Good and evil are inextricably entwined in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI. It makes for a pleasing metaphysical subtext to a film with spectacular action sequences, pointed references to the political economics of the class struggle, and a character in Benicio Del Toro whose nihilism carries with it a whiff of Zen philosophy at its purest.
Writer/ director Rian Johnson starts things off with one of those action sequences, a space battle that, philosophically, pits hot-shot flyboy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) against wise and sardonic General (Princess) Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). It’s not that Leia doesn’t appreciate Poe’s bravado in taking out the First Order’s mega-weapon, but the cost in lives of the rebel Alliance gives her pause. It also prompts her to demote Poe, who fumes, but doesn’t lose his swagger.
Meanwhile Ray (Daisy Ridley), last seen finding Leia’s long-lost brother, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), finds in the titular last Jedi a man who would prefer to be left alone in self-exile on his remote island where the unholy slithers through the waters offshore, and the unspeakable provides Luke with that blue milk that has been a staple of the franchise. Leia’s hope of using him to spark the waning resistance seems doomed, until Ray’s persistence, and uncanny affinity for The Force, convince him that perhaps in Ray he has found a student. Even when Ray’s first tutorial takes her places Luke could not have anticipated and provokes a mixed reaction.
Further meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), is suffering rejection by his surrogate father, Snoke (Andy Serkis), not to mention being taunted by Snoke about the helmet he wears in emulation of his hero, and grandfather, Darth Vader. His ersatz sibling rivalry with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) over Snoke’s approval does little to improve his mood.
Final further meanwhile, Finn (John Boyega), the storm trooper turned rebel, recovers from injuries sustained in the last film just in time to go on an adventure with Alliance true-believer and low-level technician, plucky Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). It’s an adventure, of course, on which the survival of the rebellion depends.
All these stories will eventually coalesce, but while they play out separately, we are treated to first-rate ripping yarns that do more than entertain, they illuminate aspects, good and bad, of human nature, if you will forgive a term about primates applied to a universe where sentience is not dependent on being one. Light sabers clash in showers of sparks, Chewbacca makes friends with a birdlike creature with melting eyes, and The Force is revealed as far more dangerous a proposition than heretofore suspected. Johnson infuses the proceedings with the same sense of wisecracking fun that made the original (now known as EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE) so irresistible, while also ambitiously expanding on the mythos. An expansion that includes the backstory of how Ben Solo became father-killer Kylo Ren, who emerges as the most intriguing character in this installment. Driver’s brooding performance, equal parts justifiable resentment and melancholy, is wonderfully nuanced, and a perfect counterpoint to Ridley’s explosive idealism, though it is an idealism fighting its own battle to dominate her own deep-seated angst over having been abandoned by her parents when she was a child. Her dream vision of that ache is a masterpiece of psychology and visual concept.
There is also a piquant shout-out to the classic short, HARDWARE WARS for hard-core fanboys and girls (I’m one), and a visit to the polar opposite of the cantina Luke and Han Solo visited so long ago when they first met. The people are better dressed, but far more dangerous. Plus, those birdlike creatures, which are an homage, not to mention a distinct improvement, over those annoying Ewoks from the first trilogy.
Any film that starts with the line “prime the dreadnought” impeccably delivered with imperial insouciance by Mr. Gleeson, is one worth seeing. What follows is a fanboy’s love letter to the franchise, and one that dares to wrestle with propositions of sin, redemption, and, balance. Even more impressively, Johnson has taken the thankless task of making what is essentially a bridge between the two of other film in the trilogy, and made it a standalone film that can be taken, and enjoyed, on its own. Even the necessary exposition about what has come before is handled nimbly, seamlessly integrated into the dialogue. Sharply written, vividly realized, it boasts some of the best CGI available, but never forgets amid the ice foxes and knuckle-biting chases in the Millennium Falcon. both above ground and below, that without a compelling story and characters that surprise, charm, and sometimes confound us, we in the audience won’t be emotionally invested. It doesn’t just remember that, it makes it the raison d’être for the exercise. And makes THE LAST JEDI not just one of the best of the Star Wars franchise, but one of the best of the year.
Post Script: It should be noted that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is credited (voice-only) as Slowen Lo. Gordon-Levitt starred in Johnson’s first film, the brilliant BRICK, and he’s been in every one of Johnson’s film’s since, even if it’s only a cameo like here.