The return of Star Wars may have been the most hyped movie event in years, but let’s face it: Episodes one through three set the bar extremely low.
From Hayden Christensen’s acting to Jar Jar Binks’ existence, those movies were categorically awful. While the seventh installment, The Force Awakens, wasn’t a terrible movie by any means—more so a mediocre rehashing of the plot of A New Hope —it probably got more credit than it deserved for its vast improvement over predecessors.
Yet, The Force Awakens laid a solid foundation for the latest installment, The Last Jedi, and with Rian Johnson taking the helm, this picture shows marked improvement.
Johnson’s previous film credits are relatively few for a director tapped to head the biggest franchise ever, but he has made a name for himself playing with genre conventions. Brick was a high school noir. Looper explored uncharted time travel territory. While here he’s constrained a bit by the Disney mantle, he is given some room to play. We haven’t been surprised by a Star Wars movie since the iconic “I am your father” line in The Empire Strikes Back, but Johnson aims to subvert, so for the first time in years we second guess ourselves.
The Last Jedi picks up shortly after The Force Awakens, though it’s not quite linear. Finn (John Boyega) is receiving medical treatment. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is leading an attack on First Order ships with trademark devil-may-care attitude. And Rey (Daisy Ridley) is where we left her, a moment away from meeting Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). She wants to learn from the fabled Jedi master and bring him back to the good fight. But Luke wants no part of her war and immediately tosses away the lightsaber Daisy had been carrying for him.
Things are immediately more interesting than in the last movie. Mark Hamill has developed as an actor since 1977, and he proves his range as a man conflicted by his past, rather than a somewhat one-dimensional Joseph Campbell hero. This isn’t your goodie two-shoes Tatooine whiner—as the plot unfolds and we chip away the mystery of what exactly happened between him and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Luke gets the nuance he’s always deserved.
The broader issue for Star Wars is still that of stakes. While Johnson, as mentioned, was able to toy with rules to some extent, we still have a fairly traditional narrative. The story jumps back and forth, perhaps to its detriment, because every close shave feels progressively more clichéd. The Last Jedi clocks in at 2:30, but the timeline-hopping and multiple false endings make it feel much longer.
Star Wars diehards will surely love that, because it means more time for insane space dogfights. And to Johnson’s credit, it’s a lot of story to pack into one movie. Incredibly, he’s found untapped ideas in a setting we’ve seen seven times before.
The second movie in this trilogy may not pack the gravity of Empire, but it’s distinguishing itself as a big step up. The progress here—and its loose ends—leads us to believe that the ninth episode will be the best of the current bunch.
And Disney seems happy: Rian Johnson is getting his own side Star Wars trilogy, which is really what the franchise needs. What made Rogue One so enjoyable is that it wasn’t limited by the grander story arc. You could kill people off on a Game of Thrones-esque whim. Besides, such an expansive universe deserves to be explored beyond one bloodline. A blank slate for somebody as talented as Johnson is cause for excitement.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill
Theater: Opens Friday, area theaters