Culture

The Last Jedi: Star Wars Thrill Ride Takes the Force in an Exciting New Direction

Disney Star Wars official promotional image for The Last Jedi. www.starwars.com

The news is out — “Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” is an impressive addition to the “Star Wars” saga. With a coveted 93 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, the latest installment has wowed critics, and audiences are likely to be even more impressed.

Thrilling, unexpected, and creative, the film delivers constant surprises and fascinating character development. Lightsaber battles, starship maneuvers, and the pervasive presence of the Force give a powerful edge to this space epic, and “The Last Jedi” uses each of these “Star Wars” staples in new ways.

Beneath the eye-popping action, character motivations drive the plot. Audiences will go in expecting compelling backstory for Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver), Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and Rey (Daisy Ridley) — and they will not be disappointed. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) finally receives the screen time he deserves, in an interesting twist with Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).

A much-deserved tribute to Fisher, who passed away last year, runs in the credits. Princess Leia has an outsize presence in the film, and “The Last Jedi” is better for it. She plays an interesting contrast with her brother Luke.

Where “The Force Awakens” (2015) arguably relied too much on nostalgia for the older generation, “The Last Jedi” gives the Skywalker twins more depth. Episode VIII still uses some tropes from the original trilogy, but the overall approach proves much more fresh and unpredictable than “The Force Awakens,” which felt too much like a retelling of “Episode IV: A New Hope” (1977) with a female lead.

“The Last Jedi” shines brightest with a very unexpected relationship teased in the trailers between Kylo Ren and Rey. Their raw hatred for one another proves both entertaining and fascinating, but it doesn’t stop there. Both characters grow far beyond the almost stock hero and stock villain from “Force Awakens,” and this is perhaps the greatest strength of the new movie.

Somehow, “The Last Jedi” also finds time to develop Finn (John Boyega) and a new character, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). Their adventure raises deep questions about the nature of the Resistance and the First Order, and suggests a direction for both in the future. It also introduces themes of wealth and poverty which were mostly absent in the “Star Wars” franchise.

As always, the droids and critters add a much-needed dimension of fun and humor. While the porgs — extremely cute tiny birds featured in the trailer — might get a bit grating, most of the creatures add to the story without becoming a distraction.

“The Last Jedi,” far more so than “The Force Awakens,” introduced exotic new planets that broadened the “Star Wars” universe. One setting in particular proves both memorable and fascinating.

The salt planet of Crait provides a wonderful setting for action and intrigue, with crystal caverns and shimmering foxes known as vulptices. Each vulptex has crystal fur, which shimmers like ice. They scurry to and fro, and actually play an important role in the plot.

Perhaps most impressive, the movie adds wrinkles to the meaning of the Force. These new elements fit in with the previous films while developing Force connections between people and revealing powers from a surprising source.

Despite these strengths, “The Last Jedi” does have a few key weaknesses. For all the movie explains, it still leaves a few deep questions unanswered. Perhaps the greatest weakness comes from scene switching, however. Transitions between epic star battles and more tranquil training scenes feel a bit rushed and clunky — especially when a character’s name being mentioned is the sole pretext for switching scenes.

Episode VIII is a long movie (2.5 hours), and it feels long. Ironically, this has nothing to do with a plodding plot — the story moves quickly. Rather, it seems “The Last Jedi” is attempting to do too much.

While “The Force Awakens” featured a great deal of action, much of the plot and time spent on certain characters seemed driven by fan service. Episode VII echoed the original trilogy: the poor misfit with unusual Force sensitivity, the powerful evil force hearkening back to Nazi themes, the massive Death Star (now a Death Planet), the wanton destruction of innocent peaceful planets, and the unlikely victory of a small rebellion in destroying the great evil.

The only genuinely new feature of “The Force Awakens” — besides a few less developed new planets and new characters like Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, and Poe — was the death of Han Solo (Harrison Ford). Even this twist followed many scenes with Han clearly meant to please the fans.

“The Last Jedi” echoes parts of the original trilogy, but the plot stands on its own. The worlds, animals, characters, and especially the story aren’t just new, they feel new, and they genuinely add something that wasn’t in the franchise before.

Perhaps the greatest weakness of “The Last Jedi” is that all this novelty rushes in at once. “The Force Awakens” eased familiar audiences into a new story with nearly identical themes to the original trilogy. “The Last Jedi” broke the mold, transforming these familiar themes into a fascinatingly fresh tale — without losing the integrity of what makes “Star Wars” such a beloved franchise.

“The Force Awakens” would have been improved by incorporating a few of the new elements — and especially some of the character depth — of “The Last Jedi.” If Episode VII did more, Episode VIII wouldn’t have to do quite as much as it did. As it stands, the two movies will run together quite well, as they balance each other neatly.

While “The Last Jedi” accomplishes a great deal, it still leaves quite a few loose ends for Episode IX. Deep themes like the balance of the Force leave room for the main characters to grow even more than they did in this film, and expectations for the sequel will be quite high.

In short, “The Last Jedi” deserves a place of honor in the “Star Wars” canon, and it is likely to be a smash hit. It may not be able to unseat the widely acknowledged pinnacle of “Star Wars” — “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) — but it certainly beat “Force Awakens,” while deepening what the Force awoke in 2015.

One prediction is rather easy to make: Disney will make a killing, and kids everywhere will be playing with little porgs.