It’s always tricky to write about a movie you really, really don’t want to spoil for anybody. Here I am, trying to figure out how to talk to you about Star Wars: The Last Jedi without telling you anything about Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
But just a few days from the movie’s release, there’s at least one thing we can safely talk about: The Last Jedi’s very unique place in the Star Wars franchise. 2015’s The Force Awakens—which kicked off this new Star Wars trilogy—had a tricky job. It was tasked with reintroducing audiences to the Star Wars galaxy after a trio of disappointing prequels, and mounting the first continuation of the story—at least in the movies—since 1983. Director J.J. Abrams pulled it off by delivering a great Episode VII, but a relatively safe one, consciously emulating the basic narrative arc of the very first Star Wars movie while bringing it up to the style and pace of a modern-day blockbuster.
The Last Jedi has a different job, and arguably an even trickier one. Now that audiences have been re-immersed in the Star Wars saga, it’s time for this modern Star Wars to take off the training wheels and carve out its own identity—a tightrope walk between embracing the franchise’s beloved past and charting a course for its long-term future.
So does The Last Jedi pull it off? I loved The Force Awakens, but The Last Jedi is even better.
The greatest strength of the new Star Wars trilogy is how effortlessly it has integrated a series of instantly lovable new characters into the Star Wars universe. The Force Awakens brought Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, Maz Kanata, and BB-8, as well as promising new baddies like Kylo Ren and General Phasma. The Last Jedi doubles down on everything that worked about those characters in The Force Awakens. It also makes dramatic improvements to dodgier supporting players like General Hux and Supreme Leader Snoke, who are vastly more interesting here. And The Last Jedi introduces three brand-new characters, all terrific: DJ (Benicio del Toro), Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), and—most of all—Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). Oh, and as long as I’m doling out effusive praise: I went into The Last Jedi as a committed porg skeptic. Just a couple hours later, I loved the porgs. You will too.
But while this ever-increasing ensemble cast represents the future of the Star Wars franchise, The Last Jedi merits special praise for how deftly it wields the franchise’s past. As the latest installment in a decades-old franchise, The Last Jedi benefits from the weight of history, but it’s also wise enough not to indulge in too much schmaltzy nostalgia.
One of the great things about The Force Awakens was Harrison Ford’s final performance as Han Solo—so poignant and finessed when it would have been easy for Ford to coast on his work in the original trilogy. The Last Jedi gets similar mileage out of both Mark Hamill and the late Carrie Fisher. Both performances contain recognizable elements of their work in the original Star Wars trilogy—but much has happened since Return of the Jedi, and The Last Jedi also accounts for how much those years might have changed them. Both Hamill and Fisher are given the opportunity to explore unexpected and compelling new sides of Luke and Leia, and both of them rise to the occasion.
The Last Jedi is long—nearly 30 minutes longer than any other Star Wars movie to date—and there were several times when I was convinced that the credits were about to roll. When they finally did, it was on a scene I never would have expected—but a perfect capper, in both story and theme, to both The Last Jedi and the Star Wars franchise as a whole to this moment. You have to imagine Disney’s hot streak with Star Wars will come to an end eventually. Even the best franchises have their clunkers. But for now, the future of the Star Wars galaxy has never seemed so big or so bright.
Scott Meslow will return (like a Jedi) with a spoiler-filled review next Monday.