Can we just agree that the middle child has it easiest?
Tasked neither with building a universe or tearing it back down again, the second chapter is typically where any self-respecting franchise gets to cut loose, dig a little deeper on the characters and maybe throw a house party or two.
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is technically the ninth movie in the franchise, but it does have the advantage of arriving post appetizer and pre-dessert in this, the third movement in what has become Lucasfilm’s trilogy of trilogies.
Things happen in this movie. Scenes unfold in big, sweeping swoops of plot and character development that don’t lend themselves — James Bond style — to an easy shake of the Etch A Sketch once cameras start rolling on Episode 9 (last December’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” was a standalone story).
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Overseeing all of the happening and the sweeping and the swooping is director Rian Johnson. His installment doesn’t capture the swashbuckling romanticism of “Star Wars” at its peak, but it is deeply heartfelt, a meditation on the utility of heroes like Luke Skywalker and the pulp adventures that spawned them.
This is good, because good old Luke (an excellent Mark Hamill) could use some cheering up. Last we saw Mr. Skywalker, he was staring slack-jawed at the young woman holding his father’s lightsaber in her outstretched hand.
Luke, you see, has become convinced that the galaxy is better off without him or the Jedi running around and so Rey (Daisy Ridley) — the scavenger with a heart of gold and a laser sword made out of who the heck knows what — has a devil of a time trying to convince him to leave his beautiful island planet for the hero’s life of garbage chutes and Sarlaac pits.
The student who wants to be taught and the teacher who refuses to teach should evoke shades of “The Empire Strikes Back.” Johnson’s plot doesn’t lean on the correlation as heavily as J.J. Abrams did with “The Force Awakens” and “A New Hope,” but that chapter in franchise history should still be listed as required reading.
“The Last Jedi” takes the themes established in “Empire” and trusts that they’ve deepened with age. Luke isn’t some punk kid running around the swamps of Dagobah anymore. This is a kid who dreamed of becoming a legend and succeeded — and maybe failed a little bit along the way too.
Now he’s gotten onto living with those mistakes and wondering if a myth is a worthwhile substitute for a flawed man.
If all of that sounds a little heavy for an intergalactic space opera, well, don’t worry. There are still plenty of space battles — about two too many, by my count— and there are some really terrific gags.
Some old favorites don’t get much attention (does Chewbacca have a rich inner life going on? We may never know) but there’s enough of a human factor at play we’re never in danger of venturing into prequel territory.
This is a story of disaffected youth and how the cynicism of the older generation engages when it is challenged by the optimism of the next one. In “The Last Jedi” those two sides temper one another and call the spot found — where else — in the middle “hope.”