Review: Psst … ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Is Really Good!

Posted December 12, 2017 12:21 p.m. EST

Evil is ascendant. The Resistance — an intrepid, multi-everything group whose leaders include a battle-tested woman warrior — has been fighting the good fight for years but is outnumbered and occasionally outmaneuvered. Yes, the latest “Star Wars” installment is here, and, lo, it is a satisfying, at times transporting entertainment. Remarkably, it has visual wit and a human touch, no small achievement for a seemingly indestructible machine that revved up 40 years ago and shows no signs of sputtering out (ever).

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” picks up where the story left off two years ago in “The Force Awakens,” the leadoff of the series’ newest trilogy. Keeping track of where each “Star Wars” title fits into the overall scheme of things can be brain-numbing (the movies weren’t made in story-chronological order), but the strongest ones work as stand-alones and let you just go with the on-screen flow. The writer-director of “The Last Jedi,” Rian Johnson, frontloads the critical back story intel — who’s fighting who and the like — in the opening crawl. And then he gets down to the difficult business of putting his fingerprints on a franchise that deliberately resists individual authorship.

Johnson largely succeeds despite having inherited an elaborate ecosystem with a Manichaean worldview divided between heroes (aka the Resistance) and villains (the First Order). That’s about all you need to know to follow this movie, which charts the franchise’s future while continuing to pass the baton from its first holy trinity — Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill — to a new trio, introduced in “The Force Awakens.” Ford’s character, Han Solo, exited the series in that movie. As Leia, Fisher plays a critical role in this new one, but her death last December (after production ended) imparts real melancholy to a series that from its start has been defined — if not always comfortably — by loss.

And so, once upon a time yet again, peace remains elusive and weapons are locked, loaded and often firing. Here, the fight continues with Leia searching for her absent brother, Luke Skywalker (Hamill), while leading the Resistance against the First Order, the dark-side successor to the dictatorial Empire (Darth Vader’s cohort). The old Imperial evildoers have been replaced by the suitably cartoonish-sounding Snoke (created by the hardworking Andy Serkis and digital effects), a wormy, towering ghoul with vivid scars and an insinuating sneer. He commands the usual stormtroopers along with the impetuous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a charismatic villain who has closely fashioned himself after Vader.

The story is a tangle, but its complications are mitigated by Johnson’s quick pace and the appealing performers. Like most contemporary action flicks, this one more or less plays out as a succession of fights, chases and time outs (for chatting, scheming or lonely musing) across two or more plot lines. Having joined together in “The Force Awakens,” the story’s latest dream team — Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger turned warrior; Finn (John Boyega), a First Order deserter turned resister; and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a Resistance fighter pilot — now often spends time apart. Poe spins in Leia’s orbit while Rey pesters Luke, and Finn finds a winning ally (Kelly Marie Tran).

An early heroic death sets the sober mood and stakes while gently re-establishing the franchise’s new commitment to diversifying the overall picture. As in “The Force Awakens,” this inclusion feels natural, a vision of the future you can recognize. About the only time it feels as if Johnson is checking “Star Wars” boxes is in some of the fights, especially during an impasse that turns into a slow-moving game of space chess. He may be checking off some those boxes in an ode to George Lucas; whatever the case, Johnson only infrequently comes across as dutiful or as overtly brand-expanding (as with a troika of calculatingly cute tykes who unnervingly suggest this series really will go on forever). One of the truisms of the “Star Wars” series is that its battle between good and bad has always uneasily and sometimes openly mirrored the attendant struggle between good and bad filmmaking. Lucas’ 1977 foundational movie mostly transcends its flaws with slick looks, hooky effects, old-school heroics and loads of marketable material that helped turn fan love into an ecumenical cult. The second trilogy, entirely directed by Lucas, began in 1999 with “The Phantom Menace” (infamous for the minor scandal called Jar Jar Binks) and is pretty much a drag outside of some fleet lightsaber duels and the arresting black-and-red patterning that distinguishes one villain.

Part of what has already made the new trilogy more successful is that its directors, J.J. Abrams (“The Force Awakens”) and Johnson, are technically adept, commercially savvy “Star Wars” true believers who came of age in the post-Lucas blockbuster era. Each has had to navigate the intricacies of Lucas’ sprawling fiction while handling the deep imprint created by Darth Vader’s heavy-breathing menace, R2-D2’s amusing beeps, Ford’s insouciance, Hamill’s earnestness, and Fisher’s smarts and latter-day screwball charm. Unlike Lucas, though, Abrams and Johnson don’t feel burdened by that legacy; they’re into it, charged up, despite the pressures of such an industrial enterprise. They’re resolving their cinematic father issues with a sense of fun. Johnson can make you forget about those issues as well as the franchise’s insistent obligations; it also seems like he had a good time at work. He brings lightness to his banter, visual flair (not simply bleeding-edge special effects) to the design, and narrative savvy to Rey and Kylo Ren’s relationship. Johnson’s use of deep red is characteristic of how he turns ideas into images, most vividly with a set that looks like something Vincente Minnelli might have dreamed up for a Flash Gordon musical with Gene Kelly. When that set becomes the backdrop to a viscerally exciting fight, all the red abruptly evokes the spilled blood that this otherwise squeaky clean series insistently elides.

Like “The Force Awakens,” “The Last Jedi” engages with the first “Star Wars” movie less as a fetish than as a necessary point of departure. And, like Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi once did, Luke comes off as a brooding monastic loner. With a hooded robe, beard and inexplicable moodiness, he has retreated to an eerily lovely, isolated island where imaginatively designed critters roam and trill. The cutest (right in time for Christmas tie-ins) are Porgs, saucer-eyed mewling creatures with plump, puffin-like bodies that are mainly on hand for easy laughs. The creature design throughout is so inventive — there are less-fuzzy whatsits on the island, too — that you wish more had been added. You feel Johnson periodically reining himself in, yet the movie cuts loose when he does, as when he embraces the galaxy’s strangeness, its non-humanoid beings as well as its magic and mystery. There’s a trippy scene in which a character floats into a resurrection, an ethereal drift that borders on the surreal. It’s a fleeting bliss-out in a series that knows how to bring the weird but has too often neglected to do so amid its blaster zapping, machinations and Oedipal stressing and storming. This is, after all, a franchise in which the most indelible character remains Yoda, the wee, far-out philosophizer with the tufted pate and syntactically distinct truth telling: “Wars not make one great.”

Wars do, however, make warehouses of money as this franchise has been affirming for decades. It’s instructive how normalized its permanent war has become, with its high body count, bloodlessness and fascist chic (the black uniforms evoking the Nazi SS). Given this, it’s notable, too, that while Johnson manages the big-canvas battles well enough, he’s better with smaller-scaled fights, in which the sweat, vulnerabilities and personal costs of violence are foregrounded. With Driver — who delivers a startlingly raw performance — Johnson delivers a potent portrait of villainy that suggests evil isn’t hard-wired, an inheritance or even enigmatic. Here, it is a choice — an act of self-creation in the service of annihilation.

Johnson has picked up the baton — notably the myth of a female Jedi — that was handed to Abrams when he signed on to revive the series with “The Force Awakens.” Johnson doesn’t have to make the important introductions; for the most part, the principals were in place, as was an overarching mythology that during some arid periods has seemed more sustained by fan faith than anything else. Even so, he has to convince you that these searching, burgeoning heroes and villains fit together emotionally, not simply on a Lucasfilm whiteboard, and that they have the requisite lightness and heaviness, the ineffable spirit and grandeur to reinvigorate a pop-cultural juggernaut. That he’s made a good movie in doing so isn’t icing; it’s the whole cake.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

Rated PG-13 for warfare. Running time: 2 hours, 32 minutes.