Let’s cut to the chase: The Last Jedi, the eighth episode of the increasingly massive Star Wars chronicle, is wonderful. It’s the Star Wars movie we deserve, not because it’s some perfect piece of cinema, but because it’s as good as a movie could possibly be with this many obligations—to fans and newcomers, old markets and new ones, with every variety of expectation laid at its feet by eager audiences worldwide—and then some. It’s one of the few franchise sequels of any kind in recent memory that feels like it could stand on its own—a feat in and of itself. It’s also, quite simply, a big, glorious, heartfelt, satisfying piece of pop filmmaking, the kind of movie we haven’t seen from a major movie studio in way too long.
The movie’s director, Rian Johnson, previously known for the well-regarded genre throwbacks Brick and Looper, has thrown everything he knows into this project. It’s very much a “My parents let me borrow the keys to the Corvette for prom and this will never happen again SO LET’S MAKE IT COUNT” kind of movie—the kind you make in case Disney never lets you through the front gates again. That’s sort of funny, because it turns out Johnson will, in fact, helm a standalone Star Wars trilogy, and that’s undoubtedly because of how well he did this time around.
It’s a generous piece of filmmaking. The Last Jedi is a sprawling—at 152 minutes, you could say overlong, and you wouldn’t be totally wrong—tribute to the franchise’s past and future, with enough fan service and enough of the franchise’s recognizable house style to make sense as part of the greater story, but enough of Johnson and his collaborators’ own sense of invention to make the movie feel almost personal. All the standbys are here. We get Jedi training sessions and needlessly complex covert ops, a handsome introduction to an odd new planet (this time, it’s a monied haven for über-rich gamblers with fat jowls, big coifs, and bad attitudes), hero shots, righteous cameos, and explosions, explosions, explosions. The Last Jedi’s success is not in reinventing the wheel; it’s in revitalizing it.
That’s more than I can say for the two previous entries in the franchise, The Force Awakens and Rogue One, both of which let me down, but for different reasons. J.J. Abrams’s Force Awakens was a likable-enough bit of throat clearing, the kind of movie you have to make to regain the public’s trust after the debacle of George Lucas’s prequels (which I don’t entirely hate). It was too committed to the blueprints already laid out by the originals. Gareth Edwards’s Rogue One, meanwhile, felt a little too serious: It was the politics of the Star Wars universe stripped of all the glorious details and inventive minutiae that made these worlds worth saving (let alone watching). It was Star Wars for normies.
The Last Jedi is the ideal mix of both: serious in its study of intergalactic power and the primacy of the Jedi legend while also being rife with the joys of so many beings, from so many planets, working together to save their universe. The basic story is, as ever, a battle between good and evil. On the one hand, there’s the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (a phenomenal Andy Serkis), a powerful old pain in the ass who, among other things, has command over the dark-sided Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the less powerful but sufficiently ridiculous General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). On the other sits the Resistance, led by the regal Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), whose endgame is restoring the power of the great, fallen Republic back to the people. It’s a battle that, so far, the Resistance—even with the help of passionate firebrands like Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac); Finn (John Boyega), a lapsed Stormtrooper; and a wonderful newcomer, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran)—seems primed to lose.
Hence the need for some Jedi intervention. The Last Jedi twines the fight of the Resistance with the story of Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeking out Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), at Leia’s request, to ask for his help. That’s the logline, anyway. We all (or at least those of us who’ve seen The Force Awakens) know that Rey is really here to discover things about herself, and her own power. Beyond that, she learns more, about the Force and, most especially, about Kylo Ren.
All those parts of the story matter. But nothing in Johnson’s movie impressed me as much as the little details, the things that make this franchise stand out from others. Look at the way Supreme Leader Snoke’s bodyguards, cloaked in devilishly red suits of armor, carry themselves, with a sleek, ninja-like sense of individual prowess. Look at the creatures on Luke’s exile planet: the Caretakers with their nunly robes and demeanor; the beautifully adorable porgs, which look like the evolutionary result of the cutest penguin mating with the cutest puppy; and whatever those big monsters are that Luke milks for green fizz (you’ll see). It all feels thought through, natural, and not unnecessarily showy — just as the action in the film, and the many climactic lightsaber duels, feels motivated by the characters’ passions and their commitment to their ideals, rather than like gratuitous excuses to show action. There are moments here that truly wowed me: a gag with an iron that becomes a gleeful in-joke, a suicide mission late in the film whose utter sense of sacrifice makes the entire movie fall silent. It’s all quite a sight.
That isn’t to say that the movie, which suffers slightly from the “too many endings” problem that dampened Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and is curiously fussy about things like gender and power, is perfect or beyond reproach. A movie with this many responsibilities can’t be perfect. But The Last Jedi is more than worthy of carrying on the franchise’s legacy. Hamill is better here than he’s ever been in a Star Wars movie, and so is Fisher. Both show up to play Luke and Leia like grizzled veterans who’ve seen it all, Fisher with a greater sense of majesty and hope, Hamill with more than his share of disillusionment. The movie is a tribute to the franchise’s past that embraces the fierce certainty of its future and the ability of its new generation—Ridley, Isaac, Driver, Boyega, Tran, and the rest—to carry the franchise forward. It’s such a successful changing of the guard that by the end I wondered if this could be it: This could be the last Star Wars movie. If it were the end—and of course it’s not—it’d be a way to close out the franchise on a robust, satisfying note. This is a movie not only for Star Wars fans but also for fans of losing themselves in, and falling in love with, blockbuster movies. That’s a feeling most Hollywood movies have forgotten—and The Last Jedi is here to make us remember it.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly included the character name Tico in a list in place of the actress’s name, Kelly Marie Tran.