Star Wars fans can rest easy, though, because director Rian Johnson’s installment of the beloved sci-fi saga doesn’t just satisfy expectations — it triumphantly exceeds them.
Directed and written by Johnson, The Last Jedi brings back The Force Awakens stars Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson, as well as franchise veterans Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Anthony Daniels to continue the story of the brave rebels battling the sinister forces of the First Order, the brutal military organization that rose from the ashes of the Galactic Empire. The film introduces new characters played by Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, and Benicio del Toro, and picks up shortly after the events of The Force Awakens.
The Last Jedi clocks in at a hefty 152-minute running time, making it the longest installment of the series so far, but the film does an impressive job of mixing new and familiar elements in a way that makes it feel more compact and efficient than its runtime suggests. Where The Force Awakens occasionally felt bogged down in reverence for the original trilogy — particularly 1977’s franchise-spawning first installment — The Last Jedi seems more inclined to spread its narrative wings and explore the universe that the eight prior films established.
Of the returning characters, Ridley’s mysterious, Force-sensitive scavenger, Rey, and Driver’s angsty aspiring Sith, Kylo Ren, are the most extensively developed in The Last Jedi, with Rey’s story arc serving up a particularly satisfying bridge between the past and the future of the Star Wars franchise. Although the film does an impressive job of spreading screen time around among its large cast, it’s her story that does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to expanding the saga narratively and validating what is — and more frequently, what isn’t — important about the series canon.
That last aspect of the film is an important one, as Johnson’s willingness to acknowledge then overtly dismiss or minimize certain elements or moments that Star Wars fans have been trained to revere is not just a bold move, but a refreshing one — due in no small way to how expertly it’s handled.
The Star Wars franchise isn’t exactly known for its comedy, but Johnson’s script peppers the story with funny moments that play to his cast’s strengths. The dry humor of series veterans Hamill and Fisher provides some of the film’s funniest moments, and Johnson’s script seems unafraid to poke fun at what the audience expects from the film, only to turn around and offer something more rewarding to fans in return.
That self-awareness and a willingness not to take itself too seriously (Star Wars is essentially one big space opera, after all) is a big part of what makes The Last Jedi feel unique in the franchise. The “space magic” wielded by the heroes and villains of the franchise is treated as exactly that in The Last Jedi — with no further explanation necessary — and although the story generally remains compelling enough to earn the suspension of disbelief it begs, the film has moments that might verge too far into the campy for some audiences.
Driver’s brooding, Force-wielding First Order soldier Kylo Ren is the recipient of more character development in the film, but he still feels entirely unthreatening throughout most of The Last Jedi. His emo version of Darth Vader quickly wears out its welcome in the film, so it’s fortunate that The Last Jedi spends more time on its hero characters than on Kylo and the First Order. Driver’s character is clearly intended to show fans what Anakin or Luke Skywalker might have been like without the tempering influence of their Jedi mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, but along with being more destructive and petulant than either Jedi, Kylo is also exponentially more annoying.
Johnson seems well aware of this aspect of Driver’s character, though, and his willingness to poke fun at Kylo’s persistent moodiness in The Last Jedi makes the character infinitely more tolerable.
In what is expected to be her final film in the franchise (due to her death in December 2016), Fisher is captivating and compelling as General Leia Organa, and the role she plays in the events that transpire is fitting for her station both in the Star Wars universe and as one of its greatest icons. The caliber of her performance is matched by that of fellow franchise star Hamill, whose Luke Skywalker might be older and wiser in The Last Jedi, but is still haunted by the character flaws that made him so endearing (and again, occasionally annoying) in the original trilogy.
No mere cameo players in this newly revived Star Wars series, Fisher and Hamill — like Harrison Ford before them — have important parts to play in The Last Jedi and perform with a conviction that ultimately honors the franchise.
More so than The Force Awakens before it, The Last Jedi offers the most exciting, wonder-inspiring view of the franchise’s future so far. Johnson’s film is a great reminder of the saga’s potential for thrilling stories, powerful emotional moments, and a genuine sense of fun, and it provides that reminder without getting wrapped up in nostalgic navel-gazing.
If The Last Jedi is a sign of what’s to come for the Star Wars universe, the future certainly looks bright.