Making a movie like "The Last Jedi" takes a special blend of deep respect for the mythology of "Star Wars" and a strong impulse to keep the 40-year-old material fresh. There are few franchises this closely cherished by its fans (or its production studio), which makes any radical reinvention out of the question. Yet a series that doesn't evolve eventually will waste away.
So kudos to writer/director Rian Johnson, who has created clever genre twists on detective work ("Brick") and time travel ("Looper"), for the newer, more adventurous film he has accomplished. Yes, it opens in deep space as always, with the familiar yellow text scrolling into the distance, setting us up for the events we are about to witness. Yes, ominous spacecraft scream across the screen ad infinitum. Yes, classic characters appear (and sometimes disappear). Of course there is a machine at the heart of an enemy base that has to be destroyed. And there are scenes here that closely echo moments in earlier movies, perhaps most notably "Return of the Jedi."
But the boundaries between heroic and evil figures are blurrier. This film climbs well beyond nerd-approved material, carrying us into a changed future without insulting Lucasfilms' holy writ.
The general outline of the story is that Rey (Daisy Ridley), left behind as a toddler by her parents on the lawless desert planet of Jakku, has been searching for her family and her place in the galaxy ever since. As she says, "I need someone to show me my place in all of this." A scrappy scavenger gifted with extraordinary Jedi powers, she has become a key member of the Resistance against the totalitarian First Order. Given a map to the obscure planetary hideaway of secluded Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), she hopes for him to become her mentor and to return to the ongoing battle.
Across the galaxy, sinister Supreme Leader Snoke (played by motion capture virtuoso Andy Serkis) plots to develop a henchman equal to the legendary Darth Vader. Exactly where Luke, Rey and villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are going is deliberately, and quite effectively, kept mysterious until we are well into the breathtaking third act.
Everyone you enjoyed meeting in "The Force Awakens" returns here in fuller form. Oscar Isaac as hotshot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron deepens and develops. John Boyega's storm trooper turned "rebel scum" Finn spends a lot of personal time with Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a technician turned warrior, creating a nice subplot merging resistance and romance. The smart and loyal rolling robot BB-8 has scene-stealing moments that will surely kick up its toy sales. Disney doesn't release this series every year before Christmas by accident, boys and girls.
Johnson does excellent world-building here, both in physical locations and in terms of battles for power between and among new heroes and new villains. He generates a nasty ongoing rivalry between Kylo and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), First Order competitors trying to outdo each other to win Snoke's favor. As Resistance Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, Laura Dern plays a similarly dubious role. Perhaps she is stepping up resolutely when Leia (Carrie Fisher in a touching and deep farewell performance) is unable to hold onto her command. Possibly she is pursuing a hidden agenda.
The film also works intriguing novelty into its world-hopping, introducing us to the rebel base Crait, where speeders slicing the thin layer of salt on the surface shoot out blood-red plumes of the mineral crystals beneath. We also get our first introduction to the wealthy upper class of the "Star Wars" universe on Canto Bight, an extravagant casino world of florid design where the elite meet to gamble away their riches. Both sides of Johnson's work relate to his central theme that divisions between light and dark can be misleading. The filthy rich customers at the gambling tables made their fortunes by selling weapons to both sides of the never-ending hostilities.
What's particularly good here is not just that the film is a delightful amount of fun, finding legitimate reasons for injecting big laughs into an essentially tense and dark story line. Out of many wonderful exchanges, my favorite came when Luke calls Rey a nobody from nowhere. She proudly replies that she comes from Jakku and Luke replies, "That's pretty much nowhere."
While the familiar scenes of foes swinging light sabers have their best fight choreography ever, playing like lethal Samurai dance scenes, that's not this film's secret ingredient, either. Nor is its frankly excessive 152-minute running time. There is no excuse for a long, inessential stampede of runaway space horses that has zero value beyond the sheer "Ben-Hur" spectacle of the thing.
What makes Episode VIII outstanding is that since "A New Hope" and "The Empire Strikes Back," no other movies in the "Star Wars" universe have hypnotized audiences with such unexpected surprises and didn't-see-that-coming plot twists. It delivers developments like pieces of a puzzle that seem at first unrelated and later join together seamlessly. Never before has something that seems like a random makeup mistake turned into a key plot point. Johnson's layered storytelling is a profusion of Jedi mind tricks, with as many crafty con games snaring unsuspecting viewers as the characters onscreen.
As Luke tells Rey, "This is not going to go the way you think!" It goes much better than that.