'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' Review: The Best 'Star Wars' Movie Since 'The Empire Strikes Back'

Star Wars: The Last Jedi has a large burden on its shoulders. The 2017 film is not only the highly anticipated follow-up to J.J. Abrams' rousing and wildly successful 2015 revival of the Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens, it also has The Empire Strikes Back looming over its head. The 1980 film has long been held up as the high watermark of sequels, let alone the peak of the Skywalker saga. How can any new Star Wars movie hope to measure up to such a pinnacle? The answer arriving this weekend presents a self-aware mirror image of the 1980 film, and pushes its familiar characters further than ever before. The Last Jedi, amazingly, moves above and beyond its predecessor, just like The Empire Strikes Back did decades ago.For your sake, and not just to placate the Disney/Lucasfilm empire, it's best to know as little as possible going into The Last Jedi. As the closing moments of The Force Awakens suggested, the orphaned young scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) begins here by reaching out to the reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the mysterious island where he's lived in solitude for years. Elsewhere, Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), and the rest of the Resistance attempts to ward off the ever-encroaching First Order despite their dwindling numbers. The rest is worth discovering for yourself.And there is a lot more going on here, much to the credit of writer/director Rian Johnson. In recent days, this film has made at least a couple of headlines for being the longest film yet in the Star Wars franchise, clocking in at over 150 minutes. Johnson uses that length to his advantage, introducing us to new characters and planets without giving them short shrift. Rey, Finn, Poe, and the other characters are all here, but newbies like Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and even the more mysterious figures from the previous film like the menacing Snoke (Andy Serkis) get a brief spotlight. And new locations like a planet dominated by a flashy casino-like city and a salt-mine base offer both stunning visuals and commentaries on modern society.The Last Jedi is at its best when it aims to upend expectations. Rey's desire to get answers from Luke is quickly thrown into disarray as it becomes clear how he's become used to isolation over time, as punishment for his past misdeeds. But even in early moments like when the Resistance tries to pull a fast one on the First Order, Johnson proves most adept at poking holes in any perceived self-seriousness in this sometimes operatic franchise. Even without the series' constant source of quips (Han Solo), The Last Jedi is disarmingly funny even as it depicts dark, intense situations.Importantly, as with The Force Awakens, one of this film's core strengths is its solid casting. Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, and John Boyega are once again exciting to watch, as the new core group is broken apart. How Johnson is able to get a specific (but unnamed in this review) two of those four to talk to each other, in a sense, is not only very clever, but it has a great payoff. Tran, as the big new character Rose, is as charming to watch for the first time as Ridley and Boyega were two years ago. Through Rose, we see another overtly political argument seeded in the franchise, depicting the haves and have-nots in pointed and timely fashion.But there's also a ton of action here, befitting both the larger franchise and Johnson's past work. (One major fight scene heavily recalls a slow-motion setpiece from Johnson's 2012 science-fiction film Looper.) Amidst the drama, the air and space battles grow in intensity. There's also a few lightsaber tete-a-tetes that rank among the more shocking moments in the series.Maybe that's the most exciting part of the very exciting The Last Jedi: after 40 years, the Star Wars series knows how to be surprising. Rian Johnson slips so easily into writing and directing within this world that it's both thrilling to imagine more of his vision in this universe, and a little disappointing that he won't direct the conclusion. But he has at least helped bring The Last Jedi to fruition. It's not just a rollicking and entertaining follow-up to The Force Awakens; The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, and is awful close to being its equal./Film Rating: 9 out of 10