Four or five episodes into the ongoing Star Wars film series, I remember feeling like there was probably no way the saga could hold onto me forever. Gotta grow up sometime, I figured back then.
While Episode VII, “The Force Awakens,” brought with it — to borrow a storied term — a new hope for Star Wars geeks, I feel like Episode VIII, “The Last Jedi” is a tale longtime fans will truly embrace.
After seeing the film at an advance screening this week, it’s like Christmas has come early — and twice — for sci-fi nerds this year, if you factor in “Blade Runner 2049” and the return of that iconic storyline in October.
And just like with Denis Villeneuve’s vision of dystopian Los Angeles, “Last Jedi” director Rian Johnson has given enough of his film over to the dark side to make it increasingly easy to forget that “Phantom Menace,” “Attack of the Clones” and “Revenge of the Sith” ever sullied our best childhood memories.
OK, so “Return of the Jedi” wasn’t exactly dark, but the opening trilogy was certainly classic for kids. And now Johnson has taken a page from the “Rogue One” spinoff and created a world that — while still in a galaxy far, far away — seems to borrow from a bit of the angst that grips our own. And I think it’s important to find an angle worth holding onto.
Somebody will rescue us from unhinged villains and threats of annihilation, right? There are fighters out there who will resist at all costs, right?
While escaping with goofy space creatures and boppy cantina music is a necessary element of the love we have for Star Wars, having the films bring a bit of adult credibility along for the ride is both sobering and necessary.
And in “The Last Jedi” we get our darkness in heavy doses thanks to First Order baddies Kylo Ren, Supreme Leader Snoke and the armed-to-the-teeth General Hux.
“You’re no Vader. You’re just a child in a mask,” Kylo Ren is told at one point by Snoke, the master of the Dark Side, who questions the fortitude of his young, mostly angry apprentice. And with that line he questions us, and our own ability to wonder whether Star Wars has what it takes to create a villain in the very long shadow of Darth Vader. Someone who still makes us want to fight.
Even a glum and mostly grumpy Luke Skywalker — who we last saw standing on a rock in the middle of the ocean at the end of “The Force Awakens” — is a bit dark, and barely in any mood to rescue the Resistance.
Looking like a Jeff Lebowski from a distant planet who is only missing his White Russian cocktail, Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is at times a comfortable tether to what we still appreciate from the earliest films in the series. But he seems ready to head into the hologram sunset with Yoda and company. And even though after her death Carrie Fisher still figures heavily as Leia, she can’t be far behind her cinematic brother.
And that’s a good thing for those of us who want to see the new light in these films — Rey, Finn, Poe and even BB8 — grow into the lasting heroes that a new, younger generation of fans deserves to celebrate.
Along the way, even in the throws of evil clearly beating back good, “Jedi” and its new band of regulars (with a couple familiar droids and a Wookie along for good measure) still prove themselves to be a touchstone for an “aww shucks” variety of space cuteness and joy. There are some laugh-out-loud lines that don’t feel too forced, as can be the case in these films.
Those moments are definitely balanced by some rather violent lightsaber duels. And there’s a monumental explosion that drew a sizable “Whoa!” from the crowd I saw the film with. It might be one of the better effects moments for a franchise that has had a few.
Again, as with “Blade Runner,” the Star Wars universe has taken advantage of the tricks of the 2017 trade to look better than ever. Every ship, costume, weapon, set and crystalized critter is top notch.
The film does slow at times, as ships literally drift through space at a pace that is far from lightspeed. And after eight of these journeys, the story and the scenes are nothing short of formulaic.
But as any fan knows, Star Wars gets a ton of leeway after 40 years.
From the opening charge of John Williams’ theme music and the scrolling words on the screen setting up the newest story, you just have to give yourself over to hope.