One of the general gripes about The Force Awakens, an otherwise rousing return to the Star Wars franchise, was that it hewed too closely to the plot structure of 1977’s A New Hope, saddling its vivid new characters with an all-too-familiar storyline.
I’m happy to report that The Last Jedi, meanwhile, takes things in an entirely new direction. This isn’t The Empire Strikes Back and it doesn’t try to be, and manages to deliver some genuinely surprising revelations and developments along the way.
This movie also manages to give us a surprisingly deep meditation on the nature of good and evil and the balance of both within. That was a primary theme of the first six films in the franchise – the arc of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader – but The Last Jedi applies that to almost all of the main characters: Rey, Kylo Ren, even Luke Skywalker and others are all shaded with different levels of grey, and are all the more interesting because of it.
It’s also the most militaristic-minded of all the films in the franchise. Despite ‘War’ being right there in the title, that nature of the film is often overlooked or relegated to action scenes. Not so here, where battle strategy and planning and power moves on both sides are primary driving forces of the plot.
Praise aside, The Last Jedi ain’t perfect: the first half of the film – 75 minutes of this 150-minute feature, the longest in the franchise – is so drawn-out that you begin to wonder if we’ll ever get anywhere.
It involves only two primary plot points: Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke (Mark Hamill) on Ahch-To, not (exactly) doing the usual Yoda-on-Dagobah training stuff, and the slowest-moving chase sequence you’ll ever see, as the last remnants of the Resistance forces try to outrun the First Order.
Out in space, where most of the film takes place, Resistance leaders including Leia (Carrie Fisher), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) try and position their ships just far enough ahead of First Order forces overseen by Snoke (Andy Serkis) Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).
The Resistance ships need to be far enough from the First Order to avoid engaging TIE Fighters, but not too far that they’ll burn all their fuel. The First Order, meanwhile, sits back and waits for that fuel to burn. For half of the movie. The only diversion is when Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) take a trip to Canto Bight, a ritzy upscale version of the Mos Eisley cantina to recruit a hacker named DJ (Benicio Del Toro).
It seems uneventful, but it’s not exactly unengaging: kudos to director Rian Johnson for carefully mapping this out so that we always understand what’s going on and why. Few other movies would be able to hold onto viewers during this kind of stalemate, but we’re carefully awaiting each side’s next move. Even if it takes awhile to get there.
But when the second half of the film rolls around and all of the storylines start to come together, well, it’s then that The Last Jedi really starts to shine. A wowzer of a finale on the salt-covered planet Crait serves as both a visual and functional update to the memorable opening sequence on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.
Among the human characters here, Luke, Rey, and Kylo are the big standouts with the memorable moments. But it’s nice to see Oscar Isaac’s Poe, shorthrifted in the previous movie, with a nice character arc here. And Laura Dern’s Holdo is surprisingly well-rounded for a character new to the franchise.
It’s the robot and alien characters that threaten to steal the film away from the humans, but while BB-8 and Chewie get a lot of play, C-3PO and R2D2 don’t have much to do. All the other species – porgs and Caretakers on Ahch-To, crystal fox-like creatures on Crait, and all manner of oddball aliens on Canto Bight – light up the screen whenever around, which is frequently.
And while many of the creatures are created via CGI, I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of practical effects work on display. Jedi generally utilizes character effects better than its predecessor: Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), a sore spot in The Force Awakens, is only briefly glimpsed via hologram, and Snoke is effectively realized via motion capture by Serkis, though it feels like on odd decision not to create this character with makeup.
I caught The Last Jedi back-to-back with The Force Awakens on the big screen, and while both films are cut from the same cloth as far as general quality and world-building are concerned, what struck me most was the structure of the two movies.
The Force Awakens has a dynamite first act, or even first two acts, establishing all the new characters and their world, but interest wanes as the formulaic plot begins to resolve itself. The Last Jedi, meanwhile, begins somewhat ponderously but an odd thing happened around the midpoint: I had no idea where this was going. That makes this sequel a notch better than its predecessor in my book.