Over the past year or so, I have had periodic dreams that I was seeing "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." In one of those dreams, writer-director Rian Johnson appeared onscreen as a giant space narrator. In another, the audience was transported into the movie screen to experience the battles firsthand.
I would wake up from these dreams so satisfied and fulfilled that I didn't even have room in my heart to be disappointed it was all a dream. I mostly just felt grateful for the glimpses into a transcendent, soul-consuming experience with the film before I saw it.
Those are impossible expectations to bring into a movie and have it go well.
And yet, I've now seen the actual real-life version of the movie. And somehow, it's even better than I dreamt it to be.
It also still feels like a dream.
I am totally befuddled as to what to write about "The Last Jedi," because while I was watching it, I was so consumed by its charms, its surprises, its audacity, its heart, its style, that the film wasn't registering as an external image projected on a screen in front of me. Just like my dreams, I didn't feel like an observer of created art, but like I was part of the story, inside the movie itself.
Disclaimer: The nearly dissociative state that the movie put me in surely means I missed some things in my first viewing. I may come to be disappointed by some elements of the movie when I revisit it in the years to come.
In all honesty, I'm still a wreck, and I saw the thing almost 24 hours ago. But deadlines are funny things: Like the Force, they bind the galaxy together. And whether my training is complete or not, I must confront the task of assessing this film right now.
So here goes.
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" is the eighth "episode" in the space fantasy created by George Lucas, and the third film in the series since Disney paid $4 billion to take over for future installments.
It may have been the creative genius of George Lucas that Disney was buying, but as of "The Last Jedi," it turns out the filmmaker whose genius makes the whole deal worth it all over again is Rian Johnson.
Johnson is now the only filmmaker other than Lucas to be credited with "written and directed by" after a "Star Wars" movie, and while under Disney making a movie in this series is extraordinarily collaborative -- just ask any recent "Star Wars" director to be fired over creative differences -- "The Last Jedi" has a clarity of vision and a confidence that feel of a piece with Johnson's earlier work in independent films like "Brick" and "Looper."
The Force is certainly strong with this one.
I am of the belief that in time, even George Lucas' prequel trilogy -- the films that made him fall from the graces of many fans -- will be redeemed in the eyes of fans. Having rewatched them all very recently, my own frustrations with them have largely dissipated.
In restarting this series, Disney has had to walk a tricky balance of bringing back onscreen the things fans loved about "Star Wars," avoiding the things they didn't, and making something new that still feels like it's a part of all of what came before.
"The Last Jedi" is the second part of the trilogy that started with "The Force Awakens," which had overt signals that the new direction for the series would ditch much of the computerized aesthetics of the prequel trilogy. The spin-off "Rogue One" followed suit -- hey, look puppets again! And is that blue milk I see?
Where J.J. Abrams delighted audiences with the joyful return of artifacts like the Millennium Falcon in "The Force Awakens," the artifacts of "Star Wars" lore that Johnson seems most excited to bring back and play with are the more intangible ones. The new film delves deep the Force as a form of mystic spirituality.
"The Last Jedi" even confronts and expands that mythology in ways that feel both tremendously bold and risky as well as completely in harmony with what has come before.
Johnson's ambitions are somewhat weighed down by the safeness of the approach that Disney has taken up to now. Primarily, the decision to immediately follow up "The Return of the Jedi" with new versions of the Empire and Rebel Alliance means things feel familiar, but also makes one wonder what Lucas' original vision for this trilogy would have been.
But given those parameters that existed, Johnson has injected incredible spirit and audacity into the storyline and has turned things around in ways that make me optimistic and excited to see where the ninth episode will go (back, as it will be, in the hands of J.J. Abrams).
At the heart of all the space dressing and universe-building, what makes this trilogy -- and this film in particular -- sing are the characters. Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn, and Poe are all expanded upon gloriously in Johnson's script.
But what may have been the trickiest characters -- Luke and Leia -- are incredibly well-handled, too. Seeing the late Carrie Fisher onscreen again is a total, heartbreaking joy, and both the script and Fisher's performance under Johnson's direction honor her character in ways I was unprepared to be so moved by.
I was on the edge of my seat for two and a half hours, and not just because of space-flying action sequences. The characters are the emotional spine of the film, their drama and their depth, and the fact that this film makes them their main focus means that "The Last Jedi" is not just a terrific time in a theater, but I think it's also a great movie.
Beyond my wildest dreams.
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher
Running time: 2 hours, 32 min
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence