My fandom of Star Wars is so strong that, once again, I waited about three weeks after the opening of The Last Jedi to catch a $5 matinee. No IMAX, no 3-D, no nothing. But guess what? I loved it.
I've admired writer/director Rian Johnson's work ever since Brick, but I was a little apprehensive about his entry into the Star Wars universe after seeing his previous sci fi outing, the messy, overly ambitious Looper. As it turns out, Johnson's ambitions proved a perfect fit for Star Wars. It's not like Lucasfilm gave him free reign – Star Wars storylines are carefully overseen by producer Kathleen Kennedy, story wizard Kiri Hart, and a host of others – but Johnson nevertheless stamped the film with his own idiosyncratic imprimatur, sneaking in the occasional quirky shot or edit and a surprising amount of social commentary. But more on that in a minute.
The film picks up shortly after the conclusion of The Force Awakens, and if that movie aped much of the original Star Wars in its plot, The Last Jedi's analogue is obviously The Empire Strikes Back, with Rey off on a distant planet, trying to learn the ways of the Jedi from a bitter Luke Skywalker, just as Luke once did with (a less bitter) Yoda. Meanwhile, the Rebels – over the course of the movie, characters start dropping the new-fangled term "Resistance" and proudly call themselves Rebels, since that's what they are – struggle against the treacherous First Order, with many mistakes and consistently heavy losses. Pyrrhic victories are the name of the game here.
The Last Jedi excels in its plotting. Johnson rarely lets up on the Rebels' desperation, which from a dramatic point of view is thrilling: with things continually getting worse and worse for our heroes, I kept wondering, "What's going to happen next? How are they going to get out of this? How the hell are we going to get to that scene in the trailer with that awesome salt-coated red planet?" This is what great storytelling is all about.
The film has plenty of action, but unlike The Force Awakens, which careened from one breathless (and often pointless) set piece to the next, its epic length makes time for character development, Force-related mysticism, and even thoughtful takes on war profiteering, animal rights, and the complicated nature of fandom (a new character, Rose Tico, played by the appealing Kelly Marie Tran, is a fangirl in the best sense of the word).
Johnson does play fast and loose with the rules of The Force, particularly in a couple of scenes which I understand annoyed some fans. For me, it was just a reminder that the Star Wars franchise has always been arbitrary about those rules. If it gets a bit silly, then the Force itself is silly.
In short, I was thoroughly satisfied with the film. The effects are great, no character is ignored (although R2D2 and Chewbacca are a little underused), John Williams's score takes all the best bits from his old Star Wars scores and makes them fresh again. Unlike J.J. Abrams, whose callbacks to the first trilogy made The Force Awakens feel like a shallow exercise in nostalgia, Johnson expertly picked all the best things about those first three movies and reworked them not only with purpose but with poignancy. Some quibbles aside – I could have done without the cutesy-poo "Porgs" – The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film to make me feel like a kid since I was a kid.
The film does leave me with a lingering sadness, however, as Carrie Fisher's Princess/General Leia finally comes to the forefront of the story here, after a few fleeting appearances in The Force Awakens. It's clear that she was meant to take a dominant role in the next Star Wars film, and it's heartbreaking that Fisher's untimely death has robbed us of that pleasure. I'm also a bit bummed that Abrams is returning to helm that final chapter, while Johnson moves on to new Star Wars adventures. Let's hope Abrams has picked up a few cues from Johnson's loving, imaginative approach.