If “Star Wars” is religion—as any sacred text with an original trilogy, prequel trilogy, and sequel trilogy would suggest—I lost mine when I saw the Ewoks in “Return of the Jedi” (1983). The moment those teddy bears from Endor cooed, I recognized that the clash between lightness and darkness had been sidelined in order to market stuffed animals to every child in this galaxy.
Four movies into the Skywalker Saga, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” a long-latent “Star Wars” affection has been reawakened. Sure, it was nostalgic to see Princess Leia, Han Solo and Chewbacca reunited in “The Force Awakens” (2015). But for the first time since “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), the audience is treated to a movie that isn’t fueled mostly by nostalgia, the occasional light-saber duel and multiple opportunities to hiss the villains and cheer the heroes.
Rian Johnson, the film’s writer and director, honors the franchise’s history as he speeds toward its future, reimagining the galactic multiverse. As in “The Force Awakens,” it’s no longer The Empire versus The Rebels. It’s the First Order (an authoritarian monarchy) obliterating what remains of the Resistance. Any relation between U.S. politics and those in this galaxy far, far away is purely intentional.
Snoke is the despotic Supreme Leader of the First Order. In a motion-capture performance, Andy Serkis embodies this scarred, saurian, sinister creature. Snoke’s piercing stare makes his underlings quail. One of them is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), son of Han Solo and Leia, gone to the dark side in “Force Awakens.” But in the court of Snoke, which resembles a cinnabar-and-ebony pagoda, Ren starts to have second thoughts.
Also having second thoughts is Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Looking like an Old Testament patriarch in robe and beard, Luke has retreated to Ahch-To, site of the first Jedi Temple. Following him to this wondrous and holy atoll is Rey (Daisy Ridley), the orphan who found her inner Jedi in “The Force Awakens” and longs for Luke’s guidance, particularly in questions about her parentage. Periodically she finds herself in psychic communication with her nemesis, Kylo Ren.
Meanwhile, the Resistance—led by Leia (Carrie Fisher in her final role)—is in “last stand” mode inside its shabby redoubt, scrambling for intel against Snoke and his stormtroopers. Ably defending Leia are Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac, crafty and funny) and Finn (John Boyega), stormtrooper-turned-Resistance fighter.
Cross-cutting at lightspeed velocity among these three parallel storylines, Johnson adds a fourth. It’s a reconnaissance mission involving Finn and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a maintenance worker at Resistance HQ. The two set out to Canto Bight, a casino for First Order one-percenters. Imagine the Trump Taj Mahal with an adjacent racetrack where space horses compete against one another and are subject to animal cruelty. It’s in this extended segment that the priorities of the First Order (conspicuous consumption, drinking, posturing) and those of the Resistance (humanism, empathy) are seen in high relief.
Admittedly, there are cuddly creatures in Johnson’s movie: They are there either to make a philosophical point or to provide comic relief. The porgs, puffinlike birds that roll their big eyes like vaudeville comics, are examples of the latter.
Still, it’s not the creatures but the characters in “The Last Jedi” that truly stand out here. With Johnson at the helm, the torch—along with the lightsaber—is safely passed to a new generation.