seeing Mark Hamill’s aged Luke Skywalker step back into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon for the first time in decades. You can look into his sunken, sad eyes and see a lifetime of memories.
But there are other moments that are born of this story. For reasons I’m not sure I can explain, I was especially moved by an almost throwaway moment near the end of the film, when Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) come face to face and we quickly realize they’ve never actually met before, despite having been such integral parts of the fight against the Empire 2.0 (known as the First Order). Their reputations precede them, so the meeting should be little more than a formality, but there’s a shared respect that passes between them in the moment that is palpable.
With a running time of two-and-a-half hours, The Last Jedi has room to stretch its storytelling legs and let all of its many main characters have more than just moments; each is allowed to enter their own adventures, and the result is a series of fulfilling story arcs that culminate in a film that doesn’t so much set up an Episode IX as it does open up the possibilities of where future Star Wars stories might take us. It’s no accident that the most promising new character Johnson introduces is a young gear head named Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), who, like Rey and former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), has been hearing stories of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, in her final film role), Han Solo, and their Rebellion for as long as they’ve been alive, using them as a source of inspiration to lead more heroic and bolder lives.
Johnson takes the time to answer questions about the past, in particular, the events that led Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the son of Han and Leia, to his place alongside the rotting corpse and Dark Side purveyor that is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Naturally, this is tied into why Luke went missing for decades and now hides out on a Porg-infested island in a corner of the remotest part of the universe.
Johnson allows us to believe that the Luke-Rey section of the film will mirror Luke’s training sessions with Yoda from the original trilogy, but immediately subverts those expectations by having the Jedi master do everything in his power to demystify the ancient religion specifically and the Force in general. He sees that Rey is so lost in the legends that she doesn’t grasp the reality of the pain such power can bring, especially when he tempts her with the Dark Side and she doesn’t seem the least bit hesitant to stroll right toward it.
One of the most interesting concepts introduced in The Last Jedi is the undeniable bond between Rey and Kylo Ren. They spend a great deal of the film conversing via a psychic link, and they each take turns attempting to convince the other to cross the line and join them on their side of the Force. Rey thinks she sees good in Kylo (given name: Ben Solo), while he’s sure he sees potential in her to turn dark, and it’s this push and pull that serves as the beating heart of the film, culminating in an epic and especially brutal, face-to-face battle in the Snoke’s chamber. Once again, Johnson wants us to think this is a replay of the Return of the Jedi clash that pitted Luke, Darth Vader, and the Emperor; but trust me, it is not.
There’s a nearly film-long space battle between First Order forces (again led by Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux) and the entire Resistance fleet, led by Leia. When she is injured at one point, the fleet is taken over by Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (an exceptional Laura Dern), who has no issues putting Poe in his place when he questions her intentions. There’s also a fun side story involving Finn and Rose as they must head to what is effectively a leisure planet to find a master codebreaker. Instead, they find a less-than-reputable DJ (a twitchy Benicio Del Toro) whose skills are only outmatched by his devotion to money. These sequences are superfluous on the surface, but it’s fun to see Johnson play with the Cantina concept by giving it a high-end slant.
Naturally, series favorites C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee), and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) are a part of the mix (not to mention John Williams’ ever-present, always-soaring score), as are new players like Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), but with the exception of a fantastic standoff between Finn and his former commander, Phasma, most of these characters are there more for the vibe than actually contributing to the bigger picture. Which is fine, because there are plenty of characters around to do just that. I loved seeing Poe Dameron get to show us that his judgment isn’t always the most sound. There’s an exchange between him and Hux at the very beginning of the film that might be the single funniest moment of any Star Wars film.
Another highlight is the ongoing tension between Rey and Luke, which is never completely resolved, and that actually helps her move forward, beyond her archaic notions about what the Jedi were and might be again. Even if Carrie Fisher hadn’t died a year ago, The Last Jedi in many ways feels like a tribute to Leia and her always undervalued strength. The character was the backbone of this series, and Johnson does a remarkable job placing her front and center when the Resistance needs her most. Knowing we don’t get her in the next movie is perhaps the toughest thing about seeing how phenomenal she is here.
After watching The Last Jedi, I’m particularly curious to see where Kylo Ren’s story takes us. There are so many potentially interesting places for it to go, and I remain impressed by Adam Driver’s layered take on this complex villain, who comes across as part emo boyfriend, part broken child. As I alluded to, the greatest thing Rian Johnson accomplishes here is giving us potential, giving us hope that what comes next (perhaps the last film in this saga) will be used as his blocks, building something great upon them. The final shot of the movie focuses on a small moment with unfathomable possibilities, and I can’t think of a greater tribute to the Star Wars universe.