Gadgets and props define so much of the Star Wars galaxy. Longtime fans cannot think of Vader without his helmet, Luke without his lightsaber, or Han without his vest. Rian Johnson, the writer and director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is keenly aware of what these objects represent. How he uses them – he venerates some, while disregarding others – serves as a statement of purpose. Unlike The Force Awakens, a fun film that relied on the original trilogy, The Last Jedi wants to tell a new kind of story. This is a deliberate shift away from the soap opera surrounding the Skywalker family, and instead has a grander canvas, with more ambitious themes. It is unclear how this film will rank among others in the franchise, but for now The Last Jedi’s wildly succeeds as entertainment, and being arguably the darkest Star Wars film yet.
The storytelling masterstroke is to narrow the focus around a single major military operation. Johnson has about a dozen major characters, and the simplicity of the central narrative gives wiggle room for all the smaller, more intimate emotional beats. Little time has elapsed between the events of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi: led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), the First Order pursues the last remnants of the Resistance’s forces. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) wants to attack the First Order directly, while Leia prefers a strategic retreat that will lead to fewer casualties. This simple chase, with the Resistance fleet outrunning the encroaching dreadnaughts, creates a constant sense of dread. And since the Resistance fleet is running out of fuel, a ticking clocking gives them few options.
Aside from large-scale space battles, Johnson includes a more personal journey for two characters who struggle with crippling doubt. Rey (Daisy Ridley) desperately wants Luke (Mark Hamill) to save the Resistance, except he has become a grouchy hermit. She tries to wear him down, hanging out on the planet from the end of The Force Awakens, and this gives her time to reflect on her identity. It should be a peaceful reprieve, except Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) uses the Force to contact Rey. Neither are entirely comfortable with their respective sides in the fight, and Luke provides some crucial context on the events between Return of the Jedi and this new trilogy.
Part of The Force Awakens’ purpose was to welcome new faces into this franchise. Poe’s confidence in Finn (John Boyega) helped us accept Finn as a hero, albeit one with a cowardly streak, while Han’s approval of Rey gives us confidence in her. The Last Jedi takes a similar strategy, except it goes even further: this film is about war more than any previous, giving the battles actual stakes. Incompetence, failure, and defeat feel like genuine possibilities. Johnson’s script bursts with nuance and different kinds of detail: we finally see fissures within the Resistance’s leadership, and how the First Order allows amoral wealth to thrive within the galaxy. There is intriguing sub-plot where Finn and the Resistance engineer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) undertake a daring mission on a new planet, and what they find exposes more vulgar corruption than anything in the prequels. Johnson is not shy about explaining his strategy: he wants the Resistance to reek of desperation, and the First Order’s influence seem all the more pervasive.
On top of all that, I’m fairly certain The Last Jedi has more action than any previous Star Wars film. Sure, there are the usual battles, but chase film structure gives Johnson more opportunity for diverse action scenes. Some are more intimate, such as deadly lightsaber duels, while the set-pieces have an evocative sense of scope. More importantly, the suspense here feels more intense than ever before (the Resistance’s dwindling options reminded me of the Battlestar Galactica episode “33”). You know how we see some good guys perish in A New Hope and the others? In The Last Jedi, sacrifice and altruistic suicide are constant possibilities. None of the characters expect glory, and instead end their lives for a greater purpose. Whether Rey and Luke can salvage the Jedi is practically immaterial, since the losses are constant.
All of the characters have dimension, and the acting reflects this added complexity. Sure, there are cute creatures like the Porgs, but they add color and humor to a story where the situation is always dire. Poe is not just a talented pilot, but an impulsive hothead who thinks inaction is the same thing as cowardice. Luke is a bit like his former teachers, Obi-Wan and Yoda: he keeps his thoughts to himself, concealing deeper feelings of loathing. Once again, however, the best performance belongs to Adam Driver. Kylo Ren is not just a villain, but a disturbed young man whose ambition is borderline nihilistic. His opportunism, coupled with naked emotional need, create vulnerability for a character who should be confident and powerful. Laura Dern is another highlight as Leia’s second-in-command: her arc is satisfying because she conceals what she is thinking, and the way she offers “May the Force be with you” leads to one of the most moving scenes in the franchise to date.
Like the best parts in the Star Wars films, The Last Jedi finds moments where action and high melodrama go hand in hand. This leads to imagery that is downright awesome: Johnson repeats a technique of cutting out the sound, forcing us to accept exaggerated destruction as the true metric for heroism. At two and a half hours, this is also the longest film in the franchise, and yet Johnson never drags the story. Like the Resistance fleet, the plot is constantly hurtling forward, and yet The Last Jedi has just enough reverence for beloved characters that we see them finally realize their potential – in wholly satisfying ways. The best thing I can say about The Last Jedi is now I legitimately have no idea where the franchise can go. This film leads to uncertainty, or the promise the of real creative freedom, and is a hell of a lot of fun along the way.