“The Last Jedi” resolves “The Force Awakens'” cliffhanger with a terrific punchline, does away with one major character’s inane costume choice, and complicates some key origin stories in play. That all happens within the packed first hour, along with an expected bond between Rey and rising First Order baddie Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, less comically emo and more credibly conflicted about his transformation into a tool of utter evil).
While Rey spends her time on a remote island, she interacts with Kylo Ren through a series of mind-melding sequences shot as if the pair were in conversation, resulting in one of the more fascinating approaches to time and space this side of “Inception.” In the midst of Kylo and Rey working through their problems of neglected youth and uncertain allegiances, Johnson shoehorns in a psychedelic dream sequence that deepens the mystique. Both characters exist in a morally ambiguous plane, their fates mysteriously intermingled, and it’s a shrewd, risky maneuver to bring them together in a context beyond the expected duels.
But don’t worry — the duels arrive on schedule. “The Last Jedi” bows to its masters when duty calls, and mileage will vary when it plays into the most obvious beats, including silly nods to old characters and a few corny exchanges. However, there is utter joy in watching Fisher and Hamill resurrect their iconic personas as salty authority figures. Even as the movie foregrounds the rising drama of Rey and Kylo Ren, it brings closure to its longest-lasting characters, honoring the weight of their pop-culture iconography.
As Johnson cedes to the commercial pressure of shifting the story to a younger generation, there’s plenty of potential. While Rey does her thing with Luke, Finn finds a new peer in Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a plucky ship mechanic who joins an effort to track down a hacker with the key to saving the Rebels from being obliterated by the encroaching ship. Tran’s feistiness and lust for adventure matches Finn’s own rising ambitions, and their chemistry may become a historic turning point for representation in mass-market movies.
That aside, they also score the movie’s most endearing tangent, a romp through the hedonistic Canto Bight casino that feels closer to a slick “Ocean’s Eleven” heist movie. When they find the scenery-chewing Benicio Del Toro as the aforementioned hacker he almost seems like an afterthought, but like so many of the details careening through “The Last Jedi,” he never overwhelms the bigger picture.
Still, while rich storytelling makes the movie worthwhile, the details fuse it together. Per usual, the Star Wars universe is overloaded with imaginative life, from dopey giant horse things to quizzical ice foxes and the cute meme du jour known as porgs. As these tiny bird-like critters form a peculiar bond with the ever-endearing Chewbacca, they never get in the way of the more spectacular events in a two-and-a-half-hour odyssey; they’re an opportunity to take a breather and enjoy the world before the laser show kicks off again.
Few laser shows come with so much payoff. One especially gratifying showdown arrives late in the final act, with a “come at me, bro” gesture for the ages, and it follows an unpredictable teaming that doesn’t set the stage for new allegiances so much as it rejuvenates old ones. Johnson’s greatest achievement is while he honors the plot’s need to address the story world’s most-obvious beats, he’s rewired the telling with misdirection and a commitment to intrigue. Ever since Johnson merged the sensibilities of classic hardboiled detective stories with high school drama in “Brick,” he’s shown a serious interest in making old tropes seem new again. Now, that talent has migrated to the grandest scale.
Much has been made of filmmakers getting lured into the machinery of franchise filmmaking and losing their autonomy in the process. At one point, Johnson seemed as vulnerable as anyone, and news that he has already pitched a whole new “Star Wars” trilogy registered as renewing a deal with the devil. Now, he’s a reason to keep paying attention as the franchise continues to grow. Johnson’s ability to deliver a fresh and engaging riff on this beast of an enterprise suggests that not every free-spirited storyteller can be corrupted by Hollywood’s dark side, and some may even give it a new hope.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” opens nationwide on December 15, 2017.