Christmas is nearly here – it's a holiday that's synonymous with family. Thanks to Disney a new family tradition is currently underway – Star Wars. One of Hollywood’s biggest and oldest film franchises, when you strip it down, instills many of the same values associated with Christmas. Audiences are able to experience the highs and lows of the Skywalkers, who may be one of the most dysfunctional families ever. But what’s okay because so many of us love to see redemption tales with love at its core.

The Last Jedi is the eighth episode in the Star Wars saga, written and directed by Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick, The Brothers Bloom). When Disney bought Lucasfilm with intent to produce Star Wars sequels and spinoffs, I was naturally excited. Hearing that J.J. Abrams would direct Episode VII seemed like a perfect marriage (especially since he helped resurrect Star Trek and Mission: Impossible), but when Johnson was hired for Episode VIII, that’s the one I looked forward to the most and circled as potentially the best of this sequel trilogy. Episode IX is still two years away but The Last Jedi, thanks mainly to Johnson, may be the best film in the entire series.

The Last Jedi picks up where The Force Awakens left off, and early on it is dark - similar to The Empire Strikes Back. With this being the middle entry of the sequel trilogy, it seemed viewers were destined to witness much of the fan service and callbacks to the original trilogy. That aspect is evident, but Johnson’s script also goes in unexpected and exciting directions. These new paths surprisingly fit despite initially looking out of place.

Johnson continues to focus on Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her journey of self-discovery. Her quest leads her to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who’s living in solitude. Luke is disillusioned and bitter, qualities not associated with the only known living Jedi. Rey, besides efforts in coaxing Luke to join the Resistance with his sister Leia (Carrie Fisher), seeks his tutelage since she is strong in the ways of the Force. Luke’s reaction is the surprise within his pessimistic attitude, but as the 152-minute feature unfolds we understand his frustration and apprehension.

In the meantime, the Resistance, which includes Leia, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Rose (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran), and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), is doing their best to stay afloat. They are in constant danger as the First Order is hot on their tails. The First Order have perfected a technology which allows them to track the Resistance wherever they go, and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) are awaiting the perfect opportunity to destroy them, Luke and Rey. The only hiccup lies with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his inner conflict. Audiences saw his hesitation but were rewarded with his horrific, evil potential. The question now is what will his continuing doubt produce in him? And with Rey’s powers growing, how will her intentions affect his outcome? It’s an intense dynamic which Johnson fully explores by presenting an unlikely connection between them.

If nothing else, The Last Jedi is the most visually-appealing Star Wars entry. Johnson worked alongside cinematographer (and longtime collaborator) Steve Yedlin to achieve beautiful shots which jump from the screen and give the Star Wars galaxy some much needed color and vibrancy. This is another technical achievement in line with other 2017 releases like Blade Runner 2049 and Dunkirk and, combined with the always-reliable and equally beautiful John Williams score, audiences are treated to a special cinematic experience.

Of course, typically what drives any good film are performances and the charm the actors playing them exude. Ridley simply lights up the screen by giving the courageous Rey a lost-soul appeal. It’s fitting that she brightens the room since Rey is the light which brightens the First Order’s oppressive darkness. Driver, who put on a subtle and award-worthy performance last year in Paterson, is the embodiment of searing intensity. He sells his conflict and conveys the idea that he may or may not be an antihero. Driver gives audiences just enough pause to consider rooting for him – he’s that convincing. He is every bit Rey’s counterpart and when they’re onscreen together they provide some of The Last Jedi’s best moments.

Fisher and Hamill represent Star Wars past, and obviously time has allowed them to fully realize and understand both Leia and Luke. As mentioned earlier, Luke turns out to be a vastly different person from what many fans remember (Hamill voiced some displeasure in Luke’s direction, which he eventually backtracked on). But in going along with the redemption trope (one of Star Wars’ most prevalent themes) there are reasons for Luke becoming a disgruntled hermit, and it pays off handsomely. Hamill brings everything to this iteration of the last Jedi, and Luke's story arc is fully realized by Johnson.

Leia is still the outspoken spitfire we know and love, but being older she now has experience and wisdom on her side. Like the true princess she is, Leia stands for everything you’d expect from one willing to stand for what is good and right, yet still has the ability to make decisions with her head and not her heart. In this day of growing gender equality she is a beacon for hope, not just in this epic story but in our everyday lives. Rest in peace, Carrie Fisher, you inspire us all.

Being a lifelong Star Wars fan, it’s easy to call me out as biased. But in the past I’ve been critical of Star Wars offerings – Rogue One was entertaining but was stuck trying to extract feelings of sentiment while seeking to be something edgy and daring; and the prequel trilogy is something I prefer to not even acknowledge. Even The Force Awakens sometimes rides nostalgia a little too hard. With The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson has taken a necessary amount of the past and integrated it with fresh ideas and a surprising (but welcome) amount of humor. He’s opened the door to something entirely new within the Star Wars mythos by being reverent to the past and then cutting the cord (in true art-imitates-life fashion Kylo Ren voices this exact action). It took this film for me to realize just how much it’s weighed down the sequel trilogy despite the franchie’s 40-year run of success. But with Johnson recently appointed to create a separate trilogy away from the Skywalker legacy, he’s already started down the path of moving forward. The Force cannot predict the future of Star Wars but we can enjoy The Last Jedi now, then tomorrow look forward to the next journey.

5 stars out of 5

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