Starring Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill. Rated PG
The primary objective of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was to restore faith in the franchise (and the galaxy) after the cringeworthy prequel trilogy. With his piety to the original series, J.J. Abrams' ability to accomplish that mission in 2015 came at the cost of creativity. Nonetheless, his reparative efforts, further bolstered by 2016's Rogue One, have afforded filmmaker Rian Johnson (Looper) more breathing room for the latest installation. Not without flaws, Johnson takes familiar elements from the series and breathes new life into them with clever spins in The Last Jedi.
Even though it's immediate action from the get-go, the movie doesn't truly blast off into hyper-entertainment mode until the final act.
General Leia Organa, whose war-weariness is effectively conveyed by the late Carrie Fisher, is leading an evacuation of the Resistance, with the First Order—whose melodramatic characters, such as Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), are overplayed with antiquated villainy—in close pursuit.
Meanwhile on the ocean planet Ahch-To, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is seeking to learn the ways of the Force from the hermetic Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who rejects her pleas to help the Resistance. As Rey's Jedi abilities emerge, she also develops an unusual psychic connection with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) that takes them both by surprise.
Rey, Finn, and Poe may be destined to remain pale echoes of the Holy Triumvirate of Leia, Luke, and Han, but here, they show signs of breaking away from the generic blandness that inhibited their introductions in The Force Awakens. Joining them this time around are sincere-hearted mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and the strong-willed Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), who both up-end expectations.
Weak points come with awkward humour that lacks comedic rhythm and an unnecessary casino escapade, where a disposable underworld character DJ (Benicio del Toro) is introduced, that subsequently soft lens into what is essentially a children's adventure tale about animals. (Speaking of which, the numerous new alien critters in the background, such as the birdlike Porgs, go too much for the cutesy and still appear more like animation-meets-live-action rather than real beings, as they lack the presence of physically made constructions used for creatures in the original trilogy.)
Much of this extraneous action is merely means to delay narrative advancement as Rey contends with her internal struggle of trying to figure out her relationship with the Force, Kylo Ren, the Dark Side, and the identity of her mysterious parents. Once most of that's dealt with, the plot is finally freed for lift-off—which it does with spirited action and striking art direction that possesses a freshness in its approach.
What serves filmmaker Johnson well is his willingness to take more risks within classic elements than Abrams may have been able to. The real measure of the success of a film in a franchise of this stature is whether or not it ignites the imagination—and, despite some patchy spots, that it does.