One by one, the keepers of our era’s biggest franchises, the sacred texts to be drawn on and embellished for generations to come, have had the same bright idea: What if, instead of hiring seasoned hacks or promising but untested newcomers, they gave the movies to actual filmmakers? And one by one, they’ve decided that talent and vision ultimately aren’t worth the hassle. More often than not, the directors who have thrived in the expanded franchiseverse—Marvel’s (and now DC’s) Joss Whedon, Harry Potter’s David Yates, Star Wars’ J.J. Abrams—come out of television, where established forms are, sometimes brilliantly, tinkered with rather than reinvented, and artistic whims are no match for the forward march of the daily schedule.
Rian Johnson has proven himself the rare director who can flourish in both worlds, whether he’s following time-traveling hitmen in Looper or chronicling Walter White’s downfall on Breaking Bad, and his induction into the Star Wars universe was both strange—you’re handing Luke and Leia to the guy who made The Brothers Bloom?—and promising. But as The Last Jedi approached, Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy’s faith in individual expression seemed to falter. Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One was heavily reshot by another director, and The Lego Movie’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller were removed from the forthcoming Han Solo movie altogether, replaced by old hand Ron Howard. The Last Jedi made Johnson the only person outside of George Lucas to have sole writing and directing credit on a Star Wars movie, but there was still the worrisome possibility that we might end up with a story directed, no matter how well, by committee.
It took only a single scene for The Last Jedi to allay that worry completely. The movie opens, as all Star Wars movies must, with the iconic text crawl and (usually downward) camera tilt across a field of stars, but no sooner has it done that than it seems to be rushing toward a group of evil First Order ships floating in space. There’s a battle brewing, but instead of an opposing fleet, the Order’s General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, looking like he’s at the end of a prodigious coke bender) is met by a single fighter piloted by the Resistance’s Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, looking just fine). Hux is full of blood and thunder, but his portentous speeches about crushing his enemies stick in his throat when he’s addressing a tiny audience. As Hux tries to make Poe quake in his boots, Poe impishly pretends to have trouble with his communicator, and the more he pretends, the more Hux’s intimidating patter turns to sputtering, impotent rage. Two minutes into the space opera, and we’ve paused for a comedy routine. The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars movie to be influenced by Spaceballs.
Johnson brings to The Last Jedi a cinephile’s erudition as well as a geek’s devotion, and he’s made a film that connects to Star Wars at the root—not just the first movie, but the ones that inspired it. There’s Kurosawa in it, both the rowdy fabulism of The Hidden Fortress and the impressionist choreography of Ran, a sword fight in a scarlet throne room that draws on Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffman, even an overt nod to Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was a canny feat of fan service, introducing a new slate of characters while sticking close enough to the original film’s elements that you could practically see its skeleton under the skin. But The Last Jedi isn’t content to revive past glories or re-establish a valuable piece of intellectual property’s commercial viability. There are moments in it that feel genuinely new, not just for the world of Star Wars but the universe of movies as a whole.
The Force Awakens ended with its characters dispersed, and in classic middle-film fashion, The Last Jedi spends much of its length getting the band back together. Rey (Daisy Ridley) struggles to convince a disillusioned Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) that the Jedi faith still has a contribution to make toward galactic harmony. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) vies with Hux for the attentions of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and struggles with his own internal allegiances. The trigger-happy Poe tries to persuade Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo to take the fight to the First Order instead of playing defense. And Finn joins with Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose, an enthusiastic grease monkey whom fate promotes to key player, on a journey to retrieve a key element in the Resistance’s defense strategy. And there are stretches in the middle of the movie when the effort to keep its various plots moving at the same rate weighs all of them down: It’s like watching a midseason Game of Thrones episode where the only thing the various stories have in common is that they’re at the same points in their arcs. But the movie never allows plot mechanics to triumph over visual poetry for too long. You don’t have to be invested in who is taking what where to be brought up short by the consistently striking, sometimes even startling, images Johnson and his longtime cinematographer, Steve Yedlin, have put up on the screen.
At 43, Johnson isn’t much younger than Abrams, but even more than The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi feels like a passing of the torch. Unlike Harrison Ford’s perpetually jaunty Han Solo, Mark Hamill’s Luke is worn down by the time that’s passed between trilogies, bent double by the weight of his own failure. (Finally someone acknowledges that the Jedi’s long-term track record is not a great one.) Despite the fact that Carrie Fisher died after filming was completed, Johnson has left her story, pointing to a now-impossible role in Episode IX, intact, but her every appearance is tinged with a hint of fragile mortality, and Luke’s last words to Leia now serve as an inadvertent but perfectly bittersweet farewell.
Alongside them has risen a new, more diverse cast of universe-savers, one that feels both out of time and perfectly of their moment. Luke was a hot-rodder born of Lucas’ ’50s childhood, and though gearhead Rose and flyboy Poe share some of his DNA, when Poe steers his fighter into a 180-degree slide, I thought not of American Graffiti but The Fast and the Furious. They’re a generation born into an unending war that may never really be won, that knows that evil can be kept at bay but never defeated. Without the responsibility of beginning a trilogy or ending one, Johnson has the freedom to steer The Last Jedi into murkier moral waters—including a scene where it’s revealed that the war profiteers Finn and Rose have been tracking down sell to both First Order and Resistance alike. Though the movie doesn’t vindicate the cynical idea that there’s no difference between sides, it does raise the question of whether it’s possible to win a war and lose oneself in the process.
Like many before it, The Last Jedi has already been hailed as the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back, and while that’s true, it’s too faint a compliment. It’s a film of genuine beauty, one where you come away as eager to talk about the set design and the choreography as you do the fate of the galaxy or what might happen next. The “true burden of all masters,” a character observes at one point, is for their students to grow beyond them.* It’s a burden that George Lucas now bears, and one hopes he bears it smiling.
*Correction, Dec. 12, 2017: This review originally attributed this line to Luke Skywalker. It is spoken to him, not by him.