It's like WWII, only fun! In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the alt-right First Order has the rebels bottled up—"the RESISTANCE," the title crawl says in capital letters, a stealth howdy to anti-Trumpers. On the throne is Supreme Leader Snoke, a granddaddy version of Baby Eraserhead played by Andy Serkis.
This moldy dictator faces the same problems Lord Vader had back in the day—sass from a supercilious general (Domhnall Gleeson) and disappointing results from a prize pupil, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who returned empty-handed from his mission to find Luke Skywalker.
In writer and director Rian Johnson's entry in this series—maybe the strongest and sharpest in the 40-year-long epic—fractiousness abounds. Skywalker (Mark Hamill) sulks in his island monastery, overrun with cute space-puffins called porgs; the birdies turn the Millennium Falcon into their rookery. The noble finale of the last episode had Daisy Ridley's Rey passing the lightsaber to the bearded hermit Luke. It's picked up right where we left off: Luke tosses the unwanted weapon over his shoulder and vows that he will no longer teach the Jedi arts.
Eventually, he changes his mind. Here, the Force is a spiritual disciple anyone awake can feel their way into. This is opposed to what could be called George Lucas's single worst idea: making the Force into an inherited quality, found in aristocrats with midi-chlorians in their blood.
The rebels are a matriarchy now. When General Leia (Carrie Fisher, doing a lot of post-mortem acting) is incapacitated by an attack, a new admiral takes over. It's Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), whose idea of an insurgent's uniform is a lavender evening gown with ruffles. Dern carries herself like a goddess, but she has some strife with one of her rebellious pilots, "a hotshot flyboy" named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).
The 1990s Star Wars entries had big name actors, but they stood around like chess pieces. Watch Last Jedi and think, "My God, it's full of stars." Isaac has never looked better than he does here in the cockpit, stripping the cannons off the dreadnought with his missiles, and later asking for more: "Permission to jump into an X-wing and blow something up."
Rich with minutia is a new wretched hive of scum and villainy, a casino planet. Johnson speeds the camera through like a drone so we can admire the fauna at this chimera-Vegas. One is a drunken little punter in evening clothes who mistakes the beachball-shaped android BB8 for a slot machine. Finn (John Boyega) and his new comrade Rose Tico (the show-stealing Kelly Marie Tran), who are there looking for help, end up arrested for a parking violation. In the lockup they meet a scurvy yet adept thief (Benicio del Toro)—a jailbird who's been inside enough times that he knows to sleep with his boots around his neck, so that they don't get stolen.
Kylo Ren's walking-wounded emoism looks even more handsomely thwarted than it did last time; to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, Driver has the embarrassing sensuality of a 13-year-old girl's drawing of a horse. "You're just a child in a mask," jeers Snoke. As if stagecraft hadn't impressed Snoke, too.
In a movie in which most of the interiors are cluttered with steaming, smoking aircraft and gridded in with cat walks, Snoke's throne room is an empty Cinemascopic hangar in glowing vermillion, with a few shiny flunkies in eyeless suits of crimson armor on guard. Long-memoried movie fans see this space, and think "Arthur Freed, MGM, mid-1950s." And there is a rumble to come on this dance floor, illuminated with lightsabers.
As always in these spectacles, stuff is scribbled in the margins that makes it dense, such as a sea monster breaching and diving, unnoticed, in the sea behind the cliffs Luke paces upon. And the movie recalls echoes of the first film: just as we first saw Luke on a planet of two suns, a double-sunset illuminates our last sight of the old knight. The movie's richness invites more than one viewing. Johnson's mature and questioning attitude illuminate this stirring movie about rebellion—reveling in the panache of suicide warriors as well as feeling for the choices of traitors and cowards.