The new Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is shockingly good. You’d expect it to be loud and gargantuan and to hit its marks in the manner of J.J. Abrams’s The Force Awakens, which was the first episode under Disney’s aegis — as well as the first to leave George Lucas behind, presumably counting his money and lamenting the fickleness of fans. What you’d never dare expect is high style, let alone the kind of emotion that holds you through the requisite hopscotching among three different story arcs. There’s no such thing anymore as a straight, single-strand narrative in this kind of “universe” movie, which has a mandate to look backward and forward as well as sideward at any character with the potential to be spun off into his or her own vehicle. But the new writer-director, Rian Johnson, isn’t an impersonal technician (or a rote imitator, like Abrams). He pinpoints the intersection between characters’ desperate need to belong and the special effects that will lift those longings into the realm of myth. He achieves what no one else has since The Empire Strikes Back: a fusion of junkyard genre parts and passion.
Daisy Ridley returns as Rey, the orphan who, last time out, discovered that she had the Force (you either got it or you don’t) and used it to repel an attack by the callow Darth Vader wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) — after which she took off (with Chewbacca and R2-D2) for the rocky island where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) lives in self-imposed exile. It was a holy moment at the end of The Force Awakens when she came face-to-face with him at the top of a long line of steps, bearing his old lightsaber. It’s an unholy moment in The Last Jedi when the last Jedi tosses it away and returns to his cave to feel sorry for himself. Not Yoda will he be, apparently. What’s eating Luke? It takes Rey a while to get the full story. In the meantime, who should show up in visions but Ren, who carves out a quiet space in a parallel realm in which he and Rey share their innermost thoughts. She’s convinced that despite his fealty to the creepy Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis plus CGI as the love child of Gollum and Voldemort), she can reach the core of Jedi decency in him, much as Luke once stirred the long-dormant heart of Darth Vader. But Luke has his doubts about Ren. Perhaps it had something to do with how the little shit skewered his own dad.
The Rey-Luke-Ren triangle is really the main story line, but much time is taken up by Star Wars’ new high-flying cowboy, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and his tussles with rebel leaders General Leia (Carrie Fisher, RIP) and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) over attacking the First Order’s mighty fleet (Poe’s preference) or getting the hell out of there. The third strand features Finn (John Boyega) and the small but huge-spirited rebel Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), who rocket (or whatever the appropriate verb is) off to disable the source some sort of First Order something something. (It doesn’t matter what it is — it’s a MacGuffin.) To pass the time, they need to find a space-age safecracker, who happily turns out to be the sleepy-eyed, pervy-vibed Benicio del Toro, who only has to gaze on a female character to lift a film into the realm of a borderline R rating.
However much I love The Last Jedi, there’s a lot of sleight-of-hand involved in making you think that the plot is moving forward instead of in circles. The first demolished space cannon is very exciting, the twelfth a bit of been-there-exploded-that. And how can it be that, however traumatic the intervening decades, the open-faced, shining-eyed Luke Skywalker has evolved into a raspy, hirsute, get-off-my-lawn old fart? Luke Cavesulker is more like it. Not even Yoda can get a smile out of him. You know he’ll have to pull himself together — his Jedi directive is to pass his accumulated wisdom on — but he sure takes his sweet time doing it. When he does, his Obi-Wan serenity amid chaos gladdens the heart. Carrie Fisher doesn’t get as many big moments as you’d hope for — probably because the filmmakers were holding off for the trilogy’s final film, which was meant to be her showcase. (The first was Harrison Ford’s, this one Hamill’s.) But it’s moving to hear her soulful croak for the last time. It took 40 years, but she and Leia finally merged.
The joys outweigh the downers tenfold. It’s fun to see Isaac’s smirk of superiority get wiped off his face by women whose minds are stuck on the survival of the entire galactic anti-fascist movement. (Yes, Dern plays a killjoy for most of the film, but it’s worth it for her final scene.) Domhnall Gleeson has a meaty comic role as the First Order’s imperious General Hux: The more he asserts his dignity, the more he’s reduced by his betters to a pulling ninny. Kelly Marie Tran has a delightful way of tagging along after Finn like a lovelorn groupie before knocking him for a loop or saving him from himself.
Johnson might be stuck with multiple story lines, but each has its own look, its own palette to match the many motifs in John Williams’s ever-invigorating score, which quotes from itself constantly and still sounds fresh. The showstopper is the throne room of the snooty Snoke, with its luminous crimson walls that silhouette an array of elite samurai guards — it’s like an avant-garde Aida. The climactic throne-room lightsaber battle is choreographed and shot like nothing in this generally flat-footed series. Johnson doesn’t cut on the saber clacks the way Lucas did. He has the fighters go at it in breathtakingly long shots, their whole bodies charged. It feels like the first time since The Empire Strikes Back that the Force has extended to the director. Even the usual merchandisable beasties are unusually easy to take, among them a pop-eyed, puffin-like bird that attaches itself to Chewbacca, and eerily beautiful crystalline foxes that eye Leia and company enigmatically as the rebels barricade themselves in a cave and prepare for a possible last stand.
Ridley’s Rey is even more appealing here — plucky, steadfast, doggedly determined to find her place in the cosmos. But the core of The Last Jedi — of this whole trilogy, it seems — is Driver’s Kylo Ren, who ranks with cinema’s most fascinating human monsters. He makes his entrance in a skinny black head-helmet, so cute and pathetically hopeful, like an 8-year-old in a Darth Vader Halloween costume. Told by the Supreme Leader that he looks like an idiot (or words to that effect), Driver’s Ren rips off the helmet and — in another of his toddlerish tantrums — smashes it to a pulp. When he and Rey telepathically communicate, he keeps his emotions shrouded, and you never tire of searching that shroud for glimmers of light. Driver’s actual visage — a Modigliani portrait come to life — is more unnerving than the helmet. It’s Vader’s mask incarnate.