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With due respect to all the spectacular stuff that will feed the planet’s appetite for a new episode—and to the solemnity of Mark Hamill’s battle-weary Luke—“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” lives most vividly in two of its women: General Leia Organa, who’s played by Carrie Fisher for the last time (mostly, and poignantly, in the film’s turbulent present, though also in a flash of hologram that reminds us how bright and dear Princess Leia was when we first met her all those decades ago); and Daisy Ridley’s Rey, the former scavenger of unknown parentage who is the story’s driving force—as distinct from Force. Unswerving in her courage and touching in her simplicity, Rey has the most moving line: “I need someone to show me my place in all of this.” It’s an irresistible invitation for us to care in a narrative that mixes, not always successfully, stirring moments and sensational action with angst and grim conflictedness on a galactic scale. The film, which Rian Johnson directed with great resourcefulness from his own screenplay, starts where “The Force Awakens” left off. (Literally, of course, it starts with the first triumphant phrase of the John Williams theme that must have taken up residence in our genes by now, given the sense of anticipation it triggers.) The rebels are in full retreat verging on extinction. Rey has sought out and found Luke Skywalker, a monkish self-isolate on a faraway island of a really faraway planet. The question is what comes next—will Luke return to the cause he once championed and become its savior? That’s only the most pressing question, and pressing is putting it mildly, since the hateful First Order, under its Supreme Leader Snoke— Andy Serkis, digitally uglified once again—is about to obliterate what’s left of the rebel fleet. Larger issues in “The Last Jedi” include the nature of heroism (Luke being a great man who has rejected the great-man theory of history); the paradox of power (Luke has rejected that too); the Light-and-Dark duality of our species (a Golden Oldie among “Star Wars” themes, though with striking surprises about who’s on which side for what reasons); and Rey’s obsessive concerns about where she came from as well as where she belongs and what she’s destined for. During one of many stunning sequences in the production, which was designed by Rick Heinrichs and photographed by Steve Yedlin, Rey seeks her parents’ identities in a subterranean hall of mirrors, which reflects on her well but not all that helpfully. (No Ancestry.com for her, poor baby.) Mr. Johnson has put his distinctive imprint on the franchise—no small achievement, considering the enormous stakes of the enterprise, but no surprise either; his previous features, especially “Looper” and his debut film “Brick,” a noir crime drama set in a high school, were notable for their visual energy and precocious mastery of the movie medium. “The Last Jedi” extends his reach and, thanks to the resources at his disposal, his grasp. “Look alive!” a young female bomber pilot cries early on. That’s very much what people do, whether they’re Dark or Light, nasty or nice. Oscar Isaac’s intrepid fighter pilot Poe Dameron sets a jaunty tone in a quirkily virtual confrontation with Domhnall Gleeson’s Hux, a First Order general with a tremulous upper lip.
Snoke’s regal black-and-red chamber looks like a set from the glory days of MGM musicals. An exploration of the shattered relationship between Luke and his nephew, the malefic warrior Kylo Ren ( Adam Driver ), recalls “Rashomon.” The filmmaker stretches time to explore the drama of grabbing a gizmo to push a button to drop a payload of bombs on an enemy dreadnought, and stretches it again when Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo, who has seemed to be a descendant of Captain Queeg, takes equally explosive action.At other points in the 152-minute film, time should have been compressed, and wasn’t. The storytelling bogs down in a middle section having to do with finding a code-cracker who can gain access to an enemy destroyer. (A dubious character played by Benicio Del Toro isn’t sufficiently amusing.) Kylo’s inner conflicts, while central to the plot, leave him looking awfully mopey for long periods of time as he struggles to resolve them. (Those who live by the lightsaber should live by it rather than talk about it.) It’s hard to keep track of Finn, the charming renegade Stormtrooper played by John Boyega ; he’s off on his own in several sections of a script that’s far from a model of organization. It’s harder still to know what to feel about a screechy species of toy-store merchandise called Porgs, even if one of the allegedly cute creatures gets to share, in an altered state, a funny scene with a salivating Chewbacca. (I’ll never forget the moment, in the fall of 1976, when I saw Chewy at the controls of the Millennium Falcon in the first “Star Wars” trailer. What? An ape flying a space ship? My bewilderment was joyous, and complete.) Taken as a whole, this eighth episode of the franchise will be porgnip for the faithful, though the answer to one of its Big Questions seems disappointing, and generously entertaining for the rest of us. After 40 years of rooting for Mr. Hamill’s Luke to prevail, it’s a shock, and an affecting one, to see him looking like Moses come down from the mountain, and sounding like a philosopher king. Mr. Johnson’s script gives us someone new to root for, a round-faced maintenance worker named Rose ( Kelly Marie Tran ) who practices her own particularly resolute form of heroism. And his direction gives us a grand finale that’s truly grand, though hardly final: The last Jedi may not have been seen.
The Wall Street Journal