What can one aging Jedi knight do in the face of a resurgent power-hungry, imperialistic force? What does it even mean for or say about a mass movement - a religious order like the Jedi - to be reduced to a single person, albeit a legendary one?
Sometimes, it really is all right there in the title.
In a very literal sense, the eighth episode in the core Star Wars story, The Last Jedi, is a rumination on a galaxy that is, at accelerating velocity, moving on from what happened in Episodes I-VI - from all that the Skywalker family did to both create and destroy an empire.
It is direct and explicit in so ruminating, often through the dialogue of one of the two remaining Skywalkers, Luke (Mark Hamill), who was reintroduced in the closing scene of the previous entry, The Force Awakens. And, for a film series that has trafficked so extensively in mysticism and mystery and rumor, it is quite jarring to be confronted with the simple facts in such a manner. There is, it would seem, no Jedi hermit living in the desert of a remote planet this time around. And there is, it would seem, no pint-sized Jedi sage, hundreds of years old and still constructing his sentences awkwardly in the swamp of another remote planet either.
There is only Luke, and he, understandably so, is shaken by the plain reality here, as are a lot of other people in this beloved galaxy.
Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, is one of them. She is the one who found Luke's hiding place, atop a small rock in the middle of an ocean-covered planet at the end of The Force Awakens. Rey has come, on behalf of Luke's sister Leia, to lure him out of hiding and gain his help for the Resistance, but also because, the Force flowing through her as it does Luke, she is an heir apparent.
The Resistance, led by Leia, in Carrie Fisher's final performance, is in grave peril with or without Luke. The existential threat is so serious that the usual swashbuckling hijinks of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) are viewed in a much different light than in any previous Star Wars film.
This even seems to radically alter calculus for the First Order - the spiritual successor to the Empire - a truth perhaps best driven home when Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) severely admonishes Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) for cribbing his grandfather, Darth Vader.
There's a great deal of, to invoke a technical term, other stuff packed in all around this. While Rey courts Luke's counsel, the First Order chases the Resistance all over the galaxy. Pretty much anyone who isn't a Jedi or a Sith is given (another technical term) random stuff to do. That goes for the old familiar characters, the ones introduced in The Force Awakens, and a few newcomers to the series, including Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro and Kelly Marie Tran.
There's way too much of this stuff, and I'm being so imprecise here partly because it's a great way to avoid spoilers, but mostly because while all of this stuff looks cool on a giant screen, it is otherwise utterly unmemorable from a plot perspective.
The Last Jedi is overstuffed, if you will.
It could be because writer and director Rian Johnson was left with too much to do after The Force Awakens. It could be because Star Wars, as a franchise, can get any actor it wants, does, and then feels compelled to give them screen time. It doesn't really matter.
The Last Jedi has just a little too much going on to be truly great - to rise to the level of its most obvious comparison point. Given the entertainment value delivered (a lot!), this is not a big deal. This is a very fun film - one worthy of the original trilogy, but also as a standalone with its own unique and laudable qualities. It is funnier than any previous entry. It routinely and delightfully subverts expectations, gently trolling the fanboys and fangirls along the way. It thinks - long and hard - about where it sits in the mythology of Star Wars.
But, oh, what might have been. The Last Jedi is almost transcendent when it mixes and matches Rey, Kylo Ren, Luke and Snoke. It is at its very, very best, visually, when the color red is prominent. It soars both in its explicit contemplation of a world with no Jedi and in its implicit contemplation of a saga carrying on without Skywalkers. Alas, there is far too much time where none of those figures are involved and where these thought-provoking themes are drowned out by blasters and screeching Tie Fighters.
Evaluating a single Star Wars film might be the toughest job we have on this site. It's hard enough to avoid those pesky spoilers. It's harder still to focus on the film itself as its own entity vs. where it leaves the whole of the franchise.
In that sense, The Last Jedi is better, in my view, for the series than it is as a single set piece. I was left excited about the near-limitless possibilities of a Skywalker-less Star Wars. But I also found it difficult to fully appreciate every moment of this particular entry in the saga. Rian Johnson has done good work here, but he hasn't made something on the level of The Empire Strikes Back.