This review contains some minor spoilers. You have been warned.
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” Perhaps the most iconic text to appear in popular cinema over the past four decades, such words return to the screen in the eighth outing of Star Wars, preceding John Williams’ seminal score and the glorious opening crawl. After seeing the film, however, it wouldn’t have surprised me if they were absent.
There was a recent interview in which The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) proclaimed that “I know how every Star Wars fan has a list of different things they want from these movies”. Perhaps so, but it quickly becomes clear in this film that as much as Johnson respects and admires the fandom synonymous with Star Wars, he is much more concerned with examining what constitutes a Star Wars film, and how he can expand upon the seemingly limitless potentials of this saga.
Whilst J.J. Abram’s The Force Awakens wrestled with its own nostalgia to create a wonderful and welcoming Star Wars story, it at times felt a little too safe, and a tad too familiar. Abrams returns as executive producer here, but the film very much belongs to Johnson, whose ambition to mark his own signature on the saga will undoubtedly divide its dedicated audience.
Kicking off shortly after where 2015’s The Force Awakens ended, The Resistance again finds themselves being oppressed by the fascist First Order, again on the back-foot as resources run dangerously low. General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) may find himself to be a comic-relief this time around, but his plot to destroy The Resistance is hardly one to smile about. The Last Jedi is hardly shy of humour though, with its pacifistic quips that fly-boy Poe (Oscar Isaac) simply wants to jump in an X-Wing and blow The First Order to smithereens.
The late Carrie Fisher deservedly has a more prominent role here as Leia Organa, but it’s instead down to Finn (John Boyega) to venture off into the galaxy with newcomer Rose (Kelly-Marie Tran) and step up as unlikely heroes. Star Wars films have never cared about the odds, as Han Solo once famously pointed out, so it’s no surprise that Finn and Rose find themselves at the heart of an against-all-odds mission to save their comrades from complete destruction.
On the other side of the galaxy, the focus is turned to Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) whose cameo appearance in TFA is developed into something much more profound. The slow-building scenes set on the remote island of Ahch-To present Luke as a greying and conflicted Jedi master, evoking Toshiro Mifune’s unnamed, grizzled samurai in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. It’s no secret that George Lucas borrowed much from Kurosawa in his Star Wars heyday, with The Force drawing parallels to the sacred samurai code of Bushido.
Johnson utilises these scenes to elaborate on certain unexplored possibilities of The Force, rather than idealising it as something used for magically lifting rocks. There’s even an early joke that addresses this stigma, as Luke’s patience for teaching Rey soon becomes increasingly weathered. Hamill gives a career-best performance here, despite infamously opposing to certain character choices penned in Johnson’s script. It’s Ridley’s Rey however, who steals the show as the most engaging character of the ensemble cast, standing out as a wise-voice of reason to the bitter Luke. It’s almost impossible not to see some of Luke in Rey’s essence, who, like the former, has emerged as an unheard voice from a desert planet to a significant player in this spectacular story. Just as interesting is her relationship with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the conflicted son of Han and Leia who appears to share a connection with Rey.
Whilst Driver’s monotone voice and gloomy exterior is perfect for this role, his progression as a character feels flawed, as the script cannot seem to decide whether or not Kylo will fulfil his potential as a “new Vader”, despite setting him up a similar kind of sympathy and misunderstanding that Luke Skywalker eventually saw in his father. Although his motives become increasingly ham-fisted and unclear, Kylo at least has the complexities of a robust villain, which unfortunately cannot be said for Sith enigma Snoke (Andy Serkis), a sorely disappointing presence in the film.
Where the film does strongly succeed, however, is in the charms of its smaller moments. Whether it’s Luke being reunited with R2-D2, Porgs (obviously), or the enthusiasm of a young boy on casino planet Canto Bight, who might yet have a bigger role to play in Disney’s intergalactic Star Wars universe. There are also moments of visual maestro that find substance in all of the spectacle. A moment of silence as The Resistance triumph will surely be looked back on with a similar space-awe as the sight of an exploding Death Star, and the impressively choreographed dogfight sequences have never looked better.
The Last Jedi packs a lot into its lengthy runtime; the longest for a Star Wars film yet at 2 hours and 32 minutes. Whilst its doubters will be quick to point out the convoluted, muddled second act, the film’s intentions are not just to entertain, but to innovate the saga. Shades of The Empire Strikes Back are difficult to ignore during Rey’s training, or in Steve Yedlin’s cinematography of an ice-planet battle, but the film boasts an arsenal of interesting concepts, where some are more dynamic than others. Johnson bears the responsibility of carrying the torch with an aura of audacity that will polarise and provoke, but he has crafted a Star Wars film that thrives in its own energy, moving along with a force that is impossible to resist on the big screen.