By Vincent Abbatecola
While any installment in a trilogy carries its own degree of importance, it’s the second film that acts as a turning point. It expands upon what we saw in the first film and offers a few surprises, all of which propels events for the final installment. I think we can all agree that the “Star Wars” franchise did this without flaw in their original trilogy for “The Empire Strikes Back,” as it followed “A New Hope” with a darker narrative, an enthralling expansion of its mythology, and one of the greatest plot twists in movie history.
Then, two years ago, “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens” kicked off the sequel trilogy, and ever since, anticipation has been high as to where the story would go from there. Now, director Rian Johnson brings us back to cinema’s cherished, far-far-away galaxy with “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi,” which, despite a few flaws, is the best film in the franchise since “Empire.”
I don’t want to divulge too many details about the plot. So, all I’ll say is that the story follows the Resistance as they continue their fight against the First Order, while Rey (Daisy Ridley) begins her Jedi training with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has been living in isolation.
Seeing Mark Hamill return as Luke Skywalker is one of the great joys you’ll have at the movies this year. To imagine that he was once a hopeful farm-boy and is now a cloistered Jedi shows how much his character has been through since we were first introduced to him. It’s a performance that shows the wisdom that Luke holds and the pain he’s experienced, and Hamill uses the depths of this role to make Luke much more than a curmudgeonly Jedi master.
Carrie Fisher, in her final screen appearance before her passing in December 2016, delivers her best performance of the series in her iconic role of General Leia Organa. She’s a headstrong authority figure who knows what must be done to keep the Resistance alive, while also holding out hope that her brother will come to their aid, displaying the sibling connection that serves as one of the strong dramatic aspects of the sequel trilogy.
Daisy Ridley made a powerful first impression for her breakout role in “The Force Awakens,” and she now continues to show the acting strength that her character of a Jedi-in-training requires. As Rey grapples with trying to find her place in the universe, Ridley provides a terrific output of emotion as she moves forward with her live-changing journey.
Adam Driver, who plays the villainous Kylo Ren, expands upon the conflicted emotions that he displayed in “The Force Awakens.” It’s a little difficult to talk about his character without including spoilers, but I’ll say that it looks like his internal struggle will reach a fascinating apex in the next chapter.
John Boyega and Oscar Isaac continue to prove that they’re fun additions to the “Star Wars” universe as Finn and Poe Dameron, respectively, but the story doesn’t give their characters much of an opportunity to add emotional depth to their roles. However, given that the film is primarily meant to advance the arcs of Rey and Kylo Ren, it’s understandable why it would unfold in this way.
In terms of some of the supporting characters that return from “The Force Awakens,” Andy Serkis returns as Supreme Leader Snoke and delivers another accomplished motion-capture performance. And, while Domhnall Gleeson gave an adequate performance in “The Force Awakens” as General Hux, he tends to overact from time to time in this installment.
While “The Force Awakens” was derivative of “A New Hope,” Johnson’s screenplay avoids being a nostalgic retread of “The Empire Strikes Back.” Yes, “The Last Jedi” has some similarities to “Empire,” but it does enough to avoid repetition and makes this an unpredictable middle chapter.
After an exciting opening sequence, the story builds itself around character moments, instead of just feeling like it has to give us one space battle after another. Actually, most of the bigger action scenes come in the third act, which allows for the narrative to focus more on Rey and her arduous transition into becoming a Jedi.
One of the narrative’s blemishes is a sequence that lasts for about 15 minutes where Finn and one of the film’s new characters, Resistance member Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), must travel to a distant planet to find special help for their cause. It’s an unnecessary section of the film that could have been left out.
Johnson hasn’t directed a movie since his low-budget sci-fi film, “Looper,” but he displays an ability to change gears from the small-scale thrills of that movie to the galactic operatics of “Star Wars,” all while keeping us invested in Rey’s epic quest of self-discovery. Johnson recognizes that what makes “Empire” a top-tier sequel is how its main focus is building the relationships between the characters to drive the story and add more dramatic weight to the mission of the rebellion, and this is what he achieves for the latest outing in the series.
Colin Trevorrow (“Jurassic World”), who was chosen to direct episode nine, left the project in September, leaving J.J. Abrams, who helmed “The Force Awakens,” to step in and direct. Although “The Force Awakens” borrowed heavily from “A New Hope,” you can’t deny that Abrams brought new energy to the franchise after much of it was diminished in the prequel trilogy, and I’m sure that he will deliver a thrilling conclusion to this sequel trilogy, now that Johnson has put more of the pieces in place.
You may not be able to contain your excitement for the concluding chapter after watching “The Last Jedi,” but as Luke says to Rey in the film, “Breathe. Just breathe.”
Final grade: B+