This is a spoiler-free review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Think of The Force Awakens as a clearing of the throat. The return of Star Wars to the silver screen after a decade-long absence, J.J. Abrams’ job was to reintroduce audiences to the world of the galaxy far, far away. TFA’s deliberate aping of the structure of A New Hope wasn’t the weakness that many people paint is as being, but rather a savvy way to recenter the franchise in the style and tropes that made the Original Trilogy so beloved, and lay a solid—if not wholly original—foundation for the franchise to follow into the future.

That future is here. If The Force Awakens is a throat clearing, then The Last Jedi is a full-throated roar, an authoritative statement by a filmmaker with absolute confidence in his understanding of the themes of Star Wars and a crystal-clear vision of how to push them to depths that they’ve never reached before. While individual mileage will obviously vary, for me, The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie to date.

The Last Jedi

Since I opened by bringing up The Force Awakens’ similarities to A New Hope, let me dispel many fans’ biggest fear for The Last Jedi up front: this movie is in no way a rehash of Empire Strikes Back. The only thing the two movies share is their initial setup: a Rebellion/Resistance on the ropes after a major victory and a young Force-talented individual in need of some assistance developing his/her powers. From that common starting point, Rian Johnson’s film takes off in directions wholly its own, throwing out so many surprises across its two-and-a-half hour running time that by the time the third act kicks into gear you’ll be primed to believe that anything could happen. While The Force Awakens follows the narrative template of A New Hope almost to the letter, knowing the beats of Empire won’t give you any clues as to how The Last Jedi plays out.

That doesn’t mean The Last Jedi isn’t recognizably a Star Wars movie; it very much is, and it plays to the core strengths of the franchise with aplomb. All the epic battles, pseudo-religious philosophizing, high drama and laughs you expect from a Star Wars film are present in abundance. I was actually surprised by just how much comedy there is in the movie. The trailers set TLJ up as a heavy movie, and it certainly is when it needs to be, but Johnson’s script doesn’t loose sight of the fact that Star Wars should be fun, and he included enough humor that this might arguably be the funniest Star Wars movie yet.

It’s also the Star Wars movie that speaks most directly to the franchise’s core theme: hope. More than anything, The Last Jedi is a story about hope; the ways hope sustains us, inspires us, or even sets us up for disappointment. Every character faces their greatest challenges yet in the movie, and how they respond to them—either with hope or despair—defines the emotional arcs of the film.

The Last Jedi

For the surviving members of the Resistance, those challenges are particularly daunting. The Last Jedi picks up in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of Starkiller Base. Forced to beat a quick retreat from their headquarters on D’Qar, Leia, Poe, and Finn are on the run, and with the Republic destroyed there are no obvious safe havens for them to turn to. With General Hux hot on their trail, Finn and Poe come up with a desperate plan to put some distance between the Resistance fleet and the First Order.

Meanwhile, Rey is on Ahch-To looking for a guide to show her the ways of the Force. Unfortunately, Luke Skywalker, the titular last Jedi, is deeply embittered from his failure with Ben Solo years earlier and is in no mood to be anyone’s teacher. And Ben—now Kylo Ren—faces his own test, as he struggles to wipe the last vestiges of conflict from his soul and earn the full confidence of his master, Supreme Leader Snoke.

It was an absolute delight to see our three heroes from The Force Awakens again. Rey, Finn and Poe are just as entertaining as they were two years ago, the vibrant, beating heart of this new Star Wars saga, played to perfection by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. Isaac in particular makes the most out of his increased screen time in The Last Jedi, taking the broadly sketched hotshot fighter jockey Poe was in The Force Awakens and evolving him into a fully realized character, still brave and charming, but also sometimes arrogant and reckless. Flawed, in other words, like any good character.

The Last Jedi

Boyega and Ridley are also fantastic. Finn and Rey are still taking their first steps on their journeys to becoming heroes, and Boyega and Ridley continue to imbue them with the energy and sincerity that endeared us to them in The Force Awakens. Finn has spent all but a few days of his life as a brainwashed slave of the First Order, and in The Last Jedi he learns a lot more about how the galaxy really works.

And Rey is Rey. Curious, brave, determined, Daisy Ridley continues to play Rey with an unshakable core of strength that is the embodiment of heroism, inspiring and empowering and everything that the lead of a Star Wars movie should be. Arguments from the more churlish corners of the fandom that Rey is a “Mary Sue” won’t be dispelled by The Last Jedi, but who cares what those kids think, anyway?

The Last Jedi

The real standout of the new generation of characters in The Last Jedi is Kylo Ren. Adam Driver gives what I would argue is the best performance in the movie. In the Star Wars fandom, we like to make fun of Kylo for being a whiny millennial, but he really is a fascinating character. Kylo’s a very angry young man, pressured on all sides, slowly being crushed under the weight of expectation that stems from the combined Skywalker and Solo legacies. In lesser hands, Kylo’s emotional extremity could very easily have led to a grating, one-note performance, but Driver finds an impressive breadth of shadings in that anger, giving Ren a remarkable complexity.

Then there are the legacy characters. Mark Hamill gives a career best performance (in live action, at least) as an aged Luke Skywalker who’s put a lot of miles on his soul since Return of the Jedi. Luke’s retreated to Ahch-To because he genuinely believes that the Jedi Order has outlived its usefulness, but Rey comes into his world with a strength that can’t be ignored out of hand. Luke’s faced crises of confidence before, and what’s really remarkable about Hamill’s performance in The Last Jedi is how much, in those moments when Luke questions his place in the galaxy, he still feels exactly like that young farm boy from Tatooine. Like Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher before him, Hamill slips back into Luke’s skin like he never left.

The Last Jedi

And Carrie. Oh, Carrie. If this had to be Carrie Fisher’s last performance, it’s a hell of a performance to go out on. Leia is everything you want her to be in this movie; the general and the princess, commanding and vulnerable, wry, wise, and utterly, utterly radiant. She’s indelibly Leia, and that’s all I really have the strength to say right now.

The Last Jedi

Amidst all this, The Last Jedi also finds the time to introduce three new supporting characters. Of the three, Benicio Del Toro’s mysterious hacker character is the only one that doesn’t completely work. Johnson tries to use the character as a means to illuminate some of the gray areas of the Star Wars universe. While the character works thematically, addressing the politics and economics of war with a complexity we’ve never seen before in a Star Wars movie, Del Toro’s performance never really registers as anything more than a caricature.

The other two characters are much more valuable additions to the fabric of Star Wars. Laura Dern’s Vice-Admiral Holdo is a perfect foil for Poe, calling him out on his mistakes and challenging his assumptions about the nature of leadership.

And as Rose Tico, Kelly Marie Tran is a revelation. Rose, a maintenance tech for the Resistance, joins Finn on his mission to infiltrate the First Order. Along the way, Johnson uses Rose to expressly articulate the core themes of Star Wars in the most beautiful ways. Rose has a moment in The Last Jedi so powerful, and so perfectly played by Tran, that my breath literally caught in my throat and the tears I’d been struggling for most of the movie to hold back finally came loose. Rose is an absolutely wonderful character, a true hero and a landmark piece of representation for women of color in blockbuster filmmaking, and I guarantee you are going to love her.

Whew. If all of that feels like a lot, that’s because it is, and we haven’t even really talked about plot! At two-and-a-half hours, The Last Jedi is the longest Star Wars movie to date, and those two-and-a-half hours are packed to the gills with stuff. Luckily, that stuff is all so good, and the pacing so well-managed from start to finish, that it never feels overlong. The set-pieces, conflicts, and confrontations that Johnson has devised are never anything less than thrilling, and they nearly always move in directions you’d never expect. When the emotional moments hit, they hit hard, expertly built to leverage the years of history we’ve developed with these characters to maximum effect. And the surprises. We’re going to have a lot to talk about after everyone’s seen the movie.

The Last Jedi

On a technical level, The Last Jedi unsurprisingly excels. Johnson coaxed universally excellent performances from his actors, and his collaboration with longtime cinematographer Steve Yedlin has produced some of the most iconic imagery in franchise history. The geniuses at Industrial Light and Magic have outdone themselves yet again with superb special effects. Production designer Rick Heinrichs and creature designer Neal Scanlan have created outstanding practical sets and aliens. John Williams’ score is the usual level of excellent, although he sadly doesn’t introduce any memorable new themes to compliment the suite he created for The Force Awakens.

The Last Jedi is simply a triumph on every level. If there’s any other criticism I can level at it, it’s that the closing moments of the movie might be a little on the nose, but even then, it’s a Star Wars movie, so a little sentimentality is to be expected.

As to where things go from here, that might be the very best thing about The Last Jedi. Obviously I’m not gonna reveal where everybody ends up, but the prospects for what could happen in Episode IX are thrilling to consider. And the idea of Johnson sticking around to develop an entire new trilogy of movies is the best news imaginable, as he’s now established himself as the definitive voice of post-Lucas Star Wars. After watching The Last Jedi, I’m more excited than ever about the future of Star Wars, and I can’t think of any higher compliment.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in theaters Friday, December 15th

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