When The Force Awakens landed two years ago, it was everything Star Wars fans wanted yet not entirely what we needed. It was a rousing tribute missing its own vision, introducing new characters and crises hinting at old ones.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi launches the franchise to another level of action and humor thanks to incoming writer-director Rian Johnson, whose imagination seems boundless as George Lucas' 40 years ago.
Johnson conjures a far, far away galaxy in the original Jedi master's image of violent oppression and valiant rebellion, a family feud and cosmic obligations. A new generation of heroes and villains ushered by The Force Awakens stirred the Skywalker saga; The Last Jedi effectively hands it over.
Even this episode's nostalgic aspects are weightier than The Force Awakens' star turns, by design and tragedy.
Mark Hamill's cameo return as Luke Skywalker is now the cerebral and emotional core of Johnson's screenplay, a tenfold payoff after a fade out letdown. Carrie Fisher's death imbues each of her scenes as Princess Leia, now a General in the resistance, with a wistfulness aiding the drama.
Disney asks critics to avoid spoiler details — the movie's packed with them — and I'm inclined to agree. But there's a scene involving Leia in danger that unfolds so beautifully, so ethereally that it could be a requiem for a queen. Fisher's line readings, snappy and sad sometimes at once, will be missed. (Or will they?)
The Skywalker saga and characters keep thickening under Johnson's watch, starting with ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, previously underused). Poe's one-ship assault on a massive First Order weapon ship sets a high bar for action that'll be topped later. Poe also sets the movie's lighter-then-ever tone, cockily trolling General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).
First Order Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis in motion capture) is still working on wiping out the Resistance. Finding and eliminating Luke Skywalker is a key step. Luke's living like a hermit on Ahch-To island where Rey (Daisy Ridley) traveled to deliver his lightsaber, hoping to draw him back into the battle.
Rey's own link to the Force puts her in tele-contact with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), setting up a mutual attraction that can go either way. Former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) is looking for Rey with the help of Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), another tough female role model in an increasingly woke franchise.
One more near-spoiler to prove the point: During that opening battle the Resistance sends in bomber ships. All are destroyed except one. Its only surviving crew member pulling off a tense miracle, a heroic sacrifice, is a woman of color. Beyond that, her death isn't just a moment but continues to have meaning throughout the movie. That's woke.
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My biggest problem with The Last Jedi is literally small. Johnson capitulates to Disney franchise mechanics with the Porgs, pudgy seagulls of sorts inhabiting Luke's island. Not exactly Ewoks but too close for comfort. There's a gag about their edibility needing more bite and less Porg-eye cuteness. But plush toys must be sold, so...
The rest of The Last Jedi is bolder than that, in its narrative direction and comedic urges. I'm fairly certain that a hardcore element of Comic Con types won't appreciate the flippancy given to previously stoic characters. Or the way Rey and Kylo Ren's psychic bond can sound like crushing teenagers text messaging. Kids'll dig it. If not, that's just one more way The Last Jedi surprises me.
Contact Steve Persall at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.