Director: Rian Johnson
Screenplay: Rian Johnson
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro
Runtime: 152 Minutes
The one major criticism levied at The Force Awakens was that for all its visual panache and technical attributes it was a film that felt very safe and comfortable as a picturesque emulation of the original film. Mirroring not only visuals and motifs but story structure and elements lifted entirely from the 1977 classic as a means of launching a new adventure and characters with a familiar groundwork. But where it worked at setting up its new storyline under the guise of the status quo, what The Last Jedi does is flip the tables of expectation that have been indoctrinated into generations of audiences in unanticipated and deeply rewarding ways.
While the prior instalment set up this new generation of characters and their personalities, this is where they finally come into their own. Picking up in its immediate aftermath, the film staggers itself over an unconventional structure and takes its time in exploring the identities of these individuals and who they think they are.
Rey (Daisy Ridley) has located Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on Ahch-To (surrounded by the adorable land gulls known as Porgs), but he is not the man we once knew. Jaded and broken by his experiences with nephew Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), this is a Luke closed off and in need of a returned agency that Rey hopes to coax out of him, and in doing so help her to channel the immense power that she is slowly coming to terms with. Hamill is weird and wonderful here in a very different take on a man who has become a living legend, but it’s Rey and the connection she shares with Kylo Ren that leads to some of the film’s most fascinating dialogues and deconstructions of how binary the Jedi and the Sith can make the force appear.
This is all a part of The Last Jedi’s insidiously clever denouement; a gradual upending of the audiences narrative expectations that finally allows the series to shed the baggage it has been carrying for decades, be those of rhythmic structures or constant figures and presences within the plot. It’s a picture that’s as much about Star Wars as a form of modern mythology and cultural significance as it is about wiping the slate clean for its new characters to finally take the centre stage in a manner of astonishing depth and emotional resonance – most significantly realised in the final scene and shot, which feels like the strongest and most telling statement of intent that the series has ever produced.
Emotion really is at the core of this instalment more than ever, not just in the way that it works like a form of antithetical nostalgia at points, but that it feels like a climax in the way that a middle instalment usually doesn’t. As well as being the final farewell to Carrie Fisher’s General Leia (who gets one of her greatest moments here), this is more than a passing of the torch story and challenges audiences to trust in and follow it into new territory.
Rian Johnson’s screenplay is an extraordinary delight to take in as it plays its dangerous cards carefully through a concoction of dark comedy, irreverent distractions and wildly imaginative visuals. It draws on a wealth of influence expanding from the original film and through to the works of Akira Kurosawa, as well as flashbacks, montages and edits in a way that diverges from the franchises mode of visual storytelling.
For what is conventionally the darkest of a trilogy, this second feature is one of the brightest and most colourful films in the franchise; simply bursting with new and gorgeous vistas of stark contrast and influence, and while using familiar elements it doesn’t allow them to override its intention – everything about it from the dialogues to the character choices feels fresh and untapped. Johnson’s direction is strong, powerful and different in both subtle and playfully disruptive ways, relying on close-ups, masters and totems to carry the story.
It feels like the missing link to the prequels, which The Force Awakens seemed so afraid to evoke. On a narrative level, it draws on them through natural reference in a way that unifies the entire series, but also strikes a balance through spectacular action scenes that palpitate with sustained peril and threat, including a lightsaber battle that’s up there with the series' best.
The film belongs to the opposing screen forces of Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver. Rey feels like a far more considered presence and puts to rest much of the belittling commentary that followed her before. Kylo Ren feels even more like the series MVP at this point; Driver plays him with feral and unkempt wrath as a child at war with himself as it becomes frighteningly clear just how dangerous he can be when given an arsenal and incorrect guidance from Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). There is an awful lot to say about Snoke and his significance to the narrative and themes that can’t really be mentioned without delving into major spoilers, but Serkis is excellent at selling an idealised version of a deranged and ancient evil whenever he’s onscreen.
If there’s a minor weakness then it’s in a B story following Finn (John Boyega) and maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). While their sequence on Canto Bight – an upper-class casino version of the famous cantina setting – goes on a little long, it’s a fun detour into the class dynamic of the galaxy and its war profiteers that’s never really been explored before, and serves a greater thematic whole with Rose’s wonderful characterisation and performance, as well as Tran’s chemistry with the charismatic Boyega. Even the introduction of Benicio del Toro in a weird and out of tone turn as an underworld computer pirate is entertaining in its oddness, and Oscar Isaac gets to prove more worth as Poe Dameron, charming as ever and holding his own in a state of panic aboard a pursued Rebellion vessel with Laura Dern's high-ranking resistance officer.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the promise of the new trilogy finally fulfilled; an exciting, emotional, richly layered and unpredictable blockbuster of deep-seated passion and startling reverence. It will deeply upset some fans, but it takes the path required to transform the series beyond its mythologic status into something more personal and character driven. As strong and capable as the mightiest of its kind with a cunning self-reliance, this stands as one of the long-running space opera's best ever pictures.