At one point in “The Last Jedi,” a character says “Let the past die.” Which is a funny thing to say in a “Star Wars” movie, where each installment is built firmly upon the architecture of the preceding ones.
Last year’s “Rogue One” turned a single line of dialogue from the original 1977 “Star Wars” into its own action movie. Next summer we’re getting a prequel , “Solo,” featuring a younger version of one of the series’ iconic characters. 2015’s Episode VII, “The Force Awakens,” traded heavily on fan nostalgia for the original trilogy, not only bringing back old characters but introducing new characters and story beats that, if they didn’t repeat the original films, at least echoed them.
Not to say that “Force Awakens” wasn’t wildly entertaining, or that the nostalgia didn’t work like gangbusters for longtime fans (Fine, I’ll admit to tearing up at the sight of the old Millennium Falcon.) But in Episode VIII, “The Last Jedi,” writer-director Rian Johnson makes a “Star Wars” movie that finally seems ready to move forward, to not let the 40-year history of the franchise weigh it down. The characters, like the movie, take what they need from the past, leave the rest behind, and forge ahead into unexpected and exciting new terrain.
And it does it all in a fast-moving, action-packed, emotionally and surprisingly funny movie. In a 152-minute running time, the longest yet for a “Star Wars” film, Johnson (“Looper”) has room for new characters, new relationships, new worlds, new creatures. And if “The Last Jedi” does call back to early movies, it’s sometimes a case of canny misdirection, setting our expectations up for one thing and then delivering another.
“The Last Jedi” takes off with the Resistance (good guys) back on its heels, running from the First Order (bad guys) determined to wipe them off the face of the galaxy. As Princess Leia (the late Carrie Fisher), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) try to put some distance between themselves and the villainous General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson going full Snidely Whiplash), Rey (Daisy Ridley) is off trying to coax Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to rejoin the fight after years in self-imposed exile.
Looming in the shadows is the wizened Imperial Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his dark apprentice, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), although Kylo is still wounded both physically and psychically from the events of the last movie.
I’m reluctant to reveal more than that of the plot, other than to say that there would be a lot to reveal. Johnson balances heavy dramatic moments with lighter comedic ones, big sweeping space battles with small character moments, the return of familiar faces with the introduction of new ones. If sometimes things move a little too fast for common sense — there always seems to be an escape pod waiting to zip a character exactly where the plot needs them to go — it more or less all hangs together.
Of the new characters, the one that makes the most impression is Kelly Marie Tran as Rose, a Resistance maintenance worker who becomes an unlikely hero in the fight. The heroes of “Star Wars” movies have never been generals or princes (okay, one princess). They’re ordinary folk from backwater planets , farmboys and freighter pilots, suddenly thrust into the center of the action when destiny called. There’s a reason why the villains always seem like noblemen, sneering down at the “rebel scum.”
“The Last Jedi” hits that theme explicitly, that a hero can come out of nowhere, especially in the film’s poetic final image. It’s an image that looks forward, rather than back, which is exactly the right course that Johnson has set “Star Wars” on for the next installment in 2019.