Two years ago Star Wars: The Force Awakens brought the storied saga roaring back to life with an installment that was steeped in homage -- both narrative and stylistic. The J.J. Abrams-helmed Episode 7, the franchise's debut offering following Disney's 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm, was a polished bit of brand management that nonetheless relied so heavily on audiences' nostalgic attachment to this universe that it left one with the nagging sense that it was more concerned with staying near home base than with moving the ball forward (if you'll permit me to mix my sports metaphors).
As a necessary refresh of a cherished brand, The Force Awakens did a lot right. But even as I enjoyed the film, I said at the time that it felt "less like a fully realized experience on its own than a promising setup for future developments," leaving us on a literal cliffhanger as our new lead character Rey (Daisy Ridley) tracked down missing-in-action hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and attempted to return the lightsaber he misplaced lo those many movies ago. It was a powerful moment, pregnant with anticipation, yet its effectiveness could only truly be measured against the context of whatever was going to come next.
Given how many balls were left in play, the true measure of Episode 7's effectiveness could really only be known post facto, by how the sequels it set up followed through (so, no points for last year's Rogue One spin-off turning out as brilliantly as it did). This was the challenge that Lucasfilm prexy Kathleen Kennedy handed to director/writer Rian Johnson (he of 2012's excellent Looper) when crafting the second entry of this new trilogy: Episode 8 - The Last Jedi. And if we're comparing it with previous Star Wars "middle" movies, it may not meet the (unreachable?) high bar of The Empire Strikes Back, but it stands head-and-shoulders above the muddled, interminable second leg of the prequel trilogy, Attack of the Clones from 2002.
Story-wise, the interim between movies has seen the situation grow even more desperate for the valiant fighters of the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, in her now final performance) as they attempt to evade the encroaching ships of the First Order and its mysterious leader, the Emperor-wannabe Snoke (Andy Serkis). To that end, with the Resistance running out of places to run, ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) tries to take the fight to them. Meanwhile, former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), just recovered from his lightsaber injury from his bout with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is trying to find his friend Rey.
Speaking of Rey, we rejoin her and Jedi Master Luke Skywalker on the distant planet Ahch-To, standing right where The Force Awakens left them. Rey is trying hard to convince the aged Luke, dispirited and detached following his perceived failure with Kylo (a.k.a. Ben Solo, a.k.a. his nephew), to join the fight and again become the galactic hero she and we grew up hearing about. And while we're conditioned to think she'll follow in his footsteps and become his apprentice, things aren't quite as simple as that. The many layers of narrative Johnson has built peel away like an onion as one twist gives way to another and then another until you genuinely have no idea what's going to happen next.
As far as the many plot threads left dangling in The Force Awakens, foremost among them the question of Rey's enigmatic parentage (because where J.J. Abrams goes, a mystery box must always follow), the film does provide an answer. That said, I expect that the level of satisfaction one gets from that answer will correlate directly with how much narrative deconstruction one can handle in their blockbuster entertainments. In fact, in both that and its critique of the dogmatism of the Jedi Order (coming from the mouth of Luke Skywalker, no less) the film oftentimes feels like Johnson's own deconstruction of the underpinnings of the entire Star Wars universe we've simply taken as givens for forty years now.
And by the way, let's talk about Luke Skywalker for a second. Mark Hamill has understandably groused/joked about how little he had to do in The Force Awakens, showing up a wordless cameo at the very end lasting mere seconds. The Last Jedi definitely makes up for that lost time, catching us up with Star Wars' former leading man and giving us a sense of the angst and anguish that shaped the intervening decades since last we saw him. It's a sad situation to see this great hero at his lowest after having (wrongly, it turns out) assumed for the thirty-plus years since Return of the Jedi that he'd gotten his happy ending.
Even still, Hamill makes a meal of playing the haggard and weary Luke, and his belated return to his most iconic part is just as refreshing and welcome as Harrison Ford's Episode 7 return as Han Solo. Carrie Fisher, who sadly passed away after completing her role here, is just as welcome in an expanded role that highlights her essential, irreplaceable place as the heart and soul of the Rebellion/Resistance. It's beautiful and poignant and bittersweet to see her as Leia one last time, but the fact that we never did get Ford, Hamill, and Fisher together again onscreen as their beloved characters is an unforgivable oversight on the filmmakers' parts. An opportunity forever lost to the ages.
As far as the second generation characters, their storylines understandably take on increased prominence this time. Foremost among them, we have Rey's search for her identity in the midst of learning the ways of the Jedi. It's a compelling through-line, and her complicated interplay with Kylo Ren offers moments of genuine suspense (and props also to Adam Driver for adding some texture to Ben, while helpfully ditching the Darth Vader cosplay he was sporting). Dameron largely got short shrift last time (understandable, given that he was initially supposed to be killed off before the producers thought better of it), but he's given a genuine arc I enjoyed following through to completion.
Sadly, Boyega's Finn -- still an appealing character -- is saddled with a go-nowhere plot-line that has him and Resistance mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) show up at a space casino and cross paths with a rogue with a heart of a gold (or maybe just rogue?) played by Benicio Del Toro. There's the kernel of interesting idea there as we glimpse the socioeconomic underpinnings of this galaxy far, far away in a way we've never seen before, but it's a digression whose payoff doesn't warrant the build-up. And when you're already the longest Star Wars ever made (two and a half hours!), some snipping here and there might not have been a bad idea.
“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” So says Kylo at one point in the film, and while it’s certainly an indication of where his head is at vis-a-vis his ongoing flirtation with the Dark Side of the Force, it could just as easily serve as a mission statement for the The Last Jedi itself, which seems intent on divesting itself -- and the franchise -- from the suffocating grip of the very same nostalgia that it paradoxically leans on for much of its emotional heft. It's a tricky balance that, if I'm being honest, doesn't always pay off as well as it could, but when it does, it does it spectacularly.
While The Force Awakens did the job of reintroducing the saga and moving past the albatross that was the prequels, it still felt pulled in two directions by having to both introduce its new cast of characters while making sure to service its history via Han, Leia, etc. Though Episode 8 devotes plenty of time to its remaining legacy characters, it does feel like the torch has truly been passed. More than merely a continuation, The Last Jedi is in many ways an ending to the Star Wars we've known. And like many endings, it's anarchic and frustrating and poignant. What comes next must, of necessity, be a Force of a different kind. B+
For more Star Wars talk, check our MovieFilm Podcast Commentary Track on the 1999's Episode I - The Phantom Menace film via this link or the embed below: