Not only is Star Wars: The Last Jedi the best entry in the series since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, it may well be the first to truly break new cinematic ground since the 1977 original. Writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper, the best episodes of “Breaking Bad”) employs the full arsenal of what a science fiction space opera can be without appearing stylistically or narratively held back by any of the previous films. Callbacks are at a minimum, the famous Lucas wipes between scenes are totally gone, and any instances of fanservice advance the story without pandering. Star Wars was rebooted two years ago, but now it’s back.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
PG-13, 152 minutes
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX and Violet Crown Cinema
All of this trailblazing is fitting for a tale based on realizing that one’s destiny may be to bury the past and rebuild rather than to correct the failures of those who came before. At the end of The Force Awakens, we see Luke Skywalker living as a hermit on an isolated island on a planet in a remote corner of the galaxy. Rey (Daisy Ridley) hands him the light saber he used to accomplish feats that have become the stuff of legend, and the silent stare he gives speaks volumes. When we meet him in The Last Jedi, he promptly throws that cherished relic over his shoulder, having come to the conclusion that he is anything but a legend, that he must die in isolation and take the entire memory of the Jedi Order with him. Luke becomes a mentor to Rey, but not the same sort that Yoda was to him; despite Rey’s obvious talent and determination, Luke is attempting to show the truth of the Force, that it will continue to exist without the Jedi and their supposed failures, including his own that led Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to fully embrace the dark side.
Meanwhile, the First Order is closing in on the last remnants of the Resistance. General Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) goal is to reach safety, when Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), against orders, turns what was a defensive maneuver into a full-on counter-strike, destroying an enemy dreadnought but suffering massive casualties in doing so. After fleeing, the forces led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) are somehow able to track the escaping ships through light speed, essentially rendering all further escape attempts useless. Leia is incapacitated by a subsequent strike, so it is up to Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) to bring them to safety while Finn (John Boyega) and maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) attempt a much riskier mission behind her back.
Even if you can predict what happens next, even if the film has been spoiled for you, it won’t matter because The Last Jedi delivers on every level. Johnson draws as much on Kurosawa as he does on Lucas and J.J. Abrams, breathing new life into what a battle involving blasters, light sabers and AT-AT walkers can be. Johnson juxtaposes nihilism with hope, and asks whether anyone can be truly free when they are locked in such an eternal battle, regardless of whether they’re on the “good” side. To accomplish this artistically, he fuses elements of Western films, 1960s science fiction, classic World War II movies and the best Samurai showdown since the 1970s, to make something new, just as Lucas synthesized his own vision from many influences decades ago. It looks marvelous, the occasional comedy is natural without a hint of self-deprecation, and every character is vital. I even liked the porgs.
Playing this week
Alamo Drafthouse Cinema
377 Merchant Walk Sq., 326-5056
Coco, The Disaster Artist, Ferdinand, The Greatest Showman
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX
The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213
Ferdinand, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
Violet Crown Cinema
200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000
Coco, The Disaster Artist