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Film review: 'Last Jedi’ defies expectations for better and worse

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Preston Barta

Star Wars: The Last Jedi 

Rated PG-13, 152 minutes.

Opens Friday.

3.5 of 5 stars

So much weight was placed on the shoulders of filmmaker Rian Johnson (Looper). Not only is he swimming in deep waters by being a part of the Star Wars franchise, but he is supplying the meat of the sequel-trilogy sandwich.

Picking up the ball that director J.J. Abrams so skillfully put into play in 2015’s The Force Awakens and deepening our relationships with characters is easier said than done. However, Johnson proves himself to be the right candidate to break bread with The Last Jedi.

Unlike most Star Wars movies, which tend to pick up a few years after the previous chapter, Johnson concerns himself with the events that immediately followed The Force Awakens, where we saw our new generation’s hero, Rey (Daisy Ridley), presenting Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber to its owner (a very good Mark Hamill). But like all Star Wars movies, the action begins in space. The Last Jedi commences with the franchise’s most thrilling and surprisingly heartfelt opening yet. After the signature Star Wars scrolling text, it’s clear the eighth episode, as Luke says in the film’s trailer, is “not going to go the way you think.”

From here, characters new and familiar face their greatest battle so far against the malicious First Order and unlock mysteries of the Force. The film reveals secrets from the past, opens even more curious cases and thrills with so much fun. This is all you could really ask for in a Star Wars movie.

Most of the excitement within Johnson’s outing springs from its subversion of expectations. This is not a bland rehash of prior Star Wars films. (Although, parallels could be drawn with Return of the Jedi.) It corrects the course for many details from the series, such as planets feeling otherworldly instead of resembling different parts of our own Earth. A red-covered salt planet and another with a casino at the center are creative additions to the galaxy.

There’s a deep dive into what the Force is, its strange parallels to Catholicism, and achieving that perfect balance between the energy of the light and dark to excel. It’s a much-needed revision of George Lucas’ dreadful idea of “midi-chlorians” — powerful cells inside the body — from his prequel installments.

And let’s not fail to mention the amount of chilling sequences there are in The Last Jedi. Some moments are as “OMG!”-inducing as the climatic Darth Vader scene in last year’s Rogue One. We’ll just leave the details of those accounts to your own discovery.

Despite how strong the Force is with The Last Jedi, it doesn’t come without its dark side. There are many subplots involving Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and newbie Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) that don’t amount to anything substantial. Similar to Newt Scamander’s 40-minute game of Pokémon Go during the first third of last year’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, these sections are aesthetically pleasing and a change of pace for the franchise, but it’s not as motivated as the rest of the film.

Another major gripe is the handling of mysterious characters, like Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis in a motion-captured performance, looking like Goldmember from Austin Powers 3) and Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). After The Force Awakens ended, their characters both demanded and promised more depth, but The Last Jedi still leaves them without enough backstory to truly strike fear into the audience.

Johnson, who is currently developing a non-Skywalker-related Star Wars trilogy, has a striking vision of how to push the boundaries of the franchise, but being a part of the Skywalker saga’s formula holds him back from taking this franchise to an entirely new galaxy. The Last Jedi is perhaps the least accessible Star Wars film, with many peaks and valleys, but it remains an emotionally powerful and gripping chase across space.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.