When a character in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" utters the sentence, "This is not going to go the way you think," they might as well have been speaking directly to the audience. The highly-anticipated "Episode VIII" is an emotional, powerful and exciting follow-up to 2015's "The Force Awakens," but for as much momentum as that film created, this newest chapter isn't looking to merely move the saga forward...it's aiming to re-invent it completely for the next generation. Don't worry, this review only contains mild plot spoilers and will not go near the several major twists and surprises that you're in store for...but if you don't want to know anything at all about the movie, please bookmark this review or come back later. Here's your last warning!
A long time ago, in what seems like a different galaxy altogether, a young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) stared at the horizon and awaited his destiny. Eight Episodes later, Skywalker's journey comes full circle, delivered in what is by far Hamill's best on-screen performance to date. As we saw at the end of "The Force Awakens," Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found the lost Jedi Master on a remote island near the original Jedi Temple, and she seeks to pull him back into the fight against the evil First Order. The Resistance, led by General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher), is in the midst of a desperate dash to escape Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis) and his approaching fleet, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). The Resistance needs some inkling of hope - a spark - if they are to survive another day. All eight Episodes have led our heroes to this moment in time, and time may finally be running out.
But while Luke and Leia figure prominently into the story, "The Last Jedi" can officially be seen as the passing of the torch to the new generation of heroes. Rey, along with former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and hot-shot, wise-cracking pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) represent this future, and all are given equal opportunity to shine. There isn't much room for new introductions this time around, but writer/director Rian Johnson does manage to work in a few fresh faces: One of which is Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance mechanic who befriends Finn, and DJ (Benecio Del Toro), a "code-breaker" and con-artist who seems modeled as this generation's Lando Calrissian (take that for what you will). Laura Dern is great as Vice Admiral Holdo, one of the Resistance leaders. Then there are the cute and lovable Porgs, who fans will be happy to know don't get in the way of anything major (Jar Jar or Ewoks they are not).
Star Wars has always been a story about hope - and destiny - and we're starting to learn that Rey's destiny is intertwined with that of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ren starts this film off in the intergalactic dog-house, after Snoke is less-than-impressed that he wasn't able to handle things at the end of the last film. Rey and Kylo represent the eternal struggle that has always existed in this universe - the pull of the dark and light side of The Force - and it's easily the most compelling thread woven into this story. But what fun would it be if any of these characters were portrayed in black and white? There was good in Anakin as there was dark in Luke, and it's these intricate facets that made them relatable to the masses...it's also what has made their journeys believable. So too, will younger Star Wars fans latch on to the triumphs and struggles of Kylo and Rey.
Well enough tip-toeing: Was this thing any good? "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" is admittedly an imperfect movie, but one of the most fearless chapters yet...this bravery - speaking not of the characters' but of Rian Johnson's - allows Star Wars to go in directions where none had previously dared. This is the longest chapter in the series - clocking in at over two-and-a-half hours - but the final hour or so is everything you would want or could ever ask for from this franchise, and that's saying a lot. At every turn, it's as if Johnson mapped out every possible expectation that an audience member might have, and then decided to do something else entirely. He plays with our knowledge of what has come before to give us something we've never seen. And once he jolts you into submission with a shocking sequence, he relentlessly assaults your every emotion from then until the closing credits. This third act is unexpected in the best of ways and is guaranteed to leave you in a state of wonderment that few Star Wars fans will be comfortable with...because for the first time since maybe the very first Star Wars movie, you will have no idea as to where this thing may go next.
Where "The Force Awakens" worked by "re-mixing" "A New Hope," there are definitely elements of "Empire" and "Return of the Jedi" that can be found within "The Last Jedi." But Johnson attacks our sense of nostalgia in a different way than JJ Abrams did with Episode VII. The last movie reconnected us with our favorite old rebels and introduced us to an all new cast of players, but there was a strong sense that it was made to please everyone. "The Last Jedi" isn't nearly as cordial. It would be surprising if this film wasn't received more divisively than previous Star Wars films. Some may not appreciate the bolder decisions made in this chapter, while at the same time many will love the expanding story arcs of the newer characters. And while there are several familiar lines of dialogue and scenes that echo what we've seen in the past, never forget: "This is not going to go the way you think."
The payoffs end up being worth the wait, but there are problems with the first half of "The Last Jedi." After an exciting initial space battle, to say that the mid-section of the movie drags would be an understatement. First, both prominent new characters Rose and DJ seemed shoe-horned in, and Rose especially doesn't seem to have a real place in this film nor does she add anything to be hopeful about in the future. And while both Rey and Poe fans will probably be pleased with where their characters go, Finn sort of takes a step back, as he is sent off on a side adventure that seems like second-tier Star Wars. It's a diversion that takes up a good portion of the film and really serves no purpose to the overall story...worse yet, it seems to contain some heavy-handed political messages not commonly found, at least not this blatantly, in the Star Wars universe. These are more than just quibbles too: Most fans will not be used to the slow, lumbering pace or the general unevenness of this film...especially coming on the heels of the action-packed pacing that JJ Abrams brought in Episode VII.
Overall, "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" is a treasure for those of us who have been waiting 30+ years to see Luke Skywalker again, and who had to endure the fact that we had to wait an additional two years when he barely appeared and never spoke in "The Force Awakens." Luke will not let you down in this one. Nor will the late Carrie Fisher, whose mere presence in most scenes gives the story a sense of history and purpose. We are given many incredible moments several years in the making, many of which will bring tears to your eyes and a smile to your face. This is a beautifully rendered film, and there are a handful of scenes that will rank among the best and most memorable of the entire series, but it's the characters that bring us back. The classic characters steal the show this time around, but two films in, we are now invested in the adventures of Rey, Kylo, Finn and Poe. We're in good hands moving forward. These characters had a lot to learn from their predecessors, but like any young padawan or apprentice, there comes a time when they will need to learn how to venture out on their own. That time is now.
This may be "The Last Jedi," but it's the first step in what is a new, potentially bold direction for the most beloved film franchise of all-time. With deep reverence for what has come before, Disney has proven that they aren't afraid to move the story forward. Not every idea will be a great one, and not every character may be received positively, but as we learn in Episode VIII, time marches on. "The Force Awakens" showed fans that the excitement of the original trilogy could be duplicated and re-created, but "The Last Jedi" is no clone.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy. Run Time: 2 hours 32 minutes.
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Peter Mayhew, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran, Benicio Del Toro, Anthony Daniels
Written and Directed by Rian Johnson ("Looper," ""The Brothers Bloom," "Brick,")
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" is in theaters everywhere on Friday, December 15th, 2017.