The Resistance has destroyed Starkiller Base but has failed to prevent the First Order from toppling the Republic. The new rebels are now on the run. On a distant planet Rey has found Luke Skywalker and asks for his help for the Resistance and for herself, as her Force powers are growing exponentially. But Luke has been broken and demoralised by the betrayal of Kylo Ren. Rey and the Resistance both face their lowest ebb as Supreme Leader Snoke himself arrives to oversee the final battle...but there is still the possibility of hope.
Back in 2015, The Force Awakens had the unenviable task of resurrecting a Star Wars franchise that had been let down by three disappointing prequel movies. It succeeded mainly by creating and developing an intriguing new cast of characters, all played by great young actors, whilst furthering the themes of the Force, heroism and self-sacrifice and adding an interesting major new theme of redemption in the shape of Adam Driver's new villain, Kylo Ren. Unfortunately, the film was also highly derivative of what came before, with a new Death Star and a few too many nods at the previous Star Wars movies that were less homages and more re-stagings. Still, it was fun, pacy and energetic and this overwhelmed many of the movie's weaker moments.
The Last Jedi is, fortunately, not as derivative of The Empire Strikes Back as its forebear was of A New Hope, although there are some similarities. It has a similar underlying structure - our Force novice hero (or heroine, in this case) is off training up as a Jedi whilst our other characters are on the run from the Empire - but these plots go in very unexpected directions. A battered, post-traumatic Luke is reluctant to train Rey following his own failure with Kylo Ren and the movie delves deep into this relationship and backstory, as well as expanding on Ren's fascination with Rey and Snoke's desire to train Ren as his heir apparent. This dynamic is compelling, fantastically well-acted (Driver and Daisy Ridley holding their own against a never-better Mark Hamill and another astonishing digital performance from Andy Serkis) and takes several turns which are surprising, refreshing and fascinating. We're light-years from the simplistic "corruption of Anakin" story from the prequels here, and we get several outstanding lightsabre battles along the way.
This is handy, because of the rest of the film is a little bit more variable in quality. It's good to see Finn (John Boyega) back on his feet and he's soon off on a solo adventure with Resistance mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who is a breath of fresh air in the franchise. Their story is fun and - rather unexpectedly - taps into weighty issues like capitalist exploitation of disenfranchised workers (although we still don't get any discussion of why enslaving sentient droids is okay). Benicio Del Toro shows up and does vaguely Benicio Del Toro things before abruptly disappearing from the narrative. It's all okay and vaguely amusing but at the end of the movie you realise that Finn's entire story could have been jettisoned from the film without losing anything (other than a couple of dozen minutes from the film's overlong running time) other than a few discussions about the value of friendship and family which, whilst nice, aren't exactly revelatory.
The biggest problem lies in the movie's core chase sequence, where the First Order fleet relentlessly hunts down the last remaining Resistance warship. This creates a rather major plot hole where the storyline could have been resolved at any moment by a couple of the First Order ships making a micro-hyperspace jump ahead of the Resistance and cutting them off, which they don't do because...well, it's never explained. Later on the Resistance use a hyperspace manoeuvre in battle which is, as established in the previous movies, physically impossible (and, if it was possible to do it by tweaking a ship's drives somehow, it would have been used frequently before). Given that this storyline forms a large chunk of the movie's running time and is where Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) and General Leia (Carrie Fisher), along with Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), are hanging out, along with a welcome expanded role for Lt. Connix (Billie Lourd, Fisher's daughter), it's quite a big issue for established Star Wars fans who know the background and canon quite well. Casual viewers likely won't care.
The film brings all the characters back together for a surprisingly twisty climax, complete with at least two stand-out musical homages to the original trilogy and some moments of real humour. Much has been made of the "surprises" in the movie and there are a few things that definitely don't go the way people will be expecting. But ultimately this is Star Wars and there are limits to Lucasfilm's conceptual boldness, even if they do press up against them from time to time.
The Last Jedi (***½) is, once again, energetic, well-directed and has some great dialogue and fantastic performances. Also once again, the central storyline is more than a little stupid and there are plot holes big enough to pilot Supreme Leader Snoke's 60km-wide Super Duper Star Destroyer through, which grate a little bit more this time around (since I think Rian Johnson is a better writer and director than Abrams, but he doesn't knock it out of the park here). The best Star Wars movie since Empire? No. The best once since Rogue One, and that's still entertaining enough for now. But Episode IX will really need to up its game. The film is on general release now.