NEW YORK — If I had the opportunity to call writer/director Rian Johnson I’d have just one thing to say – “great shot, kid, that was one in a million!”
But no, that would actually be all wrong. You see, that would be me making a “Star Wars” reference, a little joke that is insider-y, but not too insider-y — one that’s the tone of so many geek franchise sequels and prequels and reboots. But that is precisely not what Johnson’s new film “The Last Jedi” (or “Episode VIII” if you like Roman numerals) is all about.
Sure, there are a few winks to hardcore fans (did Luke Skywalker just say “laser sword”?) and yes, you definitely need to be caught up on the series for this ridiculous space opera to make any sense. But the main reason to stand up and cheer “The Last Jedi” is its breakaway from the constraints of the previous two post-George Lucas films.
It is not a retread reliant on coincidences, nor is it merely connective tissue between known stories, neither does it necessarily rhyme with pre-existing canon in any cutesy way. It is its own thing.
Every character from “The Force Awakens” is back (except, of course, for the ones who died) and they’ve all got something action-packed and dangerous to do.
Well, all except Rey, who has been dispatched to the ancient Jedi temples on Ahch-To to retrieve Luke Skywalker. He’s been moping around for decades ever since his nephew Kylo Ren went nuts with the Dark Side. If Rey can convince Luke to return to the Rebel Alliance, maybe they can stop The First Order from being an exact duplicate of the Empire from the original trilogy.
Luke isn’t interested, so there’s some typical back and forth about Destiny and whatnot that, for the hundreds of times I’ve watched these movies, inevitably forces me to zone-out a little.
Even Yoda (as a Force Ghost) shows up, and while on the one hand he’s an adorable, wrinkly Rabbi, he can also be something of a drip. But things do work on an emotional level. If logic won’t convince Luke, maybe R2-D2 replaying the old hologram of Princess Leia saying “you’re my only hope” will.
Princess Leia is General Leia now, and Carrie Fisher’s screen presence has considerable added resonance now that she has passed away. Fisher’s daughter Billie Lourd gets a good degree of screen time as Kaydel Ko Connix (okay, I had to look that up), a random good gal who repeats orders a lot on the bridge of the main Resistance ship.
Even if Fisher hadn’t died, her character exudes melancholy. It’s dark times for the Rebels, with the First Order laying waste to their fleet. All of our heroes (Finn, Poe, BB-8, newcomer Rose, Chewbacca) are out zipping around on special assignments that, if it all works out, could help everyone live to fight another day. But at center is Rey’s rematch against Kylo Ren.
Their first encounters, which take the form of Force-enhanced Skype calls, lead to an audience with Supreme Leader Snoke, one of the most shocking, unpredictable and drop-dead awesome scenes in all of “Star Wars.” (No joke, this ranks as one of the top five, maybe top two Star Wars scenes of all time.)
From a design point of view, this newest film is the slickest and most gorgeous in the entire series. Maybe the 1977 film can still fight for that title based on it originality, but “The Last Jedi” is one of those “every frame a painting” movies in its use of color, camera placement and extremely detailed sets.
It also wins points for its creatures, not limited to the already beloved Porgs. These dopey half-puffins, half-corgis don’t really add much to the story, but are hilarious in ways that previous would-be comic relief critters often aren’t.
Humor plays a big factor in the film, and not just Oscar Isaac being a scamp or Domhnall Gleason exaggerating his Irish accent and scowling to the point of absurdity. On more than one occasion the vibe that inspired Indiana Jones to shrug and shoot the Cairo Swordsman in “Raiders of the Lost Ark” finds its way to this film, bringing a layer of realness that is rarely seen in the franchise. (Some purists will balk but trust me, they are no fun.)
Walt Disney and Lucasfilm have a money machine on their hands, and these movies will never stop coming. There will never be star peace. But as “Rogue One” made evident, not all “Star Wars” movies are equal. I remain suspicious of the in-between films, especially the next one that is a Han Solo prequel. But Rian Johnson is already on board to do his own trilogy once J.J. Abrams brings this one home. The galaxy is in very secure hands.