I was born a mere two months after “Star Wars” came out in 1977. It’s always been a part of my life, and I grew up a diehard fan of the franchise. The other day, though, I came to a disheartening realization. I haven’t genuinely liked a “Star Wars” movie since “Return of the Jedi.” That was 34 years ago. 34 years of embarrassing prequels, a lackluster sequel, and whatever the heck “Rogue One” is (a decent filler between trilogy movies?). A lot, then, is riding on “The Last Jedi,” the continuation of “The Force Awakens,” to be good. And if it didn’t measure up, it would be time, as Luke Skywalker says in the movie, to let it die.
Well, “The Last Jedi” isn’t a home run, but the second half is so good it comes darn close. It’s really two movies in one with a soggy first half that bears too many of its predecessor’s problems, replaced by an amazing and stunningly satisfying second half.
But yes, the first hour or so is pretty rough if, like me, you’re not a fan of “Force Awakens.” Once again, too many moments mirror the original trilogy films, this time “The Empire Strikes Back”: the plot kicks off with another evacuation of another rebel base and another chase ensues after the surviving rebels (whoops, they’re the Resistance now…completely different) by the evil Empire (oops, now they’re the First Order), and on and on.
And the other plot threads don’t hold as much interest as they should. While it’s great to have Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) back and with actual dialogue this time, there’s a repetitive nature to his scenes with Rey (Daisy Ridley), at least initially. She endlessly seeks his guidance; he endlessly turns her down. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), in the meantime, have their own subplots to worry about. Finn embarks on a side mission to a Vegas-esque luxury planet with a new partner, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who’s kind of annoying. Poe, at least, has more screen time this go around, butting heads with a new commander, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). But none of these plots held much interest. The hope I had for this movie to rectify the mistakes of its predecessor diminished with each passing minute, and after an hour, it began to lose me. I gave up. Another Star Wars movie I wouldn’t like.
But then, it began to pick up steam. First with small moments: a completely unexpected connection that develops between two characters, moments of understanding and even warmth between others, and callbacks to earlier films that are more than mere imitations but rather a deepening of the characters, their history, and the film’s mythology. And then, something happens that sets the characters and the story in a new, unexpected, and, dare I say it, thrilling direction. All of which culminates in a breathtaking last act that the delivers the action, drama, and fantastical images that we’ve come to expect from this franchise.
I’m being vague, I know, but the movie is filled with surprises that I don’t want to ruin. Surprises that will make just about any fan of the series drool at the mere thought of them. At one point, the audience I was with gasped at…something. A theater full of jaded movie critics actually gasped, in unison. And that…something was so emotional that my brother almost began to cry right there in the theater (I was fine as I, apparently, have a heart of stone). But these moments obviously work as intended. I was lucky to experience them with little to no knowledge of what was going to happen next and I wouldn’t dream of ruining that fun, that enjoyment for anybody else.
If you’re looking for perfection, it ain’t here. But by the end there are scenes, moments that are nearly perfect. After the mediocrity of “The Force Awakens,” I had all but given up on this new trilogy of films. And while “The Last Jedi” isn’t perfect, there is so much that’s good, even great, that it has given me…wait for it…a new hope.