Gripping, gorgeous 'Last Jedi': The Star Wars epic strikes back

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" spoiler-free review: Heart-rending yet seriously funny, director Rian Johnson's visually stunning addition to the beloved franchise will be hard to top.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
4 min read
Jules Heath/Lucasfilm

"The Force Awakens" brought a new generation of lovable characters together. "The Last Jedi" breaks them apart. The result is the richest, most epic, most emotional Star Wars movie so far.

General Leia's rebel forces flee the enemy's military might. A side mission to a shady city brings intrigue and betrayal. And a powerful student learns the ways of the Force from an aging Jedi master.

At the heart of the film is the plotline following troubled apprentice Rey as she joins Luke Skywalker to dive into what it means to be a Jedi. It's a joy to watch Mark Hamill's and Daisy Ridley's characters wrestle with the true nature of the Force and the moral and spiritual questions at the heart of the Star Wars phenomenon. Then, when this compelling strand intertwines with Adam Driver's tortured villain, Kylo Ren, "Last Jedi" reaches levels of intensity never previously seen in the entire  Star Wars  saga.

Watch this: 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' strikes back in epic style

A key revelation halfway through turns everything you think you know about Luke upside down, fueling a soul-stirring climax. Except that isn't even the end, as the film slips into an even higher gear for an epic final crescendo, alternating gut-punching emotional beats with air-punching action set pieces. It's glorious to behold.

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A Force to be reckoned with: Mark Hamill returns as Luke Skywalker.


Fans might spot one wrinkle, however. It's understandable that this second film in the new trilogy might be influenced by "The Empire Strikes Back", the second film in the classic Star Wars series and the movie widely considered to be the best in the saga -- if not a contender for best sequel ever. But it isn't far into "The Last Jedi" that you begin to see parallels and even individual details copied and pasted from "The Empire Strikes Back".

Sure, the parallels are remixed, remastered and turned up to 11, especially in the extraordinarily vibrant storyline involving Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren. But the shadow of "Empire" can be distracting, especially in the weaker side plots. 

Meanwhile, feisty ex-Stormtrooper Finn and plucky new character Rose are off on a rousing adventure of their own, facing off against exotic creatures not often glimpsed in previous Star Wars movies: rich people. Their journey to the hedonistic city of Canto Bight is a fun if lightweight diversion, even if the location is reminiscent of Cloud City from -- you guessed it -- "The Empire Strikes Back".

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Rose, an upstanding rebel mechanic played by Kelly Marie Tran, is a delight to watch. She embodies the indomitable moral spirit of Star Wars with her clear-eyed determination to do the right thing and amusingly sparks off John Boyega's Finn.

The other new character, a shady hacker played by Benicio Del Toro, is less successful. Recruited for a spot of espionage by Finn and Rose, this stuttering mercenary proves to be disappointingly one-note. And it doesn't help that the trio's spy mission is derivative of another Star Wars movie, "Rogue One", complete with enemy uniforms and vertiginous walkways. 

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Plucky rebel Rose, played by Kelly Marie Tran, embodies the moral spirit of Star Wars.

Jonathan Olley

Another storyline, in which dashing pilot Poe Dameron attempts to protect the rebel fleet, is also undercooked. Manufactured conflict can't disguise the fact that Poe, played by Oscar Isaac, doesn't have much to do but spin his wheels and yap at his superiors. Luckily, those superiors are General Leia and Admiral Holdo, played by Carrie Fisher and Laura Dern, who could teach master classes in cool, commanding authority.

The film features a touching dedication to Fisher's memory following her death almost a year ago. It's more than a fitting sendoff, with Leia leading the rebellion in bad-ass style. The moments shared between Luke and Leia will no doubt have fans in floods of tears, bringing the saga full circle with an echo of the very first 1977 film.

Truly funny moments balance the intense, emotional ones. General Hux, played by Domhnall Gleeson, is the butt of most of the gags, but Luke Skywalker also brings tragic-comic laughs. BB-8 is a one-droid hilarity machine, and only the hardest heart could resist the penguin-like porgs, which thankfully are more tribble than Ewok.

"The Last Jedi" is a ravishingly beautiful film. From the storm-lashed island on which Luke Skywalker awaits death to the villains' crimson lair to the scarlet-streaked desert of the final battle, director Rian Johnson injects the film with a dazzling grandeur. And mind-bending glimpses inside Rey's mystical visions give the film an eye-popping metaphysical edge rarely seen in the saga.

Ultimately, "Last Jedi" is a funny, heart-rending, spellbinding epic. It doesn't add as many lively new elements as "The Force Awakens" and it's distractingly indebted to "The Empire Strikes Back", but it takes the characters of Star Wars to new heights of emotion and intensity. In debates over the best Star Wars film or the best sequel of any film ever, "The Last Jedi" could have the last word. 

"The Last Jedi" opens Friday.

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