Not since George Lucas’ original trilogy has a Star Wars film felt like a dime store paperback, loaded with pulp and space operatics. Perhaps it's because A New Hope had no idea it was meant to set off a trilogy, let alone decades of story and enduring fandom, but the first three films still feel scrappy and at times messy in their quest to simply entertain audiences with characters they fell in love with in 1977. The Force Awakens sought to replicate that, to diminishing returns, but The Last Jedi harkens back to what made Star Wars so important in the first place — it’s fun, it’s kind of all over the place, but it’s dripping with emotion and pathos and, most importantly, it tells a hell of a story.
As entertaining as the last installment was, it was paint by numbers. Rey's journey was basically a retread of Luke Skywalker's and Poe Dameron was a new iteration of Han Solo. Finn, seemingly a love interest for Rey and Poe (the latter in the audience's minds), fell into the Leia position. But more than that, it was less about telling a new story and more about checking in with Han and Leia and folding them into a film that should've been focused on expanding the Star Wars universe. That has changed with The Last Jedi, which finally has fun with the new characters who've been added to the series.
With Han dead and Leia in General mode, Poe is finally allowed to step into his role as a lead and get in on the action. He becomes the de facto lead of the film, at least in terms of pushing the narrative forward. Mixing Finn and Kelly Marie Tran's Rose into Poe's orbit is one of writer and director Rian Johnson's better moves, because it lets the story rely on different dynamics than we've been used to since Star Wars first premiered. We know that we're here to see Luke, Leia, Chewbacca, R2-D2, and C-3PO interact, but this time they complement the story rather than participating in a reenactment of films we've seen before.
This is true of Luke in particular, who has his psyche dissected by Johnson during most of The Last Jedi's runtime. This is a film more interested in character than any film since the original trilogy — it's not using broad strokes to create Darth Vader's origin for instance, it's deepening the journeys of Star Wars' most essential characters. This is a Luke we've never seen before, and yet it's an altogether realistic one and his inclusion in the film manages to be funny, melodramatic, and essential in a way that J.J. Abrams failed to use Han in the previous film.
The film has quite a bit in common with The Empire Strikes Back, obviously, in that they're both middle pieces of a trilogy, but also in how it sprawls its characters to the edges of the universe to fully devote itself to the concept of telling a space opera. It's a subgenre of sci-fi that's as devoted to melodrama and romance as it is to future technology and warfare, and here Johnson manages to heighten the soapiness of the series in offbeat ways. For instance, Laura Dern's character is straight out of a mid-20th century queer novel—not in sexual orientation; there are still no gay characters in the Star Wars universe, which has only now found its first heroine of color in Rose, so baby steps—but in how over the top, snarky, and derisive of Poe's chauvinistic antics she is. Mix in delicate close-ups of Oscar Isaac's hard-boiled stubble, Adam Driver's pecs, and a heart-swelling kiss in the midst of an epic battle and you've got pulp dialed to 11.
It's a sign that Johnson understands the series well enough to upend it and deliver things we've never seen before. Dern and Rose in particular, but also a fantastically hilarious MacGuffin Johnson throws into the film midway that resolves itself with a punchline rather than a crescendo. It's the work of a master helmer and writer who has operated in the sci-fi, pulp, and noir genres and knows how to blend them effortlessly to breathe new life into stories that pop culture has been telling for years. There are many familiar beats to The Last Jedi, yes, but they're done with such aplomb, such reckless abandon, that they feel not only fresh but absolutely fucking awesome. Who'd have ever thought they'd see the trappings of a James Bond casino royale in the middle of a Star Wars film?
As the film hurtles toward its conclusion (but not before several dizzying climaxes come to fruition), you might be left wondering where the series will go next. Our characters aren't left in the kind of mortal danger that their predecessors were in their Empire Strikes Back cliffhangers, they're instead faced with psychological dilemmas — and it makes for a new, exciting foray into what it means to be trapped in this endless war of light and dark. Johnson has already been tapped to create a new Star Wars trilogy in the coming years, off the predicted success of this film. It seems that for the near future, amid the lightsaber battles and love triangles among the stars, we can also look forward to science-fiction that looks into its characters' souls just as much as it speeds toward galaxies far, far away.