Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi does what its predecessor, The Force Awakens, could not: It innovates and surprises.
This delightful if overlong film has so many arcs and subplots that you'll find yourself parsing them later, trying to work out what exactly happened and why — not because they don't work, but because the film packs so many scenes that reward closer-than-normal observation. (Rewatch the red dirt battles and you'll see what I mean.) If certain moments are permitted to remain evocative and surreal rather than purely expository — for those who've seen the film, I'm thinking of the ice-mirror particularly — the movie also takes up the problem of history: A major plot point revolves around the way two different characters narrate the same incident. The difference between their accounts translates to war. That's exactly as correct as it is tragic. What's more, the relationship defined by that difference acquires 100 times more depth than the Han-Ben dynamic, which remains the emptiest cipher of a relationship I've yet to see onscreen.
The Last Jedi begins where The Force Awakens leaves off: The First Order is gaining strength, the Resistance is on the run, Snoke is pulling Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) further into his orbit, and Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on Luke Skywalker's island, trying to convince him to help. Mark Hamill has never been better than he is in this film; his dismissals of Rey are genuinely funny and set the stage for grander, even more epic put-downs. The wonderful Carrie Fisher's Rebel General Leia Organa has a lot more to do, both literally and dramatically, than she did in the previous film; and The Last Jedi introduces Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), who quite rightly calls Poe (Oscar Isaac) a "trigger-happy flyboy." As for John Boyega's Finn, he's recovering, and eventually meets Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a kind but tough-minded mechanic and one of my favorite additions to the franchise.
I'm on the record as considering The Force Awakens to be a pretty poor piece of filmmaking. It explodes many of the franchise's worst tendencies; in particular, it hit the upper limit of the franchise's fetish for the Skywalker "lineage" and melodramatic father-and-son twaddle while at the same time making the destruction of nine planets a fairly minor plot point. I was impressed and moved by how successfully Rogue One evaded these tired devices and fixed the former's miscalibrated stakes. I've longed for a Star Wars that really saw some of the "regular" people in its rich and varied worlds, and Rogue One did. To my surprise, The Last Jedi does too.
For one thing, Poe — who functioned as a charismatic catalyst and principle of action in the first film — keeps trying to do the same here and failing. His initiatives are entertaining but inessential, and it's refreshing to see the slapdash plans that so often powered the franchise occasionally fail to work. He can't wrest narrative centrality from either the universe or the Resistance, and the way that point is made explicit is particularly elegant. That said, The Last Jedi recognizes that fame is part of its universe now: If the Resistance is to spread, its heroic stories must be told. That the subjects don't quite match their legends shows that they're fun, self-aware, and human. Rose first identifies Finn as a hero; it's not a label he particularly wants, and it isn't one that lasts.
This is of a piece with The Last Jedi's willingness to part with some of its more messianic overtones — which is surprising, given its title! Take Kylo. It seemed to me for a long and horrifying moment that The Force Awakens was getting too interested — as the Star Wars prequels did — in the villain's redemption story. Little could be duller than flashbacks to Kylo Ren's descent into darkness, so I'm delighted to announce, spoilers be damned, that the movie resists. And it's not exactly Star Wars' fault that so many of its twists have had to do with parentage — "Luke, I am your father" remains the franchise's most famous misquotation — but it's still a relief when The Last Jedi relaxes that explanatory stranglehold just a tad. One result is that many more characters get to breathe without having to cite their exact degree of separation from the precious Skywalker blood. (I exclude the porgs, who are clearly Skywalkers and quite believable as teensy web-toed Jedis.)
Another of this film's less expected pleasures is its rollicking irreverence toward Jedi prudence. Not once, but twice, a Jedi contemplates doing something that would have major consequences, hesitates, and then someone pops in and does it anyway. It's an amusing intervention that works well both times and neutralizes any hope of Jedi omniscience. Notable, too, is the extent to which female fighters are included and treated with the same desperate respect as the men: Two of the film's most effective suicide-warriors are female, and it's embarrassing to explain why someone who generally opposes celebrations of violence finds that moving, but here we are. This movie takes death seriously, and that matters to me.
The Force Awakens was an irresponsible joyride that entranced you in the moment and broke into pieces the minute it was over and you started thinking about it. What I most appreciate about The Last Jedi is the care that seems to have gone into everything, from its deaths to its visual effects. Remember when Snoke was a projection — prompting questions about what his actual size might be? The Last Jedi has no time for that foolishness; it clears the matter up. Only when you think about it later do the obvious structural reasons for that change become clear.
Plus, it's just beautiful. The action sequences are gorgeous. The destruction of a casino is an absolute dream. There are even — maybe for the first time in any Star Wars movie? — books!
In the trailer, Luke says "this is not going to go the way you think." He's right. And after The Force Awakens, which rehashed A New Hope almost beat for beat — that injection of fresh story into an old franchise (and recalibration of its mouldier priorities) is immensely welcome.