‘The Last Jedi’ Reinvents Star Wars Universe

In a Death Star-sized count of 4,232 theaters, one of the year’s most surprisingly idiosyncratic films arrived this December. Even more shocking is that the film is the latest in Disney’s corporate resuscitation of the “Star Wars” franchise, following the entertaining-if-mediocre one-two punch of “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One.” Directed by indie maestro Rian Johnson, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is the most daringly original film in the franchise’s 40-year history, pushing the series to depths it has never reached before.

The story picks up immediately after the events of 2015’s prequel, “The Force Awakens.” The Resistance is on the run from the First Order. General Leia Organa (the late, great Carrie Fisher) and new commander Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) lead the Resistance in their escape efforts, with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) hot on their trail. Against the leadership’s wishes, maverick pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) organize a secret mission with the help of mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). On the Force side of things, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) continues to test the angsty young Sith Lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whose fury and obsession with Darth Vader can barely be contained. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) discovers the hidden location of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), whom she must convince to train her in the ways of the Force.

A proper critique would go into intense detail, but the film is enjoyed best when going in without spoilers. Johnson gives the audience some of the most surprising reveals, characters and moments in the entire franchise, causing tectonic shifts in the thematic and narrative directions established by J.J. Abrams in the previous entry.

Under Johnson’s direction, “The Last Jedi” feels simultaneously like the breeziest and most dense Star Wars film to date, a whirlwind with multiple viewings’ worth of material to unpack afterward — a sharp contrast to Abrams’ approach with masturbatory fan service. “The Last Jedi” is sure to prick up the ears of the series’ ardent fans, but Johnson does so deliberately. In a sense, the point of the film is moving on from the past and looking to the future, even if you’ll always carry it with you.

The film is also a thought-provoking portrait of revolution itself, one that subtly examines the dynamics of gender and race that exist in its DNA. Star Wars has always been political at its best, but Johnson is the one who finally radicalizes it in the best possible way. That all leads to some powerful developments with new and old characters — as well as a sly, necessary takedown of poisonous fan culture. Needless to say, it’s a thrillingly bold move, one that reinvents the series from its stale standings.

“The Last Jedi” is also the most purely emotional entry in the series since “The Empire Strikes Back.” In light of Fisher’s recent death, the material which features Leia feels especially profound, while Hamill’s phenomenal work with a traumatized, cantankerous Luke is moving. Johnson returns to George Lucas’ original influences, including classic adventure serials, Old Hollywood melodramas and the mystical, theological origins of the Force as a philosophy and state of being. The influence of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and Japanese cinema is felt the most with the film’s chanbara-style lightsaber battles and beautiful use of weather for imagistic texture. The action sequences are some of the best in the series, with an emphasis on silence and grace. It’s an immaculately designed film, with popping colors, sweepingly intimate compositions and, of course, a classic John Williams score.

Even with all of that postmodern pastiche, Johnson makes “The Last Jedi” his own. The film is structurally unique, taking place in several mini acts that cross-cut each other at high points until converging at the conclusion. It’s a stunning change of narrative pace, one harkening back to the silent era of film. At an epic 152 minutes, the film rarely drags but could have used a bit more restraint at times. Johnson also injects the film with some much-needed humor, a good bit of which is uniquely sardonic and contemporary for a film of this style. Not all of it lands, but all of those artistic changes signal the arrival of a true authorial voice, something sorely lacking from franchise films — the Disney-owned ones in particular.

As far as a middle chapter in a new trilogy, audiences couldn’t have asked for a better, more adventurous one than “The Last Jedi.” Johnson brings the series back to its roots, all the while subverting them to create something entirely new in an act of cinematic self exploration. Every member of the new cast shines, even as their characters face uncertainty and a blurring of the lines between good and evil. They are the fresh hearts and souls of a galaxy far, far away, revived with a new hope from the legendary men and women who shaped them.

Grade: A-