Star Wars burst upon the scene in May 1977. Later I came to appreciate that it wasn’t the ‘best movie ever,’ by far, but coming so early in my cinematic education, it was a turning point, bringing my adolescent love of literary science fiction to a conclusion.
Forty years later, the arrival of the eighth episode (and ninth installment in the series) brings with it so much baggage, personal and otherwise, that it’s very difficult to watch Star Wars: The Last Jedi from an open and fresh perspective. Nonetheless, I did the best I could to set aside memories of the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy, as well as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and think only about Star Wars: The Force Awakens for comparison’s sake.
In that light, The Last Jedi is a marvelous achievement.
Within 10 minutes, The Force Awakens made clear that it was following similar story beats along with a comparable lead character as the original film — and then introduced more characters who were reminiscent of the original players. It was anything but risk-taking, yet J.J. Abrams has been doing that his entire career, mostly with great elan, consummate skill, and a head-long pace, so the end results was quite enjoyable.
In contrast, writer/director Rian Johnson has been much more of a gambler. In his previous three features — Brick (2005), The Brothers Bloom (2008), Looper (2012)– he’s infused new life into familiar genres. My personal jumping-on point was the first (of three) episodes he directed of Breaking Bad in 2010, an excellent series that he nonetheless elevated in that episode.
Within 10 minutes, The Last Jedi signals that it does not intend to follow the narrative pattern of The Empire Strikes Back. This is a sprawling affair, though still indebted to the earlier films. It picks up moments after the conclusion of The Force Awakens, when everyone is still reeling, yet still determined to press onward.
Johnson also applies his own directorial touches to the action sequences. It’s in the writing, though, that he affects the greatest variations. The personalities of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) have already been established, for example, but Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) shades a bit different than might have been expected.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is not the Luke Skywalker that anyone remembers. And new characters like Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) and DJ (Benicio Del Toro) continue to expand the new series’ wonderful diversity.
Johnson has a lot of story that he wants to tell and that contributes to a rushed feeling in the final third of the film. What feels like a great b-movie — in the finest, most complimentary sense — reveals itself to be the introduction to an epic.
It’s a pretty, pretty good epic, all things considered. It shapes up very nicely as the second installment of a trilogy that is not at all as dark as might have been feared, and veers sufficiently away from expectations to be a very satisfying cinematic experience.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, December 15.