Rian Johnson milks it. His is a brawny, strapping Star Wars anchored by inherited strength, yet weird and wily enough to assert a sense of self identity. The primary challenge facing the filmmaker, whose small but impressive body of work includes Looper, Brick, and The Brothers Bloom, lies in establishing urgency and consequence in the middle chapter of a massive trilogy in a rapidly expanding movie universe—to that end, The Last Jedi is entertaining yet effervescent, and honestly? That’s enough.
Episode VIII picks up pretty much where J.J. Abrams’ Force Awakens left off—with hopeful hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) having at last tracked down legendary Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), now a scruffy-looking recluse whose self-imposed exile has brought him to “the most unfindable place in the galaxy.” Suffice it to say he does not welcome company. Meanwhile, the Empire—ahem—the First Order strikes back, blasting the ragtag rebel forces led by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) ever nearer to the brink of defeat. Aiding them is stormtrooper-turned-sympathizer Finn (John Boyega) and cocksure pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Repping the dark side is hapless General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), who squirms under the skeletal thumb of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his brooding apprentice, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
It’s standard Star Wars stuff, but the novelty of having the franchise back on the big screen holds steady, at least for now. Its serial-esque simplicity is a welcome juxtaposition to Marvel’s convoluted and overcrowded cinematic universe, though The Last Jedi suffers its share of plotty preponderances too. At over two-and-a-half-hours, it’s the heftiest chapter in series history, and runs at least one large-scale skirmish too long. Granted, these indulgences feel of a kind with the original trilogy, and The Last Jedi effortlessly replicates that same clumsy energy throughout.
Unlike J.J., Johnson receives sole screenwriting credit for his installment, which loosely follows the thematic arc of Star Wars’ 1980 sequel. The filmmaker faithfully ticks a number of familiar boxes, yet jukes expectation often enough to keep the film from crossing into been-there-done-that territory. He writes characters we know and love respectfully yet unexpectedly, allowing them to surprise us, to stumble, to grow. The few new faces are less nuanced and interesting, though admittedly they’re playing against some of the most cherished characters in contemporary fiction. Still, everyone is given their moment to shine as the plot ping pongs from one side of the galaxy to another—and Johnson proves expert with a paddle.
In more ways than one, Episode VIII resembles another big franchise that returned in 2017: Blade Runner. Both films were overcautiously advertised, and both excavate ancient mysteries that span generations. Without divulging the spoilerific specifics, perhaps the most interesting similarity between The Last Jedi and 2049 is the implicit suggestion that greatness is made, not inherited; that our destinies are what we make them. Both films depict conflicted characters grappling with this reality, trying to separate truth from legend. Johnson ascribes great power to the latter; his take on Star Wars is as much a space opera as it is a study of the power of storytelling to spur action, to instigate change, to bring hope. That we’re left with a story unfinished is less a cliffhanger and more a call to arms.
So where does the franchise go next? Disney has invested heavily in the stewards who have chaperoned the series this far; Abrams will return to direct Episode IX, while Johnson has been tapped to lead a new trilogy unbound from the Skywalker saga. The prospect of a Star Wars sustained ad infinitum suggests an uphill battle against creative ossification that Disney will one day have to reckon with. But for now, Johnson’s Jedi is a refreshing swig of Grade A escapism that will help keep the series strong for years to come.