Star Wars: The Last Jedi triumphs as more than just a reunion for Luke and friends
Director Rian Johnson attempts to carve a new way forward
Letting go of the past or risk being consumed by it is both the theme of the latest Star Wars instalment and the decision facing the Lucasfilm franchise.
Like the Avengers and so many other blockbuster brands we've grown accustomed to, the actors behind those iconic characters are aging. While it was a rollicking return, J.J. Abrams's The Force Awakens felt trapped in the tractor beam of nostalgia.
Although The Last Jedi begins with the long-promised comeback of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, director and writer Rian Johnson is starting the process of allowing a new generation of heroes to stand on their own.
The film begins with Rey, the scrappy heroine, confronting Luke in his Jedi retreat. With his grizzled goatee and hangdog expression, it's great to have Hamill back on the big screen. As always, his acting style is less than subtle. Okay, he's a bit of a ham, but he's our ham, and easily forgiven.
While Rey tries to lure Luke back into the fight, the Resistance is on the run from the First Order — one last caravan of space cruisers is all that remains. With the First Order's armada hot on their trail, Finn (John Boyega), the former Stormtrooper-turned-Resistance-fighter, is dispatched to a gambling paradise planet with Rose, a surprisingly adaptable maintenance engineer.
Played by Asian-American actor Kelly Marie Tran, Rose adds another welcome note of diversity to the new generation of Star Wars characters. Although the chemistry between her and Finn isn't as strong as that between him and Rey (or ace pilot Poe, for that matter), Rose helps anchor the battle in something more than just good and evil.
For her, a child raised with nothing, the Resistance is about giving the poor and disenfranchised a sense of hope.
But even greater than the battle of good versus evil is the desire for cute, cuddly Star Wars critters. Every iteration has some and so we must make peace with the Porgs, now fast on their way to becoming this holiday's Tickle Me Elmo. The penguin-like creatures live on the planet where Skywalker hides, and that's where Chewbacca discovers them. Will the two furry species be foes or friends? (No spoilers here, but Boyega's character has some other ideas.)
Watching The Last Jedi is a conversation with your younger self. The adult brain may have questions about the relativistic properties of lightspeed travel, or wonder how the Force allows Jedis to place what amount to conference calls across the galaxy.
But George Lucas originally pitched the series at 12-year-olds. The best parts of these worlds are the stuff of grand, soaring dreams — the Wagnerian battle of light and dark. A throne room sizzling with lightsaber combat. Or the screech of X-Wing fighters dodging cannon fire.
The Last Jedi introduces a number of new characters, including the steely eyed Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), who enjoys putting flyboy Poe in his place. Benicio Del Toro also joins the Star Wars universe, as a computer-cracking scoundrel who makes Han Solo look like a prince by comparison.
Nothing underlined the fragility of working on an aging movie franchise more than the shocking death of Carrie Fisher last December. Fisher had finished her filming for The Last Jedi, but the studio had to change its plans for her character in Star Wars IX.
The good news this time is that we're treated to more than just Leia trading quips with Han. As General Leia Organa, leader of the Resistance, Fisher is more stoic than spirited. She may have suppressed her devilish side, but she underlines the character's compassion, the mark of a true leader.
There is a moment when Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren faces off against Rey and growls, "Let it all die." It's a reference to the past, the family trees seemingly twisted around both of them. You can feel Johnson almost doing the same with the script — cutting ties with certain characters, giving new ones room to grow.
But in the world of Star Wars, some themes are eternal, like the temptation to fall into the dark side, as we see when Rey and Ren circle each other.
With four-legged walkers stomping their way toward the Resistance base, it's impossible to ignore the similarities to the greatest Star Wars instalment, The Empire Strikes Back. Here again The Last Jedi raises the stakes, scattering the heroes for a desperate last stand. Ultimately, Star Wars VIII is nowhere near as dark as Empire, and the multiple tangents of the plot make for a bumpy ride.
Speaking of bumpy rides, the final showdown on the remote planet Crait is a wonder. As the rust-bucket ski speeders skim along the salt-covered surface, they leave a fine trail of red sand in their wake. With the First Order powering up another engine of destruction, the Resistance fighters whirl into battle with crimson-coloured spirals — just one of a number of inspired visuals from Johnson, who previously directed Looper and Brick.
Like the massive battleships, Lucasfilm is trying plot a course forward for the billion-dollar franchise. Behind the scenes, directors have been replaced or fired in an attempt to protect the value of a quirky space opera Lucas dreamt up some 40 years ago.
Besides a keen eye for action, what Rian Johnson brings to this universe is a sense of irreverence. The challenge for The Last Jedi is to decouple these stories from the past while still paying homage to them. It is an emotional reunion, but also the beginning of a long goodbye.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars