It’s been a while since I’ve been to the cinema to see a fim on the big screen, and I was shocked by how much ticket prices had risen. They’re now the same as a new-release Blu-ray, which at least has re-watch and re-sale value. Small wonder then that these days I limit my theatrical outings to three specific categories of films – new James Bond, Star Trek and Star Wars instalments – which I’ve been faithful to ever since the Seventies.
Somewhat to my surprise I duly made it to see Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi before Christmas, and without having suffered any spoilers. I’d even kept away from official trailers in the build-up to the film’s release. I had seen the reviews, and noted that they’d started with euphoric raptures before curdling somewhat with criticism from fans who weren’t happy with the direction the series was going, but I made sure to avoid any details of either praise or gripes until I’d seen the film for myself. Which I now have.
Before I go on, a word about spoilers. I don’t intend to reveal any here – I’d rather everyone saw it in the unsullied state that I managed for myself – but inevitably there will be comments and hints in this review that betray more than a given reader might like. So if you are staying clean and pure from all spoilers, then perhaps it’s better to look away now just to be sure. And just to add, some elements of The Force Awakens are also discussed here since the statute of limitations on spoilers from that film has now expired. Still with us? Then off we go to a galaxy far, far away…
The Star Wars saga made a triumphant return with the crowd-pleasing The Force Awakens, which I liked well enough but nonetheless complained about just how heavily it leaned on the original film in terms of plot and structure. For me it was the new characters and elements it introduced that worked best, and I was looking forward to seeing whether the next part of the third trilogy would use them to give us something new and refreshingly different, or plod on the same predictable path.
Initially things didn’t look promising. With little story time having passed on since the last film, the iconic opening crawl has little more to offer than a straight-forward recap of what we’ve already seen. That said, it also takes the opportunity to retcon some details about the First Order, positioning them as a far more serious and powerful threat than they appeared in their ill-defined introduction two years ago. Now it seems they have overrun much of the galaxy and effectively dispensed with the Republic, leaving only General Leia Organa’s rag-tag group to fight on. Interestingly, they overtly reject the ‘Resistance’ sobriquet of JJ Abrams’ film and proudly reclaim their original Rebel heritage this time around.
The film starts with the First Order attacking the Rebel’s latest hideout, and a desperate evacuation plan is underway to get everyone to safety; what they don’t realise is that they’re running straight into a trap laid by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on the waterlogged planet Ahch-To where she hopes to be trained in the ways of the Force by the last remaining Jedi Master – the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). But he’s not the person she hoped and needed him to be…
From this start, I was beginning to worry that after The Force Awakens had done a cover of A New Hope we were now in for a re-tred of The Empire Strikes Back. But those concerns were quickly dispelled as The Last Jedi soon departed from the predicted path and went flying off on a totally new and unexpected trajectory. The script makes it explicitly clear that now is the time to cast off the old and embrace the new. If The Force Awakens had left me hoping for the series so unearth some fresh ideas and originality, then The Last Jedi delivers in spades. And while it’s usual to say “be careful what you wish for”, on this occasion I can say that the revolutionary new approach to the Star Wars canon paid off handsomely: it was what I’d asked for, and I loved it.
While the plot of The Force Awakens could be summarised in a couple of lines, there’s no such possibility of doing that here. At two and a half hours in duration, it’s the longest movie in the franchise to date. It’s also very, very densely plotted. Events move very fast in this film – things that you wouldn’t expect to happen until deep into the third part of the trilogy come hurling at you before the midway point, and still there’s more bearing down right behind. There are at least half a dozen action sequences that would easily have been a satisfying climactic conclusion to any of the previous films, but still the movie keeps on rolling. And while previous films had twists and turns (including Darth Vader’s show-stopping declaration in The Empire Strikes Back), they were usually one-step in nature: by comparison, The Last Jedi‘s have twists on their twists and then still more shocks and double-crosses for the audience to try to wrap their heads around before we know what’s really going on. You could easily have divided the film in two and no one would have complained about feeling under-served by either.
The film is also stupefyingly beautiful to look at. Even the quietest low-key moments have a splendour that you would never expect from an action franchise. And at its absolutely height, The Last Jedi shows a visual intelligence that simply leaves you breathless. Avoiding spoilers means I can’t be specific about most of them, but I have to say a word about Supreme Leader Snoke’s crimson throne room and the white-and-blood-red aesthetic of the mining planet Crait, which is achingly dazzling and reminiscent of some of the finest Japanese martial art-house films of the 1990s.
As it turns out, director Rian Johnson’s cine-literate script references an earlier Japanese masterpiece, Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, with the way it gives three different representations of a pivotal moment in the development of Ben Solo to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Overall the film has some of the best dialogue of the entire series – not just in its much-noted humour (and there really are a good dozen or so laugh-out-load moments, right from the opening sequence) but also in the naturalistic banter and exchanges. It feels like real people talking, rather than standard dramatic archetypes exchanging information primarily in order to advance the plot to its inevitable destination as was so often the case under George Lucas. As a result you really start to care about these people. Together with the unpredictability of the overall plot, it leaves you in genuine suspense over who is going to survive and who will fall. There’s not a single major character who doesn’t appear to be close to dying at one point or other during the film – and some that do expire are genuine surprises.
As a whole, The Last Jedi is actually deeper and more introspective and character-led than any film in the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back, and the intimate psychic exchanges between Kylo and Ren are absolutely my favourite thing in the whole movie – completely engrossing and fascinating on multiple levels, brilliantly framed and photographed. Ridley and Driver once again establish themselves as the MVPs of the rebooted Star Wars franchise and earn every bit of praise they receive for their superlative portrayals.
It’s wonderful to see Oscar Isaac get more screen time this time around as the gung-ho Poe Damerson who clashes with the disapproving Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). However it feels that John Boyega loses out this time around: he’s sent on an desperate mission to the casino planet Canto Bight along with mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) for information that could help save the beleaguered Rebel fleet. Tran is terrific as the sort of working class ‘grunt’ that the Star Wars saga of heroes and knights and princesses doesn’t traditionally encompass, making her presence here all the more welcome and refreshing. However their sub-plot as a whole feels rather superfluous to requirements; these sequences almost feel like the film is holding out an olive branch to the look-and-feel of the unloved prequel films to invite them back into the fold. Finn himself is a bit of a spare part to what unfolds and it’s only when he gets to face down his old Imperial boss Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) that he starts to return to his Force Awakens form.
Of the original trilogy cast, it’s nice to see C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) getting some proper screen time. Meanwhile, Hamill gets to show what he can do as an older, dispirited Luke: I always felt he was unfairly judged for his acting in the first films, and now he proves what he can do when given a part of genuine substance. He really is terrific as he ruminates on the legacy of the Jedi and on his own failings. It takes an old friend to remind him that we learn more from our failures than our successes, and it’s a scene so perfect in tone, import and nostalgia that I have no hesitation in admitting that it brought a tear to my eye.
Of course, it’s the late Carrie Fisher’s final performance as Leia that dominates the film, even if unintentionally. It’s hard to watch her scenes without feeling waves of melancholy and pathos. It’s made worse in many ways by how this script gives her more to work with than any other in the series; and that she too, like Hamill, rises to the opportunity when it’s presented and delivers her best work yet. Maybe my feelings are being influenced by knowing this was her last role, but dammit if she isn’t outstanding as a weary war leader ground down by the number of people she knows have gone to their deaths on her orders. The saddest thing of all is that we’ll never know what the final episode of the current trilogy had in store for Leia, but one thing we can be sure of: Carrie Fisher would have been absolutely magnificent in it.
Johnson now hands back the writing/directing reigns to Abrams for the final film in this trilogy, and it will be interesting to see where it goes from here. So many of the things we thought were being set up by The Last Jedi for the three film arc have already been cleared off the board, leaving Abrams with vastly more freedom than when he rebooted the franchise in 2015. And yet at the same time, he’s now without the reassuring familiar elements to fall back on as props to make sure it all goes down well with old and new fans alike. It will be a tough test for Abrams before he passes the baton back to Johnson for an all-new trilogy that could even do the unthinkable and breakaway from the Skywalker family soap opera once and for all.
For all the innovation on show in The Last Jedi, the Skywalker dynasty is still very much at the core of this film; but it also does something new which bodes well for Johnson’s future instalment. While the usual matters of balance between the light and dark side of the Force are in place (and handled better than any previous episode at that), there’s a palpable new theme running on top. This is a film in which the Rebels are reduced to their very lowest state, to a point where desperation takes hold and defeat and death is inevitable with no prospect of rescue. Everything they try goes badly: all those heroic gambles that saved the day in previous films unravel and go terribly wrong. People die. The good guys turn on each other. The bad guys are remorseless. There is no cavalry waiting out in space to ride to their aid.
And so what this film reminds us is that Star Wars has always been about one thing above all from the very start in 1977: that when things are at their darkest, there is no greater need than to find A New Hope.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
In loving memory of our princess.