Having seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi twice in rapid succession, I can safely say that much of it will most likely prove very divisive amongst the franchise’s hardcore fans. I can also safely say that one particular scene certainly won’t, the single greatest fight sequence in Star Wars history. It’s magnificently staged, expertly choreographed, and features a kill that’s simultaneously stunningly inventive and brutally simple. It’s one of many scenes where new writer-director Rian Johnson proves himself a more than worthy helmer of the middle chapter of this new saga and shows exactly why Disney has enough faith in Johnson to give him a Star Wars trilogy of his very own.
Picking up right where The Force Awakens left off, The Last Jedi has our heroes and villains scattered across the galaxy. Ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and hotshot pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) are engaged in a frantic evacuation led by General Leia (the late, great Carrie Fisher) as they’re chased from their base by General Hux’s (Domhnall Gleeson) fascistic First Order fleet. Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to return to the world from his self-imposed exile. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is still wrestling with his urge to turn to the light side as he attempts to impress his master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, very menacing in an expanded role).
If The Force Awakens was Han Solo, Rey, and Finn’s story, The Last Jedi is all about Luke. He’s crushed and conflicted, unwilling to rejoin the fight even as mortal danger envelopes the entirety of the Resistance. It gives Hamill a lot to play with, and he makes the most of the opportunity, and Ridley makes for a great foil. They both, along with the rest of the cast, also get to flex their comedic muscles amongst all the heavier stuff.
Avoiding too many comparisons with The Empire Strikes Back was a wise choice on Johnson’s part, and he does so by ignoring the ‘go darker for the middle chapter’ playbook. Yes, there is more immediate danger for the heroes, but The Last Jedi is also the funniest entry in the Star Wars canon, with the snivelling First Order commanders played more obviously for laughs and some absolutely inspired visual gags. It helps the hefty 150 minutes whizz by, a run time that the film absolutely needs to not only continue the established characters’ journeys but also introduce some memorable new faces.
Joining Finn on his now Rey-less adventures is Rose (relative newcomer Kelly Marie Tran), an empathetic yet quietly furious maintenance worker. The pair of them work together to seek out a codebreaker (Benicio del Toro) who could turn the tide of the war. Del Toro’s performance is initially disarmingly odd, but soon grows on you, and Johnson uses his and Tran’s characters to make some cursory, but still exciting, points about class disparity and the commodification of war as a business.
Elsewhere, Laura Dern is slightly underserved as Vice Admiral Holto, but she gets the most jaw-dropping single moment in a film laden with stunning visuals. For all that there are some overly silly scenes and missteps in The Last Jedi, it also contains the four most cathartic scenes you’ll see at the cinema this year, every strand of the story getting its own breathtaking highlight. Like The Force Awakens, it’s non-stop entertainment. Yet, it’s also a whole lot stranger than its predecessor, and, in this uniqueness, feels closer in spirit to the idiosyncratic originals, especially as it introduces a plethora of bizarre fantasy creatures.
Johnson is unafraid to break from tradition though, and employs storytelling techniques that Star Wars has never attempted before. Some of these choices, particularly those used in the development of the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren, could have ended up as downright embarrassing, but superb editing, writing, and acting keep them compelling. Stark, intimate close-ups lend a humanity that most action and sci-fi epics lack, and it’s this exact humanity that elevates this new Star Wars trilogy so far above its competing franchises, even the mighty MCU. The stakes here are high, the dangers feel real (thanks in no small part to the continued commitment to practical effects), and Kylo Ren remains blockbuster cinema’s most interesting and sympathetic villain.
Johnson has stated plenty of times that Lucasfilm really let him tell his own story with The Last Jedi without having to pay much heed to franchise lore, and it shows. Very little here really conforms to expectations, and though that may frustrate some fans, studio filmmaking with this much power to surprise is utterly thrilling to see. It’s absurdly exciting, the action is top-notch, and the Porgs are just about the most adorably wonderful fake critters to ever hit the screen.