When Disney bought the entire Star Wars franchise from Lucasfilm for all the money in the galaxy, the deal forced a reckoning: Over 40 years, George Lucas garnered a massive and rabid fanbase for his singular vision of old-fashioned matinees refashioned for a galaxy far, far away — but it also remained tethered to his whims. (Knock those dopey prequels all you want, but they were the movies Lucas wanted to make.)
Millions of fans clamored for satisfaction after the first trilogy, but what they faced was an unwieldy assemblage of Star Wars media in a constant state of identity crisis. There was Jar Jar Binks; there was Hayden Christensen as a young Darth Vader; there were plans to re-release “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith” in 3D.
The first post-acquisition movie, J.J. Abrams'” The Force Awakens,” took some stabs at creating a more vital and singular vision, but it achieved that goal largely through unapologetic homage and refashioning the original formula. Now we have Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” — and finally, we can see the future. Under the fastidious guidance of writer-director Johnson, “The Last Jedi” turns the commercial restrictions of this behemoth into a Trojan horse for rapid-fire filmmaking trickery and narrative finesse. The result is the most satisfying entry in this bumpy franchise since “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980.
Johnson’s filmmaking resume makes it easy to argue that he approaches “Star Wars” as an auteur — and in this case, the argument has merit. Johnson’s screenplay plays into fan expectations while upending them with clever structural gimmicks and tonal shifts reminiscent of his previous features “Brick,” “The Brothers Bloom,” and “Looper.” However, by using the language of blockbuster cinema to clarify his ambitions, Johnson outdoes them all. The movie is a manipulative tale of Rebel forces alternately fleeing and confronting their enemies from the First Order, with side trips to wondrous planets, cute animals, and giddy lightsaber battles. It’s also a canny statement on why those things hold appeal: They distract us. And while we’re distracted, Johnson unleashes a fresh bag of tricks.
Of course, “The Last Jedi” must also keep the “Star Wars” machine moving forward. “The Force Awakens” ended on an abrupt note, with tough-minded scrapper-turned-Jedi-novice Rey (Daisy Ridley) tracking the reclusive Luke Skywalker (a bearded, leathery Mark Hamill) to the desolate, watery planet of Ahch-To. Johnson will get there, but first offers a flashy space-battle prelude to get the obligatory spectacle out of the way.
With the New Order aiming its giant space cannons squarely at the Rebels, ace Rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, once again sinking his teeth into cocky Han Solo territory) speeds to the massive ship of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), a cheesy villain with an awful haircut who serves to please Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis as a saurian monstrosity of dubious origins). Hux’s silly bad-guy confidence almost seem like camp, but the movie’s smarter than that. So’s Poe, who promptly begins to troll the villain on the spaceship intercom. It’s an early indication of Johnson’s confidence, injecting the material with humorous self-awareness to leaven the seismic events.
Though there’s plenty of discussion about the spiritual prospects of the force, and the philosophical justifications for fighting through dire times, Johnson doesn’t shy from calling out the entertainment value in play (“Permission to jump in an X-wing and blow things up?”), acknowledging that the series’ essence lies as much in the art of spectacle as in its epic world-building. From the astonishing light-and-color show in the opening minutes, the movie never lets up, communing with a cinematic tradition that has its roots in Lucas’ original ambitions in the avant garde.
As the Rebels flee the First Order before realizing that they might be trapped in space, the bulk of the movie juts between two scenarios: The Rebels’ quest for survival, under the trenchant guidance of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, whose final role is a study in rousing confidence), and Rey’s efforts on Ahch-To to convince the despondent Luke that his old peers need him. It all builds to another face-off, of course, but even the most devout Star Wars fan won’t be able to guess how it gets there.