The Empire Strikes Back is widely regarded as the best sequel of all time, as well as the best of all the Star Wars films, and with the new trilogy of the saga from a galaxy far, far away reaching its all-important second act, early trailers and marketing for Star Wars: The Last Jedi suggested director Rian Johnson (Looper) took a similar and darker approach. While the film is definitely no Empire, The Last Jedi does surprisingly follow its own path in a very unique and wildly entertaining Star Wars installment.
The Last Jedi is both in title and reality Mark Hamill’s film, reprising the legendary role of Luke Skywalker. While previous installment The Force Awakens told a very personal Han Solo story with only a tiny glimpse of Luke, this film is the aging Jedi’s time to shine, and boy does he ever.
After destroying Starkiller Base, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is sent by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) to find her brother Luke with the mission of convincing him to join and lead the Resistance against The First Order. But the young force sensitive girl finds a very different, bitter Jedi Master than she expected and begins a dangerous path to the Force and her true nature.
Everything with Rey and Luke in this story works well, and provides some of the best material in the overall film. Hamill’s Luke has become slightly mad after years of isolation and living with dark secrets of his post-Return of the Jedi life, trying to rekindle the Jedi Order while also training Han and Leia’s powerful son Ben (Adam Driver), whom eventually embraced the dark side and became Kylo Ren.
But what I really loved about Hamill’s performance is the unexpected ways in which he evokes the sweet, playful farm boy we all know and love from the original trilogy. Hamill is able to move effortlessly between his old personality and this new one with just a shift of his eyes and a slight vocal tweak – it’s quite wonderful to see and something the film’s marketing did not reveal.
But back to Adam Driver, his portrayal of Kylo Ren continues to be a fascinating wild card with his constantly shifting emotions and allegiances. The mix of quiet moments of reflection counter-balanced with scenery chewing fury make him a blast to watch as the character. Driver may go a little too far and a little too campy occasionally, but he sure is a fun villain to root against.
Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is also given a beefier role this time out and is by far my favorite non-Jedi character of the new trilogy. Isaac bubbles with excitement in every scene and his exuberance delivering jokes at the expense of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, more comedic this time out) or his excitement every time he interacts with BB-8 is infectious. Much of his story revolves around his relationship with Leia and her desire to teach him when the right time is for a leader to make a stand and when to cut and run. They have a lovely dynamic and it’s a shame they won’t share the screen together in Episode IX.
The second act in the new Star Wars trilogy is no Empire Strikes Back, but it successfully further explores this new cast of heroes and villains while doing right by the original trilogy characters - most notably Hamill's superb return as Luke Skywalker.