I still remember.
I was a 12-year-old boy when Star Wars came out.
It wasn't anything but Star Wars. There wasn't any such thing as A New Hope. In my 12-year-old mind, I wasn't entertaining any notion that this amazing universe unfolding before my eyes would have sequels or become a years-long saga.
There was none of that.
I was a 12-year-old boy, an outcast in virtually every area of my life. I was a young boy with a disability and Star Wars, in some weird way, gave me a place where I felt like I belonged.
This far, far away galaxy? In some very tangible way, I convinced myself that this was where I belonged.
I loved everything about Star Wars. I loved the heart and soul of these relationships between Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, R2-D2, C3PO, Darth Vader and all the others. I loved the adventure. I loved the humor. Heck, I was only 12-years-old but I even loved the incredibly chaste romance.
There are movies that change who you are. Star Wars changed the 12-year-old me.
The same was true, maybe even more true, for The Empire Strikes Back, which has long been my favorite amongst the Star Wars films though I'm certainly far from alone in that opinion. While what we now call A New Hope started it all, The Empire Strikes Back is the film that truly made me fall in love with this universe and these characters and their stories. After The Empire Strikes Back, these Star Wars films became more than just a couple hours of escape to me - they became, in ways I'm not even sure I can explain, a way of life.
I thought about all of these things as I sat back in my seat and became enveloped in the worlds manifested in Rian Johnson's latest of the Star Wars entries, The Last Jedi.
While The Force Awakens brought the series back from the brink of prequel devastation, The Last Jedi brings back the heart and soul of Star Wars in ways I'd feared impossible and in ways that took me back to those days when I was an absolutely enthralled 12-year-old staring up at the movie screen imagining myself immersed in these remarkable worlds.
This is not to say that Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi is a flawless film. It's not a flawless film, but if not flawless it's a near cinematic masterpiece that should have, I'd dare say will have, audiences falling in love all over again with Star Wars and these new adventures and adventurers and the ways in which Rian Johnson has masterfully incorporated faithfulness to the film's legacy with a unique vision that is woven into the fabric of the Star Wars universe to near perfection.
The challenge, and I'm trying desperately here, is to share my immense joy with the film without providing spoilers along the way because, indeed, there isn't a scene that unfolds here that I wish to give away. I want you to experience it for yourself.
The Last Jedi offers something for everyone in its increasingly complex and shaded portrayals of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), its reverence for Luke (Mark Hamill), its respectful yet somewhat slight embrace of the now deceased Carrie Fisher as Leia, or simply the ways in which Johnson has found to create action sequences that are familiar yet fresh. Tasked with finding life within this middle film within a trilogy, Johnson has done more than bridge two book-ends. He has created an adventure that ripples throughout the universe while adding in a few of his own flourishing touches.
There are certain story threads of The Last Jedi, especially those connected to how The Force Awakens unfolded and ended that are simply brilliant in the ways in which they add layers to the existing universe. It is much to his credit that Johnson has found ways to both honor that connectivity while adding layers to it and characters that are no longer simply black-and white but several shades of gray.
Despite having achieved near superstardom in Star Wars, there's a reason that Mark Hamill's film career never came close to achieving the heights of Fisher or Ford. The truth is he was always the weaker actor, a charming kid who never stopped playing a charming kid until he was finally too old to play a charming kid. It's damn near miraculous what Johnson has pulled out of Hamill here, a melancholy and soulful performance that emotionally resonates and feels like it belongs here. He has attained the status of legend here, yet it's a status he doesn't want from a life he's long since left behind. How this all plays out between he and Rey is beautiful to behold on this tiny island where he has secluded himself amidst the lively, inspired creatures we've come to know and love from the Star Wars universe.
Of course, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is back. He's scarred now, a physical memory left over from his epic The Force Awakens battle with Rey and he's still the same ragingly immature young man who is both a conflicted villain and a dastardly one who feels and acts even more evil here. Paired up with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), it feels inevitable that his evil will grow and that somehow he and Rey will deal with one another again and again.
There are others, of course. Poe (Oscar Isaac) is relentless in his efforts to go face-to-face with his enemies, while newcomer Laura Dern shines as Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo. Finn finds himself teamed up with Rose, a rebel engineer played expertly by Kelly Marie Tran as the two embark on a code-breaking mission that looks familiar yet has been designed impeccably.
Benicio Del Toro is here, as well, in a relatively brief appearance and the film features many of the others familiar within the Star Wars universe and more than a few pleasant surprises along the way.
At 152 minutes, The Last Jedi goes on for a bit too long and tries to tell us too many stories but these truly are minor quibbles for a film that is relentlessly captivating, magnificently produced and utterly immersive from beginning to end. Johnson has not only mastered Abrams' return to technical precision, but he's also embraced the heart, the humor, the depth, and the hope that we all felt when all of this began in 1977.
Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi may not be a flawless film, but it's amazingly close to everything that I wanted it to be. With strong, layered and more authentic performances from its ensemble cast and a universe that will make you feel like it's a place where you belong, The Last Jedi becomes one of the most satisfying Star Wars films to date, perhaps second only to The Empire Strikes Back, and a film that will make you want to watch it again and again and again.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic