A soaring new light in a galaxy, far, far away.
2015’s long-awaited return to the galactic delights of the world of the light and the dark evoked a sense of unparalleled euphoria akin to no other cinematic experience. A nostalgia machine it may be, but The Force Awakens was exactly what the Star Wars franchise needed – a loving nod and reminder of why we still look to the stars 40 years after the first entry in the series. The main criticism of Episode VII was its glaring similarities to A New Hope‘s plot – a sweeping statement but fair all the same. However, first time Star Wars director Rian Johnson is clearly one with the force, as his bold, fresh and ingenious ideas shine through this exceedingly better powerhouse blockbuster.
With the nefarious First Order tightening their grip across the Galaxy, Rey (Daisy Ridley) desperately tries to learn the ways of the Jedi under the hesitant tutelage of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). While Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), under the forceful command Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), seeks vengeance against Rey and the Resistance, Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Leia (Carrie Fisher) must work to prevent their obliteration.
Immediately following from The Force Awakens, Johnson demands your allegiance to the franchise, in the sense that your hyperdrive should be primed to jump straight back in. Episode VII left us on an island with Rey and Luke, the latter forlornly staring at his former saber. The resolution of this moment is delightfully unexpected, ringing true to the quote from the trailer: “This is not going to go the way you think”. This could be applied to the entire feature, as from the get-go we’re thrown into a cataclysmic, explosive space battle with an iconic dreadnought, which emphasises the Wars in the title in haunting fashion. From here it’s an unpredictable, emotional jump to light speed.
The set-pieces throughout are elegant, extravagant and exquisitely shot. The lightsaber battles are kinetic and glorious to the eye, Johnson showing a keener aptitude for creating an epic bout, utilising both extreme crystal-lit close ups and wide, full body shots. Despite the problems with George Lucas’ sacred prequels, it’s a throwback to the exhilarating saber battles in those entries, such as the legendary Darth Maul’s. It’s not bloody, but it’s beautifully violent. You feel the sizzle of every saber slash, sometimes decapitating the opponent which brings out a joyous “Ohhh” in the audience. Any sequence in Snoke’s lair is a captivating red dreamscape that wouldn’t be out of place in a Winding-Refn picture – the bravery in Johnson’s direction paying off in huge dividends through each scene, whether it provokes intrigue or a smacked gob.
The anticipated, proper return of Hamill as the infamous Jedi is a remarkable feat. Johnson takes the character in a surprising direction, which in turns brings out a fantastic performance from Hamill. The Force Awakens‘ use of Han Solo fuelled romantic memories, but The Last Jedi‘s use of Skywalker is more similar to Blade Runner 2049‘s use of Deckard Shaw – he’s central to the narrative, with a few little nods here and there, but mostly a beloved character whose tortured past is never in doubt. Driver’s villainous Kylo is developed far further, surely becoming one of the finest foes in the series. His performance perfectly captures his inner conflict, the pull of the light and the uncontrollable rage of the dark, leading to some unforgettable displays of emotion from the terrific actor. When it comes to Snoke, the less said the better – not because he’s bad, but his presence is menacingly significant, radiating terrifying power immediately.
Johnson tackles a lot of narrative throughout the 152 minute runtime (the longest Star Wars movie ever – yeeha). Rey and Luke’s relationship is a gripping focal point, as is a new dynamic between her and Kylo. The plight of the rebels glows with hope, with Isaac playing a far deeper role this time round and turning into a firm leader. It’s also a fitting tribute to the late Carrie Fisher, whose inclusion here is mostly well executed. Boyega is a loveable hero, and her new compadre Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) is a nice addition. However, as much as it isn’t overbearing, their entire sub-plot is when the adventure loses steam. This moves the film away from where all the interest is – Luke. At this point, it becomes a little disjointed and unnecessary, never reaching a point of excitement required for a chunk of plot of this degree. After this half hour passes, and you desperately try to forget a momentously nonsensical Leia scene, The Last Jedi flies into perhaps the finest final hour in Star Wars history.
As much as it may be wonderfully different from the franchise norms, it still feels unequivocally and truly Star Wars. Johnson gets it – whether it is through the both comedic and thrilling return of the charming BB-8, the excruciating cuteness of the Porgs, or the visually poetic red dust from the salt landscape – it’s all an absolute treat, wrapped up in a very tight package which gives nothing away for Episode IX.