How much you enjoy “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” may hinge on how seriously you take this franchise, and that’s good news for those of us who are casual users and not religious adherents. Writer-director Rian Johnson steps into this ongoing saga with an eye seemingly more aimed at the “Flash Gordon” serials that originally inspired George Lucas than at the terminal self-seriousness that so many fans inflict upon the material.
If having pure fun at a “Star Wars” movie is wrong, I don’t want to be right. So for me, “The Last Jedi” falls right behind “The Empire Strikes Back” and maybe the original film in providing the thrills and the heartbreak, the heroism and villainy, and the romance and betrayal that makes these films such a treat even for those of us who can’t name all the planets or the alien species or even the Empire’s flunkies. (Sorry, the First Order’s flunkies.) And make no mistake: This is an entertaining chapter, but it also features loss and sacrifice and devastating consequences.
Johnson skillfully balances quite a few characters, all operating at various points of the universe, and he and editor Bob Ducsay (“San Andreas”) weave between them without losing the thread. At 150 minutes — the longest “Star Wars” movie yet — the pace never drags, but even all that real estate doesn’t allow for the inclusion of all the characters we’ve come to know by this point. (Make sure not to blink, fans of Lupita Nyong’o‘s Maz Kanata.)
We pick up where “The Force Awakens” finished, with Rey (Daisy Ridley), Chewbacca (now performed by Joonas Suotamo) and R2D2 finding Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in self-imposed exile. Rey wants to be trained in the ways of the Jedi, but after Luke’s experiences in trying to be a master to Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), he would prefer to leave his past behind him.
Meanwhile, the First Order, under the command of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), has tracked down the last remaining rebel base, but General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) aren’t giving up without a fight. Part of battling the First Order’s attack relies upon a secret mission being undertaken by reformed stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and maintenance worker Rose (series newcomer Kelly Marie Tran). And while Rey works to get Luke to mentor her progress, she finds herself surprisingly linked to someone else, in a mental and perhaps spiritual bond that could change the very nature of the conflict.
At one point, Kylo yells, “Forget the Jedi! Forget the Sith! Forget the First Order!” in the hopes of forging something entirely new, and while it’s tempting to think that the “Star Wars” films could ever actually do such a thing, Johnson at least succeeds at making the personal stakes matter as much as the intergalactic ones do. And while a few scenes may ring familiar — instead of Luke seeking training from Yoda, Rey seeks it from Luke; instead of a scuzzy cantina, Finn and Rose visit a swanky, Monte-Carlo-in-outer-space casino — the accusations of “The Force Awakens” being a redo of the original “Star Wars” (yes, yes, “A New Hope,” whatever) can’t be leveled here.
The cast is certainly game, from the veterans to additions like Laura Dern, but it’s very often Fisher’s show, and not merely for the sentimental baggage we can’t help bringing with us into the theater. Leia has rarely gotten this much to do in these movies, and here she’s not only capable of extraordinary feats (the Force is strong with this one) but she’s also as wry as we knew the actress to be off-camera.
If there’s a bum note here, it’s the introduction of Rose: it’s certainly praiseworthy for the Skywalker saga to include such a prominent Asian character — particularly since Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” was such a key influence — but she’s shamelessly a fan avatar. Her introductory scene involves her getting all gushy over meeting Finn for the first time (although she promptly tases him when she realizes he’s trying to hijack an escape pod), and later, the script uses her mainly as a plot convenience. If she sticks around, here’s hoping she’s given some more layers.
Visually, “The Last Jedi” is a feast. There’s a reason why the color red is so prominently featured in the posters, from the faceless Spanish Inquisition-esque guards for Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) to a planet where a layer of snow covers a surface of crimson salt, leading to a spectacular climactic ground battle. We’re also introduced to a fascinating menagerie of new creatures, including premature fan favorites, the Porgs. In his best previous films, Johnson has demonstrated an ability never to let his art get in the way of his genre pleasures, and once again he’s crafted a good-looking movie that ultimately serves both the characters and the sensations.
(Not that there aren’t ideas to be found here — that casino is loaded with people who got rich off the arms trade, and Finn is taken aback to discover that the same merchants who sell TIE fighters to the First Order are also profiting off X-wings for the rebels. In war, no one’s hands are clean.)
This is button-pushing at its finest, the kind of manipulation so skillful that you don’t even mind being manipulated. As “Star Wars” changes hands from the old guard to the new, the series remains the gold standard of mass-market popcorn thrills.
This review originally published on Dec. 12.