As the First Order close in on the Resistance base General Leia (Carrie Fisher) prepares to evacuate her ragtag rebel band. Hotshot X-wing pilot Po Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his faithful droid BB-8 enlist a newly-revived Finn (John Boyega) to aid their escape. But it proves no easy task as a vengeful Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has something to prove to his evil master Snoke (Andy Serkis). Meanwhile across the galaxy at the site of an ancient Jedi temple, Rey (Daisy Ridley) finally confronts the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in the hope he can answer questions about her mysterious past and help save the Resistance.
Following the saga's spectacular revival under J.J. Abrams with the nostalgia-stoking Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) the baton has been passed to writer-director Rian Johnson: the visionary filmmaker behind Looper (2012), Brick (2005) and several notable episodes of Breaking Bad. With episode eight The Last Jedi Johnson delivers possibly the most thematically ambitious, quixotic and challenging Star Wars movie. Which judging from a thus far mixed response is not what many fans were expecting a Star Wars movie to be. Even the much-maligned prequels (whose fan-base grows more vocal with each new generation) proved less divisive than Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Amidst the by now tiresomely familiar lamentations over ruined childhoods, social justice agendas and - yuck! - girls getting their icky hands on hitherto boys' toys, a broad selection of fans and film critics embraced Johnson's bold experimental vision.
Rooted in a desire to expand the mythos, The Last Jedi takes the audience and characters alike on an eye-opening and surprisingly emotional journey. Johnson crafts a slower, more lyrical, character-driven narrative that elicits more gasps, cheers and empathy for our brave band of heroes than ever before. Each of the principal protagonists shoulders a subplot charting their own personal growth which Johnson then masterfully threads into a broader tapestry. Like Abrams before him, Johnson grasps the inherently cyclical nature of the Star Wars saga. The Star Wars movies that truly work are those that strike notes recalling the timeless original trilogy. The genius of The Last Jedi lies in its ability to subvert familiar story beats - interestingly enough, the touchstone here is not as one might expect: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) but Return of the Jedi (1983) - and refashion them as something fresh, wondrous and new. Away from space dog-fights and lightsaber battles, this story in all its myriad incarnations always hinged on a clash between impetuous youth and old men burdened by sins of the past. Here Johnson's forward-thinking story moves the saga beyond simple good vs. evil to touch on themes of idealism vs. pragmatism, action vs. reflection, regret vs. redemption.
As was the case with Star Wars: A New Hope (1977) the character of Luke Skywalker is a stand-in for a certain section of the audience. Only in this instance it is the older, more jaded Star Wars fan who have been there, done that and do not see why they should rejoin the battle when everything only gets messed up again anyway. In a triumphant return Mark Hamill brings new levels of dramatic weight to an older, embittered Luke Skywalker. Meanwhile a twinkle-eyed Carrie Fisher lands some truly transcendent moments that leave this a worthy swansong for Princess Leia. Through Luke's portion of the plot The Last Jedi boldly argues the need to transcend the past, heed its lessons but ultimately learn to embrace a brighter, more egalitarian future. A lesson perhaps lost on a few fanboys bent on keeping the saga deep frozen in carbonite. But while the veterans strike all the right crowd-pleasing notes, as with The Force Awakens it is the younger cast members that truly shine. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver inhabit their emotionally-charged roles with gusto. Meanwhile Kelly Marie Tran is especially noteworthy as plucky newcomer Rose. She shoulders a surprisingly substantial portion of the drama with aplomb. Laura Dern also makes her mark as Vice Admiral Holdo whose enigmatic actions keep viewers guessing until an unexpectedly moving twist. In fact, without giving too much away, Dern snags herself one of the most spectacular moments in Star Wars history.
Throughout The Last Jedi Rian Johnson keeps the audience on their toes, leading them down provocative paths before blowing our minds with new revelations. Among the very few missteps: a mission to an alien casino with Finn and Rose proves somewhat convoluted and inconsequential. And an encounter with Benicio Del Toro's would-be charming rogue proves an over-elaborate ruse. Yet such is the high quality of Johnson's script that even these shakier sequences pay off masterfully in the grander scheme and feed its overarching themes. They still yield magical moments of spectacular action, charming comedy and disarming social commentary. Call me crazy but this might be the first Star Wars movie to indulge in social satire with a critique of the arms trade and slave labour rampant in certain hedonistic tourist spots in the Middle East.
Forty years ago George Lucas set out to craft a new American myth. Now the new Star Wars movies aim to redefine that myth, make it more inclusive and reflecting a more complex moral landscape. A key component of The Last Jedi's agenda is the sudden spotlight on the little guys: the bit-players, the nameless heroes of the resistance. Johnson allows the viewer to feel the weight of each sacrifice, share in every moment of despair and joyful triumph. Slowly we come to realize the force, once solely accessible to the Jedi, now more than ever before stirs brightly in all. Crucially, The Last Jedi grasps the inspirational nature of Luke Skywalker's story even when Luke himself does not. Much is made of Empire's "I am your father" moment overlooking the equal importance of Return of the Jedi's key scene where C-3PO enthralls the Ewoks with the Rebel's story and A New Hope's poetic image of young Luke gazing at Tatooine's twin suns, yearning to change the galaxy. The Last Jedi references both with a deceptively understated yet powerful coda reinforcing how Star Wars continues to inspire successive generations. And don't let anyone tell you Porgs aren't charming as heck.