There are a handful of truly spectacular moments in The Last Jedi—some as visually sumptuous and others as emotionally poignant and raw as anything in the intergalactic ring cycle so far: The sight of Rebel X-wing fighters emerging from light speed and skidding to a halt; a kamikaze crash rendered in giddy, gasp-inducing super slo-motion; a vertiginous, ground-scraping dogfight on a salt-mining planet that kicks up plumes of velvet-cake red dust. These, along with a few touching reunions and farewells from beloved characters that some of us have known like family for 40 years, will go down as instant classics that will be catnip for fans young and old. That said, I’d stop short of calling director Rian Johnson’s undeniably impressive initiation into the Star Wars fold the masterpiece that some desperately want it to be. The film simply drags too much in the middle. Somewhere in the film’s 152-minute running time is an amazing 90-minute movie.
When Hollywood’s greatest sci-fi franchise (sorry, Star Trek fans) was resurrected two years ago with The Force Awakens, a lot of people including myself, groused that while J.J. Abrams captured the spirit and tone of the original trilogy, he played it too safe. That the film was a deja-vu carbon copy of A New Hope, albeit with a welcome dose of diversity in its casting. Some argued that it felt more like Star Wars Greatest Hits than an album full of fresh material. That may have been a necessary evil. That after the lame prequels we needed to be reminded what it was we first fell in love with. Abrams accomplished that not-insignificant task, leaving off on a note-perfect cliffhanger ending between Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Mark Hamill’s shaggy, haunted Jedi hermit Luke Skywalker in self-imposed exile. It was a reminder of the Saturday-afternoon to-be-continued serials that George Lucas was originally inspired by. But there was also a hope that the next film in the series would take more chances and spin off into its own new thing. The Last Jedi does take chances. And many of them pay off beautifully. But Johnson (who also wrote the script) seems to subscribe to the theory of ‘Why make a point once when you can make it three or four times?’
Even though it’s only been two short years since The Force Awakens, Lucas’ franchise is so iconic, so mythically ingrained in the deepest nostalgia pleasure centers of our brains that you have to be a churl not to feel goosebumps raise on your arms when the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” first appear on screen and John Williams’ triumphant clarion-call to adventure strikes up. The opening crawl that follows informs us that the evil First Order is ascendant. Supreme Leader Snoke and his Dark Side apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and bureaucratic bully boy General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) have culled the resistance down to a few hundred ragtag insurgents. Things are looking bleak for the rebels. But under the wise and steady hand of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), they fight on. Martyrs to the cause, underdog champions of capital-G Good. Leia’s last hope of rallying the downtrodden is to convince the reluctant Jedi Master Luke (now more an idea of revolution than a one-man savior) to return from hiding.
In a way, we’ve been here before. The rebels are against the ropes just as they were at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. Thankfully, this time, they have their three newly-minted Next Generation heroes—Oscar Isaac’s hotshot and hotheaded fighter pilot Poe Dameron, John Boyega’s conscience-stricken stormtrooper-turned-resistance folk hero Finn, and Ridley’s Rey, a gung-ho young heroine whose innate powers she’s just beginning to understand. The chemistry and interplay between these three new faces was so electric and promising the last time we saw them that it’s a bit of a shame that the trio is separated for most of the new film. They’re all cast off in separate parts of the same grand mission. While Isaac’s Poe grows impatient about the play-it-safe approach charted by Leia and her purple-haired second in command (the always welcome Laura Dern), Boyega’s Finn teams up with a Resistance mechanic named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to track down a a codebreaking scoundrel (Benicio Del Toro) to sabotage the First Order’s new ability to follow the rebel ships in and out of light speed, preventing their safe evacuation to a new hideout where they can reteam and rebuild. Meanwhile, Rey is just where we left her—on the remote Jedi temple island of Ahch-To, hounding Luke not only return to action, but also to tutor her in the ways of the Force the way Yoda once taught him on Degobah. This last strand of the three has the most pay off by far. Not just because the push-pull, master-apprentice dynamic between Ridley and Hamill is so crackling it nearly sets off sparks, but because we know that this is the crux of the story. That this is where the torch (or lightsaber) will be passed.
Johnson toggles back and forth between these three narrative yarns well enough as the stakes grow more desperate. But after the first third of the film, when the table is set, the second act gets a little bloated and unwieldy. There’s a lengthy diversion to the casino planet of Canto Bight (a ritzy Monaco for the galaxy’s one percent that’s like Mos Eisley with tuxedos and baccarat) that feels pointless and tacked on just for the sake of giving us a cool new corner of the galaxy to feast our eyes on. Meanwhile Driver’s Kylo Ren and Ridley’s Rey have formed a telepathic connection that plays out like a slightly cheesy sci-fi version of Ghost. Each in their own way is trying to woo the other to their side. Is it romantic? A manipulative power play? Maybe both? Either way, Isaac and Boyega seem to be sidelined or stuck in idle for long stretches. Unfortunately for the future of the franchise, it’s the old faces that provide the most poignant moments. We know that The Last Jedi will be Fisher’s final film, and we savor every moment with her like we’re saying goodbye to a loved one. And Hamill, who once created one of cinema’s most iconic characters but would never be considered by anyone to be a great actor, gives the single best acting performance of his career. When he first enters the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and first reunites with his old friend Artoo, you might even get choked up.
Despite the flabby mid-section of the film and its menagerie of new alien creatures that are a mixed bag (Yay, Porgs with their squat guinea pig bodies and sad Anime saucer eyes; boo to the others that look like exiles from The Neverending Story), Johnson really delivers with the third and final act. The climactic last 45 minutes of the film is as thrilling and spectacular as anything Star Wars has ever given us. There are cool, mythic hand-to-hand battles, breathtaking aerial sequences, and one mano a mano showdown that’s as epic as anything Sergio Leone ever dreamed up. And again, the film ends on a note that feels…just…right.
The Last Jedi is a triumph with flaws. But through those flaws, it leaves us with a message as old as time. Our heroes don’t live forever. Death is inevitable. But their battle, if passed down to the right hands, will continue along with their memories. Both in front of and behind the camera, Star Wars has been passed to the right hands. The Force will live on. In these troubled, angry, and divisive times, that message of resistance isn’t just the stuff of innocuous tentpole diversions, it’s the closest thing we have to A New Hope. B+