Starring: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver
Director: Rian Johnson
Running Time: 150 mins
Synopsis: The First Order’s powerful weapon may have been destroyed by the Resistance but our heroes have been left scattered. Finn (John Boyega) lies in a coma after his encounter with Kylo Ren (Driver), Han Solo is dead, The New Republic has been destroyed and Rey (Ridley) has journeyed to the distant parts of the galaxy to seek training from legendary Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Hamill). They must all come together once again to fight back against the newly strengthened First Order, and that’s all I’m going to say folks.
It has always been a difficult proposition, reviewing a Star Wars film, for two reasons. One, the immense secrecy surrounding all these movies constitutes an inability to mention any specific plot point without risking the wrath of those who’ve yet to see it. The guarded mysteries of big pop culture series such as Game of Thrones, not to mention mystery purveyor elite JJ Abrams fronting the charge with The Force Awakens, has left us with the barest of information to go on in regards to this next chapter. Therefore in respect to those people I will keep this review as broad as possible. The second, and perhaps bigger concern, is the rampant expectations now heaped on these films. So widespread is the love for this franchise that any new iteration of it is anticipated with such ferocity that nothing could hope to live up to it. I, myself, am guilty of that. Leaving the cinema, as I did, almost disappointed that certain moments did not play as I had them in my head. This is of course no fault of the film, but it perhaps means time has to work its magic to allow the real feel of the picture to settle in. The opposite effect can be that audiences are so desperate to have each proceeding chapter be the best thing ever made that uncontrolled euphoria leaps from their opinion boxes. You only have to cast your minds back to the first reviews for The Phantom Menace to see a number of critics positively glowing in their affections, and whom now I’m sure are gripped with shame. Already early reviewers are championing this as the film to overhaul the saga as we know it.
Now in part they are right. The reason for The Last Jedi to have so left me unsure at first is because IT IS very different to what our preconceived notions of Star Wars are. Looper director Rian Johnson was always going to be a singular distinctive voice but the question was always how much of it would remain amongst the big corporation of Disney. Thankfully a huge amount of it remains. It wouldn’t surprise you to see that Johnson has not challenged the token aspects that are so endemic to Star Wars. Opening crawl, screen wipes (although there are remarkably few of those), John Williams score (evocative if lacking in notable new themes) and old fashioned derring do. In fact this is how things begin. Johnson going large with an action scene that airs on the side of cheesy Saturday morning serial, but lest we forget those were the sorts of adventures George Lucas originally aspired to tell with his first Wars picture. Immediately he has a grasp of large scale action, keen geography and fan pleasing moments, as well as a pertinent emotional current seen through the eyes of the little guy (no Star Wars film like this has so celebrated the fringe characters who make up the sidelines).
Soon after this Johnson slowly and subtly challenges expectations, building it gradually throughout the film. We see it in his use of deep close-ups (something the series has steered away from), surreal universe details and rich dark themes. Remarkably no character is forgotten about. Rey and Kylo Ren take centre stage, of course, with the film beautifully sketching a symmetry between them that Johnson builds through editing and a plot device that I will not go into here. Daisy Ridley, once again, gives Rey a formidable inner core but one that this time waivers. Despite all the talk of new Jedi, immense powers and heroics, she is above all else a girl without an identity. The lack of parents in her life driving the bulk of her motivations, and the outcome of which surprises with a graceful nuance. Driver, likewise, is terrific as the tortured Ren, reaching into areas of complexity, fear and pain, whilst never forgetting to look a total badass with a lightsaber.
Central to their plight is undoubtedly Luke Skywalker, who has resided himself to being an outcast deep in the back of nowhere. Mark Hamill was always regarded as the weak link of the original trilogy, nothing more than the blank hero whilst the richer deeper material was left to Solo or Vader. It has taken 30 years or so but he’s finally been given the chance to prove his mettle, delivering a performance wracked with guilt, anger and remarkably a refreshing twinkle in his eye. For all the talk of the so called ‘darker’ middle chapter, Johnson keeps things delicately balanced, throwing in some of the series’ funniest material to date. At times the humour does threaten to undermine otherwise dramatic moments but he just about carries it, and there is a surprising modernity to it as well. Hamill is not the only one of the old school to make an impression though, Carrie Fisher kills it as General Leia. Stoic but weary at the dire straits her Rebellion now find themselves in (the film really drills into just how bare this rebel band become), Fisher is such a warm measured presence that you can’t help but tear up at most of her scenes just remembering that we’ve lost her. A loving tribute does crop up during the credits.
One of the many coups JJ Abrams brought to the table is his gift for casting and Johnson continues that work here. Returning players such as Poe Dameron get plenty of screentime, Issac once again proving he’s got the swagger and style to give his brash pilot the necessary braggadocio yet Johnson gives him dimensional facets this time round that add colour. Domhnall Gleeson is given more to do as the sneering General Hux too, even so much as to humanise him with some cutting moments of levity. The evil behind the scenes, Supreme Leader Snoke, also steps out from behind the large scale hologram he found himself in in Force Awakens. Andy Serkis forming an imposing terrifying figure utilised via some quite phenomenal CGI, the less said about where his character goes the better, but it is not what you expect in the slightest. The only player somewhat left wanting this time out is John Boyega’s Finn. Although given lots to do he has little in the way of an arc, seemingly more of an observant player to events around him than facing any sort of dramatic dilemma.
Finn does, however, get paired with one of our newbie characters in the form of Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose. As a mere engineer, she is a small cog in the larger machine that is the Resistance, but her determined persistence and noble earnestness brings huge heart. The interplay between her and Boyega is affectionate and touching, whilst an encounter on the Casino planet Canto Bight (more on that later) adds a gravitas to her story that makes her just as important to the overall themes as “bigger” characters, such as Luke and Rey. Other notable inclusions are Laura Dern as Admiral Holdo, whom brings gravitas and dignity to what could’ve been a simplistic role. As it turns out she gets some of the best material, and is the architect of one of the films finest hero moments. Benicio Del Toro also appears but is rather underused, and is prone to eccentric character tics that only he could dream up. Oh and whilst not played by actors, the delightfully cute Porgs (creatures that populate Luke’s island home) are adorably and sparsely used.
Production design as a whole is top of the line fantastic. The Last Jedi using in camera effects and creature work as much as possible to build on the lived in universe Abrams returned us to after the greenscreen coldness of the prequels. Cinematography, from Steve Yedlin, is routinely beautiful. A couple of shots alone are the best ever seen in the franchise. Whilst the visual effect work is of the usual high standard you’d expect from ILM, there are one or two background composition shots that look a little weak, actors noticeably appearing like they were in a greenscreened environment, luckily these are infrequent. Bob Ducsay’s editing is also top notch, used as it is to drive key plot points particularly in the connection between Ren and Rey.
Despite all the immense talents of the surrounding players The Last Jedi is undoubtedly Rian Johnson’s time to shine. The way he has taken tropes and conventions of this all too familiar world, spinning them into something routinely unpredictable, is nothing short of remarkable. Say what you will about Star Wars, but they have very rarely been surprising. This time though there is a palpable tension running throughout its entirety, plot shocks coming thick and fast. Don’t get me wrong , there is no “Luke, I am your father” here, but each one hits hard because they are rooted in character and theme. It should be noted that some of these plot decisions will very much divide the fans. But I applaud that, Johnson has gone in with a ‘Don’t give a shit’ attitude, instead realising that he just needs to be true to his characters, without the need for token fan service. Of course there are still plenty of avenues to do this, and the moments in question work wonders. Storytelling wise it is remarkable how lean and stripped back the plot is. I won’t go into specifics but suffice to say the basic plot is sketched out in the first 30 mins and after that it is character that drives us forward.
Now in saying all this I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are flaws (yes no early hyperbole from me). The 2.5 hour runtime is excessive, with the aforementioned Canto Bight sequence, while fun and dripping in colourful puppetry, is largely superfluous to the overall plot. It also contains an action scene of prequel level childlike whimsy that I could’ve done without. Parts of it work very well, particularly in drilling down to some political themes that pay off effectively in the films final scenes, but it is largely padding to an already extended running time. Tonally The Last Jedi is at times a little shaky, the previously mentioned humour sometimes sitting at odds with the richer serious aspects. But I cannot help but admire what Rian Johnson has done here. He has taken a series that was at risk of falling into its own nostalgia, rewiring it to acknowledge its history yet realising that to evolve first one must destroy. The series has been left tantalisingly refreshed, able to now veer off into never before seen areas of wonder and complexity. It will most certainly not be the Star Wars you’re expecting, it will be the one we debate for years to come, and to that end it is a triumph.
Verdict: Star Wars: The Last Jedi is satisfying, excitingly unpredictable, rich in personality and rooted in character. There are flaws but it steers the franchise into unheralded depths that will leave you salivating, so quite frankly a perfect middle chapter.