The latest Star Wars installment isn’t quite destined to be this trilogy’s “Empire Strikes Back,” even if they share some similarities. “The Last Jedi,” a nearly three-hour epic in which little seems to change about the Star Wars universe, lacks the raw resonance of an “I am your father” burn from Vader to Luke, but give “Last Jedi” credit for being weirder and riskier and grimmer than what you might have expected.
Director Rian Johnson does manage to nail the operatic scale of the franchise at its best. Most of the action takes place in a relative standoff in space. Our plucky rebel resistance — accustomed to making hyperspeed escapes when the imperial First Order star destroyers and such arrive — learn that they can now be tracked. What follows is something like trench warfare as the hulking might of the First Order bears down on a slow-moving, increasingly desperate rebel transport ship. Meanwhile, our heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) is spending quality time with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a remote island somewhere, trying to pry Jedi training out of him while also mentally Force-Skyping with the emo-Vader, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Out in space, the battles look and feel terrific; down in the cross-legged spiritual journey Luke and Rey share, Rey explores — in a surprisingly satisfying formulation — the true nature of the Force. Stakes feel high in the dead expanse of the cosmos and in Rey’s inner exploration and, lest we start feeling too serious, rad alien animals and side characters pop up to break the tension. An opening bit between snitty First Order Gen. Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and the hot-shot Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) skates the line between a comedy bit and an outright gag, giving the movie some room to loosen up. Driver, too, in particular, has a delivery that punctures the sometimes stentorian pretense that clings to these movies like plaque buildup, giving the entire film a move lived-in, spontaneous-feeling atmosphere.
We’ve come to take it for granted in this franchise, but the visual and audio effects are outrageously pretty. An early sequence of a Resistance bombing attack on a First Order dreadnaught feels like a vivid, dark dream, and a later battle on a salt-covered vermillion planet — using vehicles that skim the surface as they skate — is shamelessly indulgent and instantly indelible. A fight sequence in the candy-red chamber of the evil First Order regent Snoke (Andy Serkis through layers of digital makeup) is like something Kubrick would’ve devised if he’d been handed the reins to this billion-dollar Disney tentpole.
Unfortunately, though, the sensuality can’t overcome the occasional lack of plain ol’ sense. A mid-movie mission by reformed stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new Resistance sidekick Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) feels more like a video game side quest than a meaningful part of the plot. The tension sags in the middle hour as the star destroyers wait out the limping rebel ship, and Leia (Carrie Fisher) uses the Force to pull a trick that rewrites the bounds of plausibility even in this quasi-magical sci-fi universe.
Whether any of its foibles detract from the overall effect is up to your own attention span. Yes, at times it’s silly and uneven and illogical. But it also feels visceral and bold, and in a franchise with vast expectations, it manages the impossible by actually meeting them.