[The following review contains some spoilers.]
All Star Wars movies are essentially about the same thing: The strength it takes to be good when the universe pulls us toward darkness; the need for hope to sustain a resistance; the value of strong leaders; and the causes worth dying for. Throw in assorted cute (and ugly) critters, spunky androids, and, of course, daredevil fly boys and girls who romance each other while fighting the bad guys and you’ve got yourself a movie.
The Force, you might say, is in the details and the latest chapter, written and directed by indie filmmaker (and franchise newcomer) Rian Johnson, gives us lots of wonderful details to savor. The film’s structure might be its most ingenious conceit. It’s essentially divided into three parts:
We have my favorite part: the meeting between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her would-be mentor Luke (Mark Hamill). By now, Luke is living a hermetic life on the island of Ahch-To and has essentially renounced his role as a Jedi. Rey thinks she can convince him to teach her the finer points of The Force, but he is stubborn. In his mind, the Jedi’s last hope was Ben Solo, a.k.a. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), but once the forces of darkness overtook the young man, Luke gave up hope. All the while, Rey is communicating telepathically with Kylo, with whom she clearly shares a connection. She thinks she can coax Kylo to the side of good; he thinks he can coax her to the dark side. Who will win?
Then, there’s the fun caper sequences featuring good-hearted Finn (John Boyega), still pining away for Rey, and the spunky maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). Their somewhat convoluted plan is to travel to a fancy casino island where weapons merchants spend their leisure time, collect a legendary codebreaker (Benicio Del Toro, giving good weird), and bring him onto the First Order ship where he can disrupt their tracking system just long enough for the rebels to escape.
The third part involves a struggle for leadership that takes place aboard the rebel command ship when Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is temporarily out of commission. The statuesque, lavender-haired Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) has been put in charge, but the hot-headed Poe Dameron (dreamy-as-ever Oscar Isaac) thinks she’s being too cautious and he attempts to stage a mutiny.
Rian Johnson, whose previous films included Looper and Brick, orchestrates all of this deftly, mixing just enough light-saber duels, space battles, snappy dialogue, and Jedi mythology to make it all purr.
While some of George Lucas’s Star Wars films, especially the prequels, felt a little bloodless, the characters here feel distinctly human—we’re invested in their emotional journeys as well as their fight for survival. The hulking, sad-faced Adam Driver, battling rebels and personal demons with equal ferocity, continues his great work as Kylo Ren; the other spirited young castmembers, including Ridley, Boyega, and newcomer Tran are easy to love; and it’s particularly gratifying to see Mark Hamill, who hasn’t gotten much work lately, get a meaty, emotional role as the newly jaded Luke.
Yes, it’s sad to see Carrie Fisher in her final role as Leia, but there’s something cathartic about it, too. Much to the dismay of some fanboys, the Star Wars franchise has been taking a distinct turn toward the feminist (ha ha, suck it!)—with Leia as its highest-ranked rebel, Rey as the Force-wielding heroine, and assorted female characters playing heroic and pivotal roles, (including one played by Billie Lourd, Fisher’s daughter)! It’s safe to say that Ms. Fisher would definitely approve.