What is most striking about Star Wars: The Last Jedi, is that it has larger themes and aspirations that venture outside the space opera roots typically explored in this franchise. In that regard, it goes above and beyond perhaps any Star Wars movie to date and, in its very Star Wars way, moves into the thematic realm of — well, Star Trek. And, for that matter, also Battlestar Galactica.
Taken in its broad strokes, this entire film is a series of Star Wars takes on the Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario. It's not clear until the very end of The Last Jedi, but this entire film is actually about what heroes do when faced with a number of limited options that continues to shrink until there are almost no options at all. These scenarios force impossible decisions that are born from utter desperation, huge individual sacrifices for the greater good, and pyrrhic victories that are crucially symbolic — because otherwise, in practicality, they are crushing defeats.
I also must say: As the middle chapter of a trilogy, they burn through a lot more story here than I was expecting and in a way that's somewhat startling. Writer/director Rian Johnson is not spinning his wheels here. By the end of The Last Jedi there's the distinct feeling that Episode IX will have to be a story that is far more separated from the original trilogy than either this or The Force Awakens were. We are venturing into uncharted territory in the story of the Skywalker saga, and the torch-passing has more or less been completed. If the special guest star of The Force Awakens was Harrison Ford, then the special guest star of The Last Jedi is Mark Hamill. (One suspects had Carrie Fisher not died unexpectedly, she would've been the veteran to see the story through to the end in Episode IX.)
The film advances all the characters' stories in significant ways that are perhaps familiar in the overarching nature of Star Wars but don't feel like the beat-for-beat repurposing of the original trilogy the way The Force Awakens did. Rey goes to Ahch-To to learn the ways of the Force from the eponymous and reclusive last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, who is less than thrilled to see her, or anybody. (After he takes the lightsaber she has extended to him, he promptly throws it off the cliff over his shoulder.) Kylo Ren struggles with the conflict between the darkness and light inside him. (The Emperor-like Snoke berates Ren for his failures and mocks his Vader-like helmet and calls him a pretender, leading Ren to smash the helmet to pieces and leave it permanently behind.) Poe Dameron struggles with the balance between being a leader and taking impulsive risks, butting heads with his senior leadership, including Leia. (He wants to take action and get things done, sometimes without weighing the long-term costs.) Finn finds himself having to take on the role of Resistance Hero that has been attached to him, even though he doesn't feel he deserves it. (Legends are born from hope, not necessarily objective truth.)
These threads are driven by a main plot that's surprisingly bleak and in some respects almost too straightforward — the simple survival of the Resistance. The opening battle is a sensationally executed example of finding small victories in a desperate situation (the destruction of one of the First Order's fearsome Dreadnought vessels is achieved, but only at great cost to the Resistance). From there, the fleet finds itself on the run but with limited fuel and little hope for escape. Because they can be tracked through hyperspace, any jump they make will only expend their fuel while the First Order can simply follow them. So the Resistance must stay ahead of their pursuers at sub-light speeds, which extends the survival clock but turns them into a nearly defenseless convoy that can be picked off one by one as each ship runs out of fuel. This felt a lot like the fleet on the run in Battlestar Galactica's "33." It's high on extended crisis, while low on traditional adventure. For Star Wars, that's a bold choice. It might also be too structurally simple. One expects a kind of episodic variable structure to the scenes in a Star Wars movie. This is considerably less varied and more of a straight line from A to B.
Meanwhile, bad things happen, like the attack on the bridge of the Resistance's command ship (something that, tellingly, Kylo Ren himself can't pull the trigger on), which sucks the entire leadership, including Leia and Admiral Ackbar, into space. Leia is able to survive by using the Force, but lies in a coma for the middle passages of the movie, which gives rise to tensions between next-in-succession Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), who wants to continue running, and Poe, who wants to take a more active stand. Holdo has reasons for continuing the passive — and seemingly feckless — strategy, but half the problems between these two could've been solved if she were to simply share information that's being concealed mostly for the sake of a later reveal for the audience. (This is a plot device that exists mainly to prevent spoilers for itself.)
To be more proactive, Dameron signs off on a plan involving Finn and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) traveling to the luxurious colony of Canto Bight to find the "master code-breaker" — the one man who, according to Maz Kanata, can rig the security on the First Order's star destroyer such that the Resistance's fleet will no longer be tracked through hyperspace and can escape. The "master code-breaker" feels suspiciously like a MacGuffin of a character (and indeed he's replaced entirely by a different character played by Benecio del Toro), and the whole Finn/Rose excursion feels oddly disconnected from the desperate urgency of what's happening back with the fleet (even though it directly ties into the overall goals). As was the case with The Force Awakens, the somewhat bare-boned plot of The Last Jedi is not hugely spectacular. The benefit here is more in how the plot informs the larger thematic and character canvas.
Finn and Rose are an effective pairing — both characters exhibit substantial likability and charm — and their visit to Canto Bight has a socio-political angle that has real-world allegorical value (as opposed to simply providing plot mechanics like the political backdrop of the prequels did). They find a colony of one-percenters (rich from selling weapons to both sides of the conflict) living the lives of endless luxury, frivolity, and gambling. Beneath them, almost invisible, are the peasants who do all the hard labor and are shabbily treated for their trouble. By the end of the film, we will see how the Resistance, even in facing huge losses, will have motivated the people across the galaxy being exploited by the wealthy and the fascist to take up the call to rebuild the Rebellion and fight. This is probably as overtly political as a Star Wars movie has been. (I'm less interested in talking about the action sequences on Canto Bight. Suffice it to say there's a big chase sequence involving CG animals racing through the city and it's about what you would expect it to be.) It's intriguing to see Star Wars embrace some socio-political ideas, especially as the Star Trek film franchise — ironically, given its pedigree — continues to run further away from it.
But you may not have come to this movie for implied socio-economic polemics. Fair enough; it's only a small piece of the pie. The main narrative thrust here is of course the interactions between Rey and Luke, as we learn who Luke has become during his self-imposed exile, and also watch Rey try to learn who she is as she struggles with her unknown origins as an orphan who happens to have a natural ability for tapping into the Force — including its dark side, which alarms Luke significantly.
Luke's adamant refusal to initially engage Rey feels a bit overwritten — doesn't he even want to know what has been happening to all the people he cares about during these years? — but Mark Hamill impeccably plays the part of the world-weary tortured soul, seguing into the grizzled-old-veteran Alec-Guinness-Obi-Wan role in a way that seems completely logical given the 30-some years of distance since the last Star Wars movie with "Jedi" in its title. Apart from the early obligatory stuff where Luke refuses to confront the situation in front of him, all the material on the island is absorbing and effective, as it looks at these two characters and tries to get to the heart of their inner-turmoil. For Rey, it's the question of what this newfound power means as she struggles with her crisis of self-identity. Trying to solve the mystery of her parents and why she was abandoned is shown here as Rey's true Achilles heel — something that has the potential to lead her astray. (As always, those who are strong with the Force also have a strong possibility of being drawn to the Dark Side.)
The intriguing "hall of mirrors" sequence where Rey hopes to find answers but instead finds nothing leaves her feeling more isolated than ever. The fact that she is connected to Ren through the Force and can have entire conversations with him from the island proves to be an effective new tool in the narrative toolbox. It not only allows us into Rey's mindset, but also into Ren's — who has an identity crisis of his own as he struggles with the Dark/Light battle he wrongly believed he had purged by killing his father. That Snoke berates him endlessly about his inner-conflict doesn't make Kylo's question of identity any clearer. (Snoke is a contemptible evil bastard in the same tradition as the Emperor — one might say too similar — and his sneering overconfidence in his own omnipotence is likewise his undoing.)
The script does a good job of connecting all these characters in a way that makes logical and emotional sense. Luke himself falls into the storied, traditional mold of Extremely Reluctant Former Hero Turned Laconic Curmudgeon. He says he went into exile to truly be left alone and wants nothing to do with training Jedi ever again — which is somewhat understandable considering the disaster that begot Kylo Ren from Ben Solo. Rey's presence means Luke has to confront this reality all over again and revisit the mistakes he made in losing Ben to the Dark Side.
The story smartly frames the actual moment of Ben's turning with some point-of-view ambiguity that proves interesting. The flashback where Luke contemplates killing Ben before Ben turns to the Dark Side is shown from both Luke's and Ben's points of view, allowing you to understand from both sides why it played out the way it did — and also why it can be viewed as the final push that turned Ben into Kylo. It's a failure in a long line of Jedi failures that the story fully acknowledges as a reason that helped seal the fate of the Jedi in the prequels and seems to be an unescapable repetition of history. (One could validly argue that repetition is a necessity mostly created from the desire to spawn more Star Wars sequels, but at least it's dealt with intelligently within the story.) Yoda appears in a key cameo with Luke that speaks to the importance of failure, in that it often offers the best lessons. Yoda's scene gets the character right — wise but irreverent. Yoda here is performed by Frank Oz using a faithfully re-created traditional puppet rather than CGI. The result is Yoda's most Yoda-like appearance in decades. (And this is not a commentary on puppets being inherently better than CGI. Many will remember from the 1999 release of The Phantom Menace how a Yoda puppet can go badly awry — badly enough to be replaced with a CGI version in subsequent releases of the same film.)
The action and excitement pick up in the last third of the movie, when all these plot elements converge with a clockwork precision. Rey surrenders herself to face Ren on Snoke's star destroyer in an attempt to turn him to the Light. Suffice it to say this does not go as she planned. Nor does it go as Snoke planned. The traditional structure would have you assume Snoke would be tormenting our heroes late into Episode IX, but Rian Johnson has other plans and dispenses with Snoke swiftly. In a clever scene revealing complicated motivations that happen to align with the fact that Snoke is so hopelessly evil that drawing out his use beyond this movie would not likely be worthwhile, Kylo bisects Snoke with a lightsaber in a manner that Snoke never saw coming, on the account of his spectacular myopia.
This doesn't suggest that Rey correctly foresaw Kylo turning to join her. Rather, Kylo intends to take over as Supreme Leader and wants her to join him. He makes a case that has a logic to it from a certain point of view (as Obi-Wan once said). I find it's always better when a villain has motivations that ring true and have a psychological foundation (as Kylo's do) rather than arising from purely cartoonish evil (as Snoke's did). As in The Force Awakens, these characters get a lot of mileage out of being well-performed by Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver.
Meanwhile, we get our requisite caper with Finn and Rose sneaking aboard Snoke's ship to disable the tracker along with DJ (Benicio del Toro), an amoral hired-gun who was not actually the code-breaker they went to Canto Bight to recruit, but, hey, beggars can't be choosers. Being all about profit and nothing else, DJ eventually sells out our heroes. This is all fairly standard "infiltrate the enemy fortress" material, but it does ultimately lead to Finn facing off against the awesomely chrome-plated, not-crushed-in-the-trash-compactor-after-all Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) for a major action-fight sequence. This showdown ends with Phasma falling to her apparent death through a fireball, but I actually hope they bring her back yet again for Episode IX; it would be a good joke in the Saturday-morning-serial tradition that was the inspiration for Star Wars.
Through all the action, the Resistance achieves mostly tiny victories amid increasing desperation. Even Leia's plan to escape the command cruiser in a secret retreat to the former Rebel base on Crait is upended by DJ's betrayal, resulting in the plan being exposed and the defenseless evacuation transports being targeted and destroyed one by one. This prompts the extreme and desperate move by Holdo to ram Snoke's ship at light speed, an act that is depicted with an imaginative mix of soundtrack silence, repeated multi-angle cuts, and shimmering light that is at once oddly beautiful and yet fully conveys the epic, gasp-inducing calamity of the moment. This is something we haven't seen in Star Wars before.
Ultimately, it leads to the final showdown on Crait (a salt-covered landscape that bleeds red soil beneath it), where the dwindling population of the Resistance holes up in an ancient Rebel base with, it seems, no hope of escape. But that's where Luke Skywalker re-enters the picture. And what he does at the end of The Last Jedi is, for my money, epically satisfying. One man, knowing what he must do to ensure the survival of a movement, however decimated, stands against an entire army. It appears to be an act of certain suicide. And in its perfect way, it is both wonderfully badass (Luke casually brushing off his shoulder after emerging unscathed from a torrent of firepower is one of my favorite moments) and also a classic example of a cunning Jedi mind trick — outsmarting the enemy by using the Force and evasive techniques instead of with overpowering violence. The twist here is that Luke is only projecting his image, conducting the whole charade from the island that, true to his word, he promised he would never leave. Apparently, using the Force in this way will kill you, which is adequate explanation for me as to why we've never seen this particular trick before. It's a bittersweet way to send off an iconic character. Here's a man who ends his life in isolation, but at least gets to die with a grand, final purpose. (And, of course, death is never quite the end where the Force is concerned.)
Hamill plays this scene, as all his scenes in this movie, with a no-nonsense starkness that is a million miles from the kid in A New Hope. And that's as it should be given the circumstances. He gets to save the day, but what he saves is the smallest sliver of hope, and how he saves it is by sacrificing himself. As I said, this is a movie of pyrrhic victories — at best. The entirety of the Resistance that escapes fits on the Millennium Falcon. "How do we rebuild the Rebellion from this?" Rey asks Leia. It's a good question that one suspects might only be answered after a significant time jump between this film and the next.
For all the darkness in this story, one thing I'd better say is that this movie is still, at heart, a fun and entertaining experience. The balance of characters ensures that there's plenty of pure enjoyment to be had here, especially in lighter moments involving Finn, Rose, Poe, and even General Hux, who becomes a kind of hapless second-banana comic foil to be abused by Ren. (The opening scene where Poe prank-calls Hux is a fun moment that deflates Hux's self-important evil bombast and mocks it for what it is.) As grim as this can be in its story implications, the tone itself never gets as grim as, say, Rogue One sometimes felt. The way it maintains its adventure pedigree while also being substantively dark makes this feel like the true tonal progenitor of The Empire Strikes Back.
The Last Jedi has a final shot that is more thematically contemplative than the final shot of any other Star Wars movie. A young boy looks to the stars with a steely look of determination for the struggle to come. It's a struggle where others like him will presumably join the Rebellion and rebuild it to what it once was, in the hope of defeating tyranny. It's a final shot that is not focused on any of the story's main characters, but about communicating the importance of ideas and symbols. This message comes through even though the story's heroes have been hunted almost to extinction. It's simultaneously a darker and yet more idealistic ending than any of the other movies. And for Star Wars, it feels different and new.