‘The Last Jedi’ Delivers an Exhilarating Spectacle Worthy of the ‘Star Wars’ Name

Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a film of pure spectacle. An exhilarating ride full of wondrous sights and sounds, laughs and operatic drama, it brings the “Star Wars” series back full throttle to the spirit of the original trilogy while utilizing the best in modern visual effects. Writer/director Rian Johnson has done a unique thing and crafted a movie that maintains the identity of the franchise while infusing it with some modern flourishes. It even laughs at itself in a fresh, cheerful way. Fans will have their hearts set aflame, because their faith in this universe will be reinvigorated. All of the characters they have come to love return, including some surprise cameos, and the story is expanded with surprising depth. It’s an epic in every sense of the word.

Picking up right where the last installment, “The Force Awakens,” left off, the Republic finds itself broken and chased by the First Order, the dark heirs to the former Empire, led by the nefarious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). The film opens in grand scale as Snoke’s minion General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) manages to track the rebel forces into a corner of the galaxy and seems to have them surrounded. A fierce battle and standoff begins and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) flies back into the fray with that always reliable droid BB-8. The rebel alliance is still led by Leia, played by the late Carrie Fisher, to whom the film is dedicated. Within the First Order, Snoke reprimands his apprentice, the son of Leia, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), for failing to defeat Rey (Daisy Ridley) and smash the last traces of the Jedi. Ren must now redeem himself by completing his mission of extermination. Meanwhile Rey has found the self-exiled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and demands that he return to help the Republic. Skywalker insists the Jedi are over, and fears teaching the uses of the Force risks opening the path to the dark side (apparently his last pupil turned into a monstrous threat). While Rey tries to change Skywalker’s mind, Finn (John Boyega) is also back and goes on a dangerous mission with a fellow rebel, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to track down a master codebreaker who might be able to help the rebel alliance escape from the trap set by Hux.

There is something about the “Star Wars” movies that reach deep into us. They have become a part of our collective, generational pop consciousness, transcending into cultural mythology. Keeping this in mind, Disney was wise in bringing in Rian Johnson, a filmmaker of both rich visual style and intelligence. His 2012 time-bending thriller “Looper” was a sci-fi noir reminiscent of “Blade Runner.” With “The Last Jedi” he takes full advantage of his widescreen canvas, delivering stunning, immersive images of great scope, detail and beauty. The opening scenes are exciting as a space battle begins between the First Order and the rebels, and immense Star Destroyers and rebel bombers creep into view from the corners of the screen, slowly revealing their immensity. Johnson doesn’t cram us into the space battles, he keeps using wide shots to show the immensity of a planet beneath an X-Wing fighter, or the vastness of an imperial ship, allowing us to drink in the sights. He keeps the old Lucasfilm tradition alive of paying attention to the small details. In one scene on the island where Luke has exiled himself, we see him walking up a hill, and in the distance we catch for a brief moment the tail of some sea monster moving through the waters.

Given immense resources, Johnson never turns the film into the kind of boring videogame we get in something like “Justice League.” He understands that “Star Wars” is myth, and films this story with an almost classical style. Notice the emotional power of a scene where Leia and Ren briefly make telekinetic contact, edited with a graceful crossfade instead of making it loud and bombastic. Yet the final climax of this movie is a huge set of battles, lightsaber duels and stand offs crafted with fiery gusto and intensity. Yes, we have been here before, and seen the Millennium Falcon fly through laser fire time and time again, but Johnson makes it all feel exciting and fresh again. It’s a nearly two and a half-hour spectacle where time races by. I dare not spoil, but I will confirm this movie is never boring. John Williams delivers another musical score of romantic, symphonic beauty.

There is also great humor in this film as Johnson updates this universe with a little self-mockery. Early in the film a typically menacing intercom transmission between Hux and Poe becomes hilarious slapstick. As always we get new, cute creatures, this time they come in the form of furry bird-penguin-like animals on Luke’s chosen island home. But in one devilishly fun scene Chewbacca has roasted one for dinner, only to turn and find his new furry friends looking in horror. In another scene a character describes ancient Jedi texts guarded by Luke as, “page turners, they were not.” The plotline involving Finn’s mission takes us to a casino outpost where the galaxy’s super rich gamble in glorious decadence. I especially loved a small, tuxedo-wearing character who gleefully basks in gold coins (at one point he mistakes BB-8 for a slot machine).

If J.J. Abrams’s “The Force Awakens” felt like a commercialized rush to re-introduce everyone and give you a lot of “look who is back” moments, “The Last Jedi” flows better as pure storytelling. The drama is fierce as Ren struggles with his lingering hatreds for both his mother and Luke, and feels a connection to Rey interfering with his loyalty to Snoke . There is great tension between Poe and Leia as they struggle over how best to preserve the resistance. Mark Hamill is a stand out here, never feeling like a mere rehash, but playing Luke like someone who has grown and attained painful wisdom over the years. Carrie Fisher in her final performance also plays Leia as a rebel tempered by time, carrying deep sorrow after losing Han Solo in the last movie and facing possible defeat in this one. She leaves us with grace.

“The Last Jedi” sweeps you away for its entire running time with glorious sights, grand battles and a final stand-off between two characters that turns into a fantastic twist. Fans, those eternal disciples of the Force, may rejoice. This movie delivers, and leaves us waiting for the next chapter. 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi” opens Dec. 15 in theaters nationwide.