Two years ago, J.J. Abrams gave us Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and it was the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. Now, writing and directing duties have passed to the relatively inexperienced Rian Johnson. The result is Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and it’s … well, the best Star Wars movie since Rogue One.
Not that it isn’t plenty good enough. At just over two and a half hours, it’s the longest movie in the franchise by a pretty good stretch, but to the series faithful, that’s not a bug. It’s a feature. Still, Johnson’s movie leaves us sated, while The Force Awakens left us hungry for more.
The story opens moments after the end of the previous episode. The mysteriously Force-sensitive Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found the reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and handed him his old lightsaber. In one of Johnson’s touches of nifty humor, Luke gazes at the saber for a moment, then chucks it over his shoulder and storms off, barking at Rey to get lost. He’s not to be easily drawn back to the fight against the Dark Side and his nephew Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Meanwhile, back at the rebel fleet, General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) tries to make an orderly retreat from First Order forces (the First Order being the successor to the fallen Galactic Empire and ruled by Supreme Leader Snoke, played by mo-cap king Andy Serkis). The retreat turns into a rout, though hotshot flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), disobeying orders, pulls off the destruction of the First Order’s flagship at the cost of the Resistance’s entire fleet of bombers. This puts him in the doghouse with Gen. Organa and her second in command, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), as the decimated Resistance flees through hyperspace.
Have I left anyone out? Oh yes, there’s the Storm Trooper-turned-rebel Finn (John Boyega), recovered from his injuries and teaming up with technician Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to disarm the device that allows the First Order to track the rebels through hyperspace. This sends them to a decadent Vegas-style planet in search of the galaxy’s greatest system hacker, but they have to settle for a squalid little safecracker named DJ (Benicio Del Toro).
The Last Jedi may only be half a barrel of fun, but the barrel is so huge that even half-full there’s plenty of fun to be had. Johnson’s script would have profited by the judicious tightening Kasdan and Abrams have always excelled at, which might have made it less top-heavy with climaxes in the last act. And for all its pleasures, the movie never quite captures the gee-whiz thrill Abrams injected into The Force Awakens, reminding us why Star Wars was such rollicking fun in the first place.
But we shouldn’t be too hard on Johnson. George Lucas himself was never able to recreate that thrill, and he had three chances.