The Star Wars saga, beyond merely being a campfire story of the battle between good and evil (or, to borrow the parlance of those within the series, the "light" and the "dark"), has always been about how the past coils into the present to affect change in the future. The trajectory of the narrative cycles of each trilogy - the so-called "original" trilogy from 1977 to 1983, its series of prequels from 1999 to 2005, and now this intended triptych of sequels to the original trilogy (beginning with 2015's Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens) - has reflected upon and rhymed with itself to some degree. The first in each, for instance, has featured an underdog hero from a forgotten planet joining a resistance, just as dogfights erupt between the resistance and their arch nemeses (housed in some weapon of mass destruction).
The job of Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi somewhat reflects that of the two middle installments of the trilogies that came before this one - at least for a time. There is no eleventh-hour revelation regarding the parentage of one of its heroes, although that puzzle still technically remains unsolved. The first stages of a galactic war, though, are certainly in full force by the end, which dangles its characters on the precipice of uncertainty, if not its audience. This is a more downtrodden Star Wars installment than fans of the series are likely to expect, and that, at least, is some sort of coup: It makes what audiences expect of the series feel brand new again. For the first time in a long time, we don't even bother to think we know what's coming. We are left, then, with a clean slate. Anything is now possible in the future of this universe.
The First Order, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), has eviscerated the rebellion that rose to challenge it. Her husband dead, General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher, good in her fitting, final role) has been saddled with the task of leading the charge with dwindling supplies. They dwindle further in an opening sequence that pits the First Order's formidable fighters, including a massive war ship called a Dreadnaught, against those of the Republic, including pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his trusty robot sidekick BB-8. Meanwhile, FN-2187, the reformed stormtrooper who came to be known as Finn (John Boyega), recovers from his grievous back injury just in time to partner with Poe and engineering wizard Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) on a dangerous mission that could save all their skins.
Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley), the scavenger from Jakku who found herself thrown into this mess either by chance or by fate, has returned the last remaining Jedi his weapon. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) answers by tossing the lightsaber, which was once his father's, off a cliff and telling her to go away. This is a bitter Luke, living like a hermit on some godforsaken island on a planet even more forgotten than the one whence Rey comes. Closed off from the Force, that mostly inexplicable energy that binds the galaxy together and to which a relative few have psychological and philosophical access, the old Jedi Master wants nothing of the resistance. He is reluctant to teach Rey the ways of - what he now thinks is - an outmoded religion.
We learn a little of what happened to Luke in the interim between 1983's Star Wars, Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and now, although the bolder storytelling in director Rian Johnson's screenplay takes place away from the island on which, after much deliberation and an unexpected cameo from an old friend, Luke finally decides to assist Rey for the good of the future of the Republic. The flashbacks that ensue, offering context regarding Luke and Kylo Ren's shared, tragic history, also offer only unfiltered melodrama. Hamill's performance as a crabbier, sadder Luke is good, although the actor is given material that makes him a mostly passive presence in this part of his story. Luke disappears for a long stretch of the middle section, reappearing at the end for a heroic act and to pass the torch both figuratively and literally.
Leia, too, is more functional than active, with the narrative forcing a lot of decisions she must make onto the shoulders of her next-in-command Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), who gets the film's most rousing and applause-worthy moment of daring heroism, or into the reckless hands of Poe, who usually acts before fully thinking out his plans. Finn enjoys a side adventure with Rose that takes them to an otherworldly casino where they hire an untrustworthy codebreaker (played by Benicio Del Toro) and pay the price of trusting him. Kylo Ren deals with the trauma of killing his father and with the growing power of his boss, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), and Rey grapples with not knowing her destiny in all of this.
The best scenes here take place between Rey and Kylo Ren (Ridley and Driver are both exceptional at discovering nuances in their characters that the audience doesn't anticipate), who can mysteriously communicate with each other by way of a form of telepathy, challenging each other and forging paths to move ahead in this game that will equally surprise and shock viewers who think they know this franchise by now. Beyond the lightsaber action (of which the film has surprisingly little) and X-wing-themed chase sequences - beyond, indeed, the comic material, courtesy of the robots and space animals - the crux of Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is based in characters. It plunges ahead, unafraid of the occasional misstep, and that ambition is refreshing.
Daisy Ridley (Rey), Adam Driver (Kylo Ren), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe Dameron), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Carrie Fisher (Leia Organa), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose Tico), Domhnall Gleeson (General Hux), Laura Dern (Vice Admiral Holdo), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Benicio Del Toro (DJ), Andy Serkis (Snoke), Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Lupita Nyong'o (Maz Kanata).
Directed and written by Rian Johnson.
Rated PG-13 (sci-fi action/violence).
Released on December 15, 2017.