For over 40 years, “Star Wars” has shown us the great potential of artful blockbuster filmmaking, distilling mythic tradition and hero’s journey archetypes to their sweetest, most enriching aspects through space fantasy jargon. Entire childhoods and unyielding worldviews have been shaped by George Lucas’s galactic opera, with each successive entry only strengthening them… until now. “Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi,” helmed by Rian Johnson of “Looper” and “Breaking Bad,” is the first entry to challenge our perspective of the saga and its characters. Though it certainly plays to the strengths of the franchise, the film simultaneously deconstructs the very ideas that have propelled the franchise to greatness. Fan theories and predictions be damned, for this is the most unexpected and deeply humbling “Star Wars” story yet.
Immediately following the events of “Episode VII - The Force Awakens,” the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, delivering the greatest farewell performance we could ask for), mounts a desperate escape from the dreaded First Order after the obliteration of the New Republic. As Resistance heroes Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) attempt to turn the tide against the enemy, Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries relentlessly to sway a reluctant Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), now in self-imposed exile on the planet Ahch-To, into joining the fight against the forces of evil, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). As she learns more about the jaded Jedi Master and the history of the Jedi Order itself, dark secrets come to light, calling the legitimacy of the past into question.
“The Last Jedi” continues the reverence of past influences held by “The Force Awakens,” even though it is weary of the past itself. Specific images, musical cues, and character choices are utilized with a breath of fresh air, imbuing them with the saga’s tireless spirit and energy. A number of John Williams’s greatest hits from both the original trilogy and “The Force Awakens” are reworked into this score to resounding effect, while old plot mechanics, dialogue, and other iconography wield titanic power. The source of this power derives from Johnson’s uncanny knack for visual simplicity. There are a number of shots here that will soon become all-timers. If John Martin ever painted the galaxy, it would look something like “The Last Jedi."
Sprawling in scope, Johnson’s film is perhaps the first true ensemble feature in the saga, weaving together three plot threads in four acts that keep on giving just when you think they’re over. There are sterling action sequences throughout them as well, which Johnson has staged masterfully. Unlike J.J. Abrams’s rougher close-quarters style, Johnson pulls back and lets us marvel at the swift choreography in real time. The film’s centerpiece features the Resistance charging towards First Order Walkers a la the Hoth battle in “Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back,” this time on the mineral planet Crait; its white surface bleeds with red dust as the speeders dodge enemy fire. Plenty of other incendiary surprises await, which should make fans salivate as they unfold.
In keeping with sequel tradition, characters grow and gain a deeper understanding of themselves and their place in the universe. Ridley, Driver, and Isaac in particular nail their respective arcs, while Tran’s character, Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo, and Benicio del Toro’s DJ all offer distinct worldviews that further test our protagonists. The main crux of “The Last Jedi,” however, is the new generation’s discovery of a broken past. Luke especially is far more flawed than anyone might like to believe, but even as Johnson strips the Skywalker legacy bare, his failures ultimately humanize him and strengthen his legacy. Hamill, who famously went on record for initially reacting to his character’s new arc with hostility, turns in the performance of his career, lending the old warrior a gravitas unseen in his earlier adventures.
“Star Wars” has always worn its grand illusions on its sleeve. At the end of the day, “The Last Jedi” is no different, but it digs so deep that other tricks and treats Johnson has conceived reveal themselves upon closer inspection. For example, in its critique of the past and the notion of a chosen few called upon to save the galaxy, “The Last Jedi” profoundly states that the Force does not just belong to them, but to everyone hoping to forge their own unique destinies. No other episode has brimmed with such weighty ideas and brought them to the forefront with this level of skill. It is arguably the saga’s best for its deconstruction of a cherished history, its commentary on our present, and for the potential it offers the future. And yes, you can be sure that it makes a hot contender for the best film of the year.