There’s a lot to unload from The Last Jedi, the intensely-awaited continuance of the new Star Wars trilogy. I went in with the intent of making a list of the film’s primary plot points to avoid writing any crucial spoilers in my review. That list turned out to be longer than I thought, occupying two pages of my reporter’s notebook. As you may have guessed from such a length, the film does answer many of the questions left hanging after The Force Awakens and even brings a handful of arcs to conclusions I was not anticipating. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it’s all scrunched into a 152-minute epic that hardly has time to breathe between dark discoveries, weird alien creatures, and booming space battles.
As the middle chapter of this latest Star Wars trilogy, director Rian Johnson has aimed to make The Last Jedi the familiar narrative of kicking the heroes down a hole to crawl out of, and it’s a mighty big hole this time. The Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), are now falling back after their successful destruction of the First Order’s Starkiller Base, the mega Death Star that could blow up multiple planets at a time. The First Order still has an armada with a massive battleship, The Dreadnought, that might not be able to blow up planets, but can make short work of a Resistance Base or an entire fleet. Even if that ship goes down, there’s no shortage of big cannons for blowing up rebel scum, from space and land.
Facing their toughest hour, the Resistance needs all the help it can get from some unlikely heroes. Fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) continues to lead the Resistance fighters into battle but needs to learn to make better calls that don’t lead all his men towards kamikaze maneuvers (and there’s a lot of them in this film). Stormtrooper-turned-Resistance-fighter Finn (John Boyega) believes he can use his First Order knowledge to save the day but will require some extra help from the plucky engineer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). Both will have to contend with the stern Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) that has her risky strategies as well.
Elsewhere, potential Jedi knight Rey (Daisy Ridley) has sought the tutelage of hermit Jedi Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), whose days of wielding the powers of the Force are behind him. Of course, there’s the obvious comparison to the similar trials Luke went through in The Empire Strikes Back with Master Yoda. History is repeating itself, but Luke is a far more notable curmudgeon for wanting to change all that this time. And after what he reveals about the First Order’s star Sith Lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), you start to understand his desire to cut himself off from the world. By that same token, the more we learn about Kylo Ren’s history, his plight is a little more sympathetic for his rage and bitterness for not appeasing the sinister Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).
These characters and themes are enough to weave a brilliantly somber bridge picture but must struggle to share the screen with so much else going on in the plot. Even at over two hours, the film feels overstuffed with so much going on that some of the more strong emotional scenes don’t carry as massive an impact as they should. I liked the inclusion of Benicio del Toro as a shapeshifter, but his introduction requires a detour to a casino planet that feels criminally underexplored, even with the abundance of alien-looking patrons and weird horse creatures raced for sport. There’s an epic fight between Finn and his bitter former superior Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), but she arrives so late to the party that their confrontation doesn’t hold the same level of intensity that was present in the previous film. There’s a backstory to Rose and her mission but she is fighting for screen time so badly. There are so many character arcs, backstories, Jedi mythos, space battles, lightsaber duels, and technobabble of ship strategies that there’s enough material here for three whole movies. No wonder Rian Johnson is considering making an entire Star Wars trilogy of his very own.
For cramming so much into this story, there’s no doubt this will be a very divisive film for the Star Wars fans, especially those with fan theories that will perhaps be dismayed all their predictions did not come true. Still, I have to give Rian Johnson credit for going a little bolder by attempting to defy convention and not leave too many loose threads hanging by the end of the picture. The humor is still there, the space battles are more epic, and there are enough twists to keep the story interesting with no guarantees about who will survive. At the very least, Hamill’s performance is a major highlight, portraying Luke as the most badass Jedi that ever lived. If The Force Awakens was a fitting salute to Han Solo and Rogue One a tribute to making Darth Vader a fearsome foe, this movie is Luke’s time to shine as the brightest spark of heroism in this saga. The Force is certainly still with him.