Nostalgia can only get you so far, even when wookiees are involved. While 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens succeeded in its designated task of rescuing the venerable franchise from the doldrums of its prequels, it also practiced a frustrating form of risk aversion, putting the next generation of characters through some very familiar paces. (Now coming up on your left: another Death Star!)
Thankfully, The Force Awakens’ thunderously hyped sequel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, takes a much more proactive tack, fully honoring the touchstones of the series while zigging and zagging in satisfying, provocative ways. If the previous entry presented a respectably staid melding of old and new, this one wires everything up, cranks the juice, and lets her rip. It’s escapism on a grand scale—the kind of experience that reminds you why you fell in love with movies in the first place. Believe the hype, and then some.
Picking up a few frames after the conclusion of The Force Awakens, the story follows Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley) as she attempts to persuade crotchety old hermit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to rejoin the battle between the opposing aspects of the Force, while also exploring her lingering psychic connection with vengeful dark-sider Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Meanwhile, the rest of the good guys find themselves on the run and vastly outgunned, with their last few ships struggling to maintain a minimum safe distance from the encroaching nu-Empire. No other details will be given, other than to say that this is the rare middle installment in a trilogy that actually has a satisfying resolution—and that Luke Skywalker is vastly more fun as a cranky old coot than his callow farmboy days ever suggested.
Writer/director Rian Johnson proves to be an inspired choice to take the reins, with the small-scale ingenuity demonstrated in his previous films Brick and Looper successfully expanding to blockbuster parameters. (As fans of the latter know, he has a delightfully blunt habit of cutting through excessive sci-fi mumbo jumbo.) While Johnson’s clearly a devotee of the established canon, he’s also not enslaved to it—he tweaks the existing characters and concepts in ways that feel organically thorny, while also bringing a number of intriguing new folks into the mix. (Kelly Marie Tran’s optimistic Resistance engineer, Rose, makes a strong bid for MVP.)
There’s just so much neat stuff here to take in at any given moment: a terrifically staged ground skirmish that lifts its color scheme from late Kurosawa; a return to the pleasantly ramshackle vehicle designs of the original films; and plenty of lines for the late, great Carrie Fisher to absolutely demolish. Even the ridiculously adorable ewok replacements known as porgs bring a welcome sense of Warner Bros. cartoon anarchy to their appearances—which should hopefully take a bit of the sting out of the upcoming Christmas merchandise stampedes.
At a time when more and more movies seem concerned with maintaining the boring status quo, the anything-can-happen vibe that Johnson & Co. bring to The Last Jedi’s familiar surroundings feels like cause for celebration. Throughout, The Last Jedi delivers the all-too-rare thrill of a huge popcorn movie that respects the intelligence of its audience, while also serving up plenty of moments designed to make them lose their damn minds. (At my screening, the resolution of a space battle generated a collective moan from the audience.) Lord only knows how the series goes on to top this—but for now, lightsabers are once again the coolest things in the universe.