There was a comforting sense of deja vu in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which kicked off a new trilogy by mimicking the plot structure of the original film. Don’t worry about falling into a rut, though. The next chapter, “The Last Jedi” — Episode 8 if you’re scoring along at home (and I know you are) — parallels “The Empire Strikes Back” incidentally but goes in bold new directions while delivering familiarity. Written and directed with thoughtfulness and visual flair by Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper”), it also gives “Empire” a run for its money as the best Star War.
“The Last Jedi” picks up right where we left off. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found hermit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a remote island on a remote planet with the intention of bringing him out of retirement to help the Resistance (which a generation earlier was called the Rebellion) take down the First Order (which rose from the ashes of the defeated Galactic Empire). Like most hermits, Luke is grumpy and regretful. He tried to rebuild the Jedi Order a few years ago, but a certain pupil turned to the Dark Side, killed a bunch of people, and made Luke come to the conclusion that the Jedi should just die out. REAL HELPFUL, LUKE.
Rey, no slouch in the Force department herself, is psychically connected to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the aforementioned misbehaving student who’s now a disciple of the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and would like to be a new Darth Vader when he grows up. There’s some question of whether Kylo Ren still has a spark of good in him — heck, Anakin Skywalker still did at the end of his life, and he’d done worse things. Rey’s origins and potential are also matters of discussion and concern.
Meanwhile, Resistance leader Gen. Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is at odds with her best, cockiest pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a hotshot who reminds everyone a bit of the late Han Solo. When Leia is sidelined, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) takes charge and has even less patience for “trigger-happy fly-boys” like Poe than Leia did. The First Order, led by the ever-hammy, slowly-losing-it Gen. Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), has tracked the Resistance fleet even through light speed, and it’s only a matter of time before the rebels run out of fuel, their shields come down, and the First Order destroys them. Does Holdo even have a plan?
You know who does have a plan? Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a low-level Resistance crew member who befriends Finn (John Boyega), the reformed Stormtrooper who continues to have doubts about how involved he wants to get with this whole thing. With a tip from owlish space pirate Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), Rose and Finn go looking for a particular expert who can be found in a place known for attracting the worst elements of society, a real hive of scum and villainy, if you will. It’s not a filthy cantina, though — it’s a lavish casino, playground of wealthy war profiteers and other rich villains. There are fine adventures to be had on that planet, including a stampede of space-horses and a reintroduction to the child-slavery theme that made “The Phantom Menace” such a hoot. (Also: a drunk space-leprechaun putting coins into BB-8, whom he mistakes for a slot machine.)
Your old friends Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2 are here, plus a few new characters introduced in “The Force Awakens,” plus a new species of adorable birds that live on Luke’s hermit island and serve no story purpose but are, as noted, adorable (and presumably delicious). You will also find Benicio del Toro as a mysterious rogue, and several sublime callbacks to previous episodes that deepen the mythology without feeling like wedged-in “fan service.”
The conflict still raging inside Kylo Ren is manifested throughout the film in the form of characters and objects being divided: an ugly scar down the middle of someone’s face; someone literally being cut in half; etc. Even the Resistance is briefly split into factions over loyalty concerns, though those problems are worse at the First Order, where Hux and Kylo Ren’s grappling for power shows the weakness inherent in a tyrannical system.
Now the thing about Rian Johnson, as you know if you’ve seen any of his other films, is that he’s very good at making films. “Brick” was set in modern reality but used the language of film noir to color its story. “The Brothers Bloom” saw the world through a prism of whimsy, misdirection, and con-artistry. “Looper” was thrilling science-fiction about supernatural forces and history’s tendency to repeat itself. All of these, it turns out, were good practice for the “Star Wars” franchise, where old cinematic styles, parlor tricks, and lessons about creeping authoritarianism are part of the landscape.
True to the formula, Johnson tells his part of the saga by breaking the story into separate threads, each with its own set of objectives, and hopscotching between them. Every location has its action scenes, none of them superfluous, all shot and edited with obvious concern for maximum clarity and impact. Some elements that were computer-generated in previous entries (and looked it) appear authentic here, either because Johnson switched to practical effects or because technology got better (I don’t really care which).
Johnson also continues the trend started by J.J. Abrams in “The Force Awakens” of giving the characters complex emotions and motivations. Humanity was never a strong suit for tech-minded George Lucas, but it abounds in Abrams and Johnson. “The Last Jedi” has people struggling with personal weaknesses, moral dilemmas, incipient romantic conflicts, and the fear of repeating past mistakes. There’s heroism, fear, remorse, and humility, all intensified by charismatic performances and Johnson’s boundless optimism, which is never bogged down by ponderous speeches. As the rebels’ beloved princess-turned-general has been known to say, the most important thing is hope. We head into the final chapter of the Skywalker saga with plenty of it, both for the fictional heroes and for the story that’s been part of our lives for 40 years.
A- (2 hrs., 32 min.; )