The purpose of the second act in the three-act format is to drive the action to its highest point of conflict and action, leading to the resolution in the third act. The greater the conflict, the greater the potential for resolution. We’ve already seen this in Star Wars, as the second movie in the original trilogy, The Empire Strikes Back, was almost universally viewed as the best film in the series. On the other hand, the second feature in the second trilogy, Attack of the Clones, was better than the first (only one sequence with Jar Jar Binks) but it didn’t reach the highest level of action. That happened in Revenge of the Sith, and it almost made the first two movies superfluous. The Machete version for viewing the first two trilogies has you watch them in the order of 4,5,2,3,and 6, with The Phantom Menace happily forgotten. These days you could do an augmented Machete, putting Rogue One at the beginning.
The Force Awakens was pretty much exactly what Star Wars fans hoped for, and in ways it mirrored the construction of Hope. JJ Abrams knew what he needed to do to restart the triple-trilogy originally imagined by George Lucas. But to match the greatness of the first trilogy, the second movie had to change the playing field. It couldn’t simply be a retread of Empire.
Thankfully, writer/director Rian Johnson took a lightsaber to all expectations. He’s taken chances with unusual movies before, such as his first feature, Brick, which set a film-noir detective story in a modern high school, and with 2012’s twisted time travel flick Looper, where Joseph Gordon-Levitt must battle a decades-older version of himself (played by Bruce Willis) to save the world. Standard story telling is not what you get with Johnson.
One interesting aspect of Johnson’s script is it puts the main action within a 24 hour cycle, similar to classic tragedies. Of course, when you can jump to light speed, it means the story isn’t bound to one location. The rebels under General Organa (Carrie Fisher) are evacuating their base from The Force Awakens when the First Order Fleet under General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) appears in the sky. The last transport, carrying Lieutenant Connix (Billie Lourd, Fisher’s daughter, who has a larger role this time), manages to escape before the base is destroyed. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) mounts an attack on a Dreadnaught-class Star Destroyer – basically a smaller version of the Death Star – though it starts with one of the funniest sequences ever in the franchise. The attack succeeds but at a huge cost. The rebel fleet thinks they’ve escaped by jumping to hyperspace, but the First Order follows them.
Separately, the story of Rey picks up exactly where The Force Awakens ends, with her handing the lightsaber to Luke. It does not go as expected, and where she thinks Luke will come and restore hope to the rebellion, he quickly dissuades her. Eventually we learn the source of Luke’s disillusionment, and why he’s decided it’s time for the Order of the Jedi to end.
I won’t go any further into the plot here, except to say it’s inventive and keeps on twisting from what you expect in order to run off in different directions. I plan to do a spoiler-included Part II to this review to discuss elements of the plot, since there is a lot to discuss. The Last Jedi is the most political and the most spiritual entry in the series. Part of the reason the audience score for The Last Jedi on Rotten Tomatoes is 40 points lower than the critic score (51% to 91%) is because of alt-right trolls who object to the messages and have been purposefully flaming the movie.
Several new characters deserve special mention. Of course, the expected one was Andy Serkis in the motion-capture role as Leader Snoke. His appearance sets up one of the best lightsaber fights ever in the series. Laura Dern plays purple-haired Vice-Admiral Holdo of the Rebel forces. She projects an air of possible duplicity that energizes her scenes. There’s also Benicio del Toro as a hacker who may hold the key to the survival of the rebels. But of the new faces, the best is Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a minor member of the resistance who ends up playing a major role for Finn (John Boyega).
With its inventive plot, fast pace, and powerful ending, The Last Jedi has to be seen at least on a par with The Empire Strikes Back. For me, I put it ahead of Empire. I just hope the 9th entry in the series will live up to the lead-in it’s been given.