The Last Jedi opens with one of the funniest bits I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars film and then mostly keeps that lightness of spirit throughout. That's not unwise for a movie crammed with confrontations and near escapes and betrayals and counter-betrayals and speeches and mechanical minutiae and climaxes and pseudo-climaxes — a movie in which I’m pretty sure we see, at different points, no fewer than three different characters in comas. Writer-director Rian Johnson has certainly made the busiest Star Wars film of them all, but he keeps it from becoming a slog by infusing it with humor, verve and visual charm.
As with quite a few of these movies, The Last Jedi starts in mid-escape and then keeps the pressure on. Huddled in a few spaceships, the Resistance led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher) finds itself on the verge of capture or destruction by the First Order, that Galactic Empire tribute band, again and again over the course of the film, and what saves them each time is some creative, kamikaze act of bravery. (If there's one key theme that runs through this movie, it's that of sacrifice.) Among the desperate are our returning heroes, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and recovering ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), as well as new additions Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a maintenance worker whose wide-eyed dedication to the Resistance has only been strengthened by the death of her sister during a bombing run, and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), who assumes power at a moment of crisis and is promptly faced with doubting subordinates.
Back among the baddies, concave-faced Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) first harangues General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) for failing to finish off the Resistance and then chastises his impulsive Dark Side protégé Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) for his failure to kill young Jedi-to-be Rey (Daisy Ridley). “Alas, you’re no Vader,” Snoke snarls. “You’re just a child in a mask” — whereupon the younger man petulantly yanks off that mask and smashes it. It's refreshing to see these villains not as monolithic, sneering, all-powerful beings, but as essentially dumb, angry kids, somewhat out of their element: Hux is ambitious and overconfident, Kylo is volatile and conflicted; they piss each other off as much as they piss off the good guys. That’s an inspired, maybe even courageous bit of character development, because it adds interest, texture and even some humor to their scenes while sacrificing a degree of menace and urgency. (These imperial buffoons do a lot of damage, but it’s hard to feel scared of them.)
Meanwhile, on distant Ahch-To Island, eager apprentice Rey tries to convince an embittered Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to return to the fight and teach her the ways of the Force. Still scarred from his failed attempt to train a new generation of Jedi — an endeavor that effectively birthed noted psychopath Kylo Ren — Luke is now convinced that the ancient order needs to end. He’s even begun to question whether the Jedi were a force for good to begin with. But my early hope that Johnson might give us a deconstruction of the Jedi's role as quasi-benign enforcers of state power was for naught; Luke’s main bone of contention with Jedi history appears to be that everything they did wound up in failure, which, well, he’s got a point.
As The Force Awakens did with Star Wars, The Last Jedi borrows the rough template of The Empire Strikes Back — proto-Jedi coaxes reluctant master out of retirement and faces his/her greatest fears, while their friends face deadly scrapes elsewhere. But whereas J.J. Abrams seemed content to remix the earlier film, Johnson infuses much of The Last Jedi with his own sensibility. He has more visual style: He shoots space battles with a mixture of freewheeling fluidity and hushed grandeur, and lightsaber battles with both hothouse fervor and graphical mischief; one big fight is filmed against a background so deliriously red you might wonder if you’ve accidentally stepped into an MGM musical or a Michael Powell fever dream.
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Not unlike James Cameron, Johnson also appears to have an engineer’s mind for story and scene construction, as well as for what-if invention. What would happen if you — and here's where some mild spoilers start, fanboys — drove a giant ship at hyper-speed straight into an imperial armada? How do tracking devices on star destroyers actually work? If your master can read your mind, how would you conspire against him? That kind of intricately imagined detail adds a pleasing sturdiness to many scenes; they seem to hold to the laws of a real universe as opposed to the demands of blockbuster thermodynamics.
There’s proportionality to the film’s thematic arc, as well: “When I saw you,” Snoke tells Kylo Ren, “I saw what all masters hope to see — raw, untamed power.” That quote is reflected later, when someone else (I won’t say who!) remarks of Rey, “We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.” The bad guys shape and exploit, the good guys grow and set free. Elements like these echo throughout, lending the whole conceptual elegance. You get the sense that it's all been sincerely thought through, and not cynically slapped together.
A good thing, too, because the story itself, as jam-packed as it is, doesn’t always amount to all that much. Johnson excels at coming up with lots of little things to keep us interested — a plan to access a hyperdrive here, a minor space mutiny there. But the broad, melodramatic passions that originally fueled the Star Wars movies and helped win them so many fans don’t register quite as strongly as they did decades ago. But that was a different time and those were basic, elemental desires — the thwarted passion of lovers, the search to reclaim a child, to redeem a parent. And it's also true that the saga occasionally overdid it; if George Lucas was guilty of one thing with the prequels, it’s that he sometimes privileged myth over entertainment.
Johnson attempts to bring balance to the equation, but has he overcorrected? Put it another way: Should I have felt more during The Last Jedi? Maybe not. Maybe it’s the very briskness of his approach that keeps the heavier emotions at bay. The Last Jedi is a better film than The Force Awakens — it’s faster, funnier and has both more sweep and more originality — but I still didn’t find any moments here as hauntingly moving as that earlier film’s first flight of the Millennium Falcon or the death of Han Solo. The good news is that Johnson doesn’t really need them. The Last Jedi is the most entertaining Star Wars movie in many a moon, and that’s more than enough.