Star Wars: The Last Jedi — opening this Friday (Dec. 15) at a cineplex that's hopefully not in a galaxy far, far away — picks up right where The Force Awakens left off, both thematically and narratively.
The 2015 movie, seventh in the Star Wars franchise, marked a return to form after a trilogy of prequels that — let's be generous here — divided opinion among fans of the saga. But The Force Awakens brought back the old Star Wars magic — part western, part caper , all space opera — thanks to some skillful directing, a cast that gelled and a generous borrowing of elements that made Episode IV the kind of cinematic landmark that's persisted in pop culture for 40 years.
The Last Jedi keeps the The Force Awakens' momentum going by taking a more confident step toward Star Wars' future. There are respectful nods to past episodes, but this new movie makes it clear from here on that this now the story of Kylo Ren, Finn and — especially and satisfyingly — Rey.
If you enjoyed The Force Awakens, you're going to really enjoy seeing the story advance in The Last Jedi. If you had complaints about the last film, you're at least likely to appreciate the action sequences in this installment, which feel more expertly choreographed. And if you're wondering what all this fuss over Star Wars is about... I... just... well, there's time to still binge-watch the other films before Friday, I guess.
For my part, I thought The Force Awakens was a solidly entertaining movie, if a little overly reliant on referencing older movies and characters from the superior New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, as if it wanted to make you forget all about those blasted prequels. Echoes of the earlier films remain:
Impetuous youth being trained in the ways of the Jedi by an occasionally exasperated mentor? Check.
This is Daisy Ridley's movie, thanks to the flintiness she brings to the part of Rey.
No, the real joy in The Last Jedi comes when we spend more time with the characters introduced in the last movie. And while there's a certain narrative familiarity when Poe Dameron disobeys an order or Finn goes on a fool's mission to save The Resistance fleet, the actors playing those roles (Oscar Issac and John Boyega, respectively) bring a flair and a charisma that puts a new spin on these adventures that strikes more of a chord with today's moviegoers.
Really, though, this is Daisy Ridley's movie, thanks to the flintiness she brings to the part of Rey. Her scenes trying to convince a uninterested Luke Skywalker to join the Resistance have a real edge to them, but that's nothing compared to her interactions with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Each of those crackle with an unpredictability that keeps you guessing as to who's going to emerge with the upper hand. I will not spoil the film by telling you who wins, or if anyone is relieved of their lightsaber-wielding hand in this installment.
That's not to say The Last Jedi fully casts aside the past. Instead, it places it where it belongs: in the past, making it clear that it's time for a new generation to take up the torch.
The Luke character has always been a difficult one for me, because he shifts so wildly from movie to movie. In A New Hope, he's the golden-haired adventurer. In Empire, he's a petulant hothead. (By the way, nothing reduces my daughter to fits of laughter like me screeching ,"That's not true! That's impossible!" in the style of Luke during The Empire's critical parenting reveal.) And in Return of the Jedi, he's not only a Jedi Master but capable of persuading Darth Vader, the galaxy's greatest monster, to get in touch with his inner Anakin. It takes most species entire centuries to evolve that much. However, in this movie, Luke finally makes sense to those of us who didn't buy his rapid mastery of his midichlorians as a young man.
In The Last Jedi, the Luke we see is a damaged man, forced by the presence of Rey to come to terms with what's happened to him since Return of the Jedi. Mark Hamill really brings out the emotion of these moments, adding a depth to The Last Jedi that you typically don't find in big-screen blockbusters.
The film's not flawless. Star Wars movies have typically split up our heroes to enjoy parallel adventures. There's four different plots to follow in The Last Jedi, and with the movie cutting back and forth to each, that's a lot of plates for director Rian Johnson to keep spinning.
The Last Jedi features arguably the best lightsaber battle ever committed to film.
The movie's also quite long. At 152 minutes, it's the longest Star Wars movie of all, topping Attack of the Clones by 10 minutes. (You generally do not want to be compared to Attack of the Clones.) For the most part, The Last Jedi keeps things zipping along, though there's a moment when you reach what feels like the climactic battle scene only to realize ... no, there's another one coming.
At least, these are really good battle scenes. I mean, if I could film space battles like Johnson can, I suppose I'd keep them coming until someone ordered me to stop. The Last Jedi also features arguably the best lightsaber battle ever committed to film, with fight choreography that feels like it came straight out of The Raid movies.
And it's going to satisfy a lot of fans. At the screening I attended, there was a young girl leaving the theater just in front of her me, her hair done up in two Princess Leia-esque buns. "That was awesome," she enthused to her mother in a gleeful stage whisper. The Last Jedi has it right: It's time for the younger generation to have its time.