Whew! With all due respect to those who loved the dour shoot-em-up violence of Rogue One, Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi thankfully returns to the tone of fun, adventure, and especially camaraderie that J.J. Abrams established so well in The Force Awakens.
We love and resent the Star Wars movies in equal measure for their familiarity. The Force Awakens echoed the basic structure of the original Star Wars — which had its roots in millennia of human storytelling — yet it was still criticized as the most derivative thing in the history of derivation. Similarly, The Last Jedi hits many of The Empire Strikes Back’s overall beats: The good guys are being pursued by the bad guys while the Force-sensitive protagonist is on a remote planet with a cranky Jedi.
Though we return to Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke Skywalker (Brigsby Bear’s Mark Hamill) on that mountain soon enough, The Last Jedi begins not where The Force Awakens left off but rather with a big space battle, led by the increasingly cocky Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who butts heads with General Leia (Carrie Fisher) along the way. Still, The Last Jedi frequently zigs when you might otherwise expect it to zag.
Perhaps more than any other Star Wars film, even the previous one with the word Jedi in the title, The Last Jedi is concerned with family. Not in the sense of who sprang from whose loins — though the issue of Rey’s parentage is an ongoing concern — but rather that these are people who care about each other. When separated, they frequently ask about their absent friends, while heartbreaking new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) points out to the returning Finn (John Boyega) they’ll win the war not by killing what they hate, but saving what they love. There’s still plenty of “go to a place to get a thing to do a thing” plot mechanics, but even with the legion of visual effects artists at work, some of the most effective scenes are told with the simplest cinematic language. A look between two characters speaks more than a million pixels, and the way Johnson visualizes a psychic bond between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) demonstrates the power of montage at its most basic.
Haunting the proceedings is the fact that Carrie Fisher passed away after filming, and The Last Jedi is a far more fitting tribute to her than the CGI nightmare at the end of Rogue One. Meanwhile, between this and Twin Peaks: The Return, it should be clear that if you want to make your latest entry in a decades-old franchise even better, just add Laura Dern with crayon-colored hair. Whether as the foul-mouthed Diane in Twin Peaks: The Return or Vice Admiral Holdo in The Last Jedi — who you just know would say “Fuck you, Poe” if she could — Dern gets shit done.
The Last Jedi is not a perfect Star Wars movie by any means. (Luke refers to his lightsaber as “a laser sword,” so that’s canon now.) But y’know what? The Porgs are fine. They’re more like Tribbles than Ewoks, anyway.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Opens Thursday at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission, the AMC Metreon 16, the Century San Francisco Centre 9, the AMC Van Ness 14, the AMC Dine-In Kabuki, the CineArts Empire, the Presidio Theatre, and the Balboa Twin.
Opens Friday at the Embarcadero Center Cinema and the AMC Dine-In Kabuki.