One of my favorite movie series is the Star Wars saga. The space battles, lightsaber duels, fantasy, and creativity has been a major influence on the science fiction genre. Out of the entire saga, my favorite film is ‘The Empire Strikes Back’. To me, it is the standard bearer of how a sequel should be done: big reveals, breaking down the good guys, and showing that the enemies can win in more than one way, but not losing what made the first movie work.
With the sequel trilogy, fans wondered how Rian Johnson, new to the Star Wars universe, would expand upon J.J. Abrams’s 2015 ‘The Force Awakens’ and the questions it left behind: Who is Rey? Who are her parents? How would Kylo Ren and the First Order rebound after their ‘New Hope’-esque loss to the Resistance? How would Luke Skywalker turn the tide if he returned?
Not only did Rian Johnson answered these questions, he created something original; he flipped the Star Wars Universe on its ear, breaking the mold of how Star Wars movies have been done over the years and burning down the foundation of what longtime fans have known.
(FYI, this review is Spoiler-Free.)
After the events of ‘The Force Awakens’ , we follow Rey (Daisy Ridley) as she finally tracks down long-lost Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to seek help to understand the power that’s awakened inside of her. Meanwhile, her allies in the Resistance, including General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, in her final role), Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac), and her friend, former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), fend off pursuit from the First Order, led by General Hux (Domhall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
George Lucas’ franchise is so iconic and deeply ingrained in the deepest pleasure centers of our brains that you can’t help but feel goosebumps when you read the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” first appear on the screen and John Williams’ triumphant call to adventure strikes up to call the audience to attention, you know something amazing is about to happen. The opening crawl sets the stage from where we last left the players in the epic space opera. In a way, we’ve seen this before: the rebels on the ropes as their numbers dwindle, the dark forces closing in on them and looking for hope. Luckily, there is hope in the Next Generation heroes: hotshot and hotheaded fighter pilot Poe Dameron, conscience-striken former Stormtrooper-turned-Resistance folk hero Finn, and Rey, a young heroine that is only beginning to understand her unlocked powers. Sadly, we find these three heroes separated through most of the film, all with their own role to play in the same grand mission. Finn is joined by new character, Resistance mechanic Rose (played by very welcome franchise newcomer Kelly Marie Tran), to find a way to save the remaining Resistance fleet by sneaking onto a First Order lead ship. Poe grows impatient by the play-it-safe strategy used by his general and her purple second-in-command (always welcome newcomer Laura Dern), and Rey is exactly where we left her at the end of The Force Awakens – on the remote Jedi temple on the island of Ahch-To, asking the reluctant Jedi Master Luke Skywalker to not only return to action, but to also tutor her in the ways of the Force the way that Yoda once did to a younger Skywalker. What was unexpected was the chemistry between Hamill and Ridley. The push-pull, reluctant master-eager apprentice dynamic was electric and invigorating to watch, but we also know that this is the crux of the story because it dealt with the original hero of the original trilogy and the newcomer. This story is where the lightsaber will be passed.
If you were expecting a rehash or an updated version of Empire Strikes Back, like we got with The Force Awakens being similar to A New Hope, think again. While I love The Force Awakens, I felt like J.J. Abrams played too safe with this film. The Looper director took risk and I believed it paid off beautifully. This film is completely different from the typical Star Wars flick. Filled with excellent action and witty humor, what really made this film great was the deeper story. The crux of the story is Hamill’s reluctant hero, Luke Skywalker. When we find Luke, he’s a far cry away from where we left him at the end of Return of the Jedi. Skywalker is weary, defeated, broken, and reluctant to train this woman who has tracked him down to his isolated island. Hamill gave this best acting performance of his career as he revisited his classic character that many have come to love. If you’ve seen the TV spot of Skywalker walking onto the bridge of the Millennium Falcon, it’s just one of the scenes that will cause you to choke up. While trying to avoid spoilers, I can say that the reason for Skywalker’s disappearance and hesitancy to return to action is understandable. Kylo Ren’s arc was the most surprising as he struggles with the light in him while being shrouded in darkness and under the control of Supreme Leader Snoke (menacingly played by motion capture master Andy Serkis). In the end, I will say that he makes a decision that might surprise fans that thought they were going to call where Kylo was going to go. Johnson’s story shows the evolution of the Star Wars saga: challenging these characters, growing them and letting them show how life can affect someone, either good or bad.
Despite a bloated second act, filled with a new Las Vegas-esque town, new aliens (porgs, included) that are a mixed bag of fun and the toggling between the three stories messed with the pacing a little, Johnson did a great job in raising the stakes in each narrative that it finally pays off in the third and final act. The last climatic 45 minutes of the film is thrilling, spectacular, and emotional as anything that Star Wars has done in the past. There are cool, mythic hand-to-hand battles, amazing aerial sequences, and a mano a mano showdown that has been years in the making in the Star Wars universe once you know the events at this point of the film. And I will say this right now: the film ends on a perfect note. It just feels right and seemingly embodies Star Wars itself in a perfect scene to close out this impressive entry.
Does this film have flaws? Yes. It’s not perfect. And some fans don’t like some of these changes and have been very vocal about their dislike. Despite those flaws, Johnson leaves us with a message that is old as time. It’s a lesson that we all learn as time goes on and we all get older. Our heroes don’t always live up to our expectations. They don’t live forever. But their battles and ideas, if passed down to the right hands, can continue with a another generation. It’s obvious that in front and behind the camera, the legacy of Star Wars is in safe hands. Rian Johnson has been approved to create a new Star Wars trilogy and I can’t help but be excited about the future of this franchise. The Force will live on.