Review: 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi', The Saga Soars Into Uncharted Territory

"This is not going to go the way you think", warns Luke Skywalker at one critical point in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and it may as well be a statement on this latest chapter of the epic saga. As the middle chapter of the latest trilogy the expectations for writer/director Rian Johnson were to copy the beats of the past, in particular the dire, hopeless stretch of The Empire Strikes Back. But, this doesn't go the way you think, not by a long shot. The Last Jedi repeatedly goes against your every instinct, takes your emotions for a roller coaster, and takes the characters we know in directions that will blow your mind.

Plenty of movies give me goosebumps but nothing quite like the opening crawl of a Star Wars film, and this one sets up what may be the most exciting opening sequence the franchise has seen yet.  A blistering, edge-of-your-seat aerial sequence featuring the cocky X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) as he bucks the orders of General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher, magnificent in her final role) sets up what is also the most humanist film in the franchise. Johnson has dedicated his film to defining what the Resistance is really fighting for and showing who they are fighting to protect.  With the First Order breathing down their necks, the Resistance is forced into a dangerous gambit with little time to pull off. In some way all of the Star Wars movies are of the "ticking clock" variety, but Johnson adds a new level of urgency, raising the stakes as every crucial hour passes. If the Resistance falls, all hope of peace in the galaxy falls with it.

There are multiple storylines at play here and Johnson gives them all equal footing, even though one promises bigger repercussions for the future. The backdrop of everything is the decimated Resistance fleet and the head-butting between Poe, Leia, and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) in trying to find a means of escape.  As seen at the finale of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley) has journeyed to the hidden island of Ahch-To where she hopes to lure Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) out of his hermit existence to fight again. She also needs training in the Force, although she finds his willingness to be a mentor is lacking. And then there's the newly-recovered Finn (John Boyega) and technician Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) as they head to the casino planet Canto Bight to find a hacker who break into the First Order's systems.  Meanwhile, Kylo Ren is also in search of something...an equal, an understanding, perhaps even balance? The connection sensed between him and Rey has only grown stronger, and one of the film's many tantalizing mysteries is exactly why they share such a bond. Johnson, to his credit, does answer a few of the biggest nagging questions while leaving others just out of reach.

Never content to do what is simple or familiar, Johnson takes his crack at Star Wars to explore a much larger landscape, one beyond easy notions of good and evil, light vs. dark. The casino world of Canto Bight, an extravagant haven for the galaxy's richest, reveals a dark underbelly that profits from the misfortune caused by the ongoing conflicts.  Benicio Del Toro's bizarre "slicer" DJ also fits into a certain grey area, more so than Han Solo or Lando Calrissian or any of the other roguish characters that populate this universe. His presence challenges notions of heroism, and we see that idea repeated in different ways throughout, especially as the defiant Poe challenges the wise council of those more experienced than him.

This is the biggest movie of Johnson's career, having established his fan-favorite cred quietly with the film noir Brick, storybook heist fantasy The Brothers Bloom, and ambitious sci-fi flick Looper. You can tell he's having a ball playing on the canvas George Lucas built, but he isn't beholden to it in the way The Force Awakens was. You can see it in the action scenes which give a fresh angle to X-wing/Tie Fighter battles we've so many times before. There are shots here that he and longtime DP Steve Yedlin must have been dreaming up for years, just hoping for the opportunity to use them. They leave behind some truly indelible images and aren't afraid to reference modern pop culture while doing so. Particularly unforgettable are the Casino Royale-esque Canto Bight, and the red salt planet of Caith. The crimson-scarred battlefield left behind after an epic fight will be seared into your memory. Both locations, not to mention the Dagobah-like Ahch-To, have many more stories left to be told.

Hopefully there won't be any more stories left featuring the annoying Porgs. The screeching bird creatures are everywhere and are the most useless part of the movie. There's no way Johnson wrote them into the story himself because they serve literally no purpose other than to sell toys. Keep in mind I'm someone who despises the "adorable" Ewoks, and yet they are a million times better than the Porgs.  Your mileage may very on them but I kept hoping they'd end up in Chewbacca's stomach, not scrambling around the Millennium Falcon.  If I had any other major complaints it would be in the pacing, which tends to drag while Johnson juggles three slow-moving storylines. And there's disappointment in a couple of supporting characters that look awesome but fail to measure up even to Darth Maul's low bar.

While there aren't the dizzying influx of new characters like in the prior movie, the ones we do get are significant in different ways. Dern's Holdo spins the Resistance power structure and places another strong, heady female at the top of the food chain. Meanwhile, I suspect there will be a split reaction to Kelly Marie Tran as Rose. For me I loved seeing an Asian-American character getting some shine and earning her moment in the spotlight. Her adventure alongside Finn has the most swashbuckling fun of them all, but you don't get that spark between the characters that Johnson was clearly hoping for. On the other hand I love every interaction between Ridley and Driver, both of their characters trying to fill an empty void left behind by family or those they trusted.  We've never seen a relationship quite like theirs in all of Star Wars; you could make some of the push/pull between the dark and light side of the Force is similar to what Luke Skywalker went through, but he never had an equal counterpart. Speaking of which, Skywalker is crucial to this story in so many ways and the journey he undergoes feels so natural, it makes so much sense. While you may not always like the twists and turns it takes, that's only the disorientation of seeing everything you knew upended. It's a good thing.

While Johnson takes Star Wars to uncharted territory, trust that he includes plenty of cornball one-liners, cheesy declarations about destiny, and so forth that we have come to love. They're a part of why we love these movies, though, and The Last Jedi is going to be loved by millions who will want to revisit it again and again. I know I will.

Rating: 4 out of 5