Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac
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We are what they grow beyond. That’s the sentiment at the core of The Last Jedi, a Star Wars sequel that carries the franchise into a future generation with confidence, heart and no end of surprises.
From the moment we pick up from the end of Episode VII, Episode VIII shows an astonishing lack of respect for what’s come before, but what’s remarkable is the amount of affection with which it does it. There is reverence, awe and kindness in these two and a half hours, which pay homage and throw calls back to the galaxy we all got to know long, long ago. But after shouldering that baggage and getting a feel for its weight, Johnson’s script unexpectedly tosses it to one side with a casual, loving shrug. If that sounds like a lot of left-field twists, you wouldn’t be wrong: The Last Jedi’s biggest strength is how much Star Wars in it, and how little Star Wars is in it.
Mark Hamill’s return as Luke Skywalker is the heart of that impossible balance between old and new. Visibly scarred and physically withdrawn, he’s a hero no more – a recluse on an island who has cut himself off from the galaxy, the Rebellion, even the Force itself. But he’s no slouch in the Jedi Master stakes, having borne out both victory and defeat to come to a renewed understanding of The Force. His lessons to Rey (Daisy Ridley, effortlessly charismatic and stirringly earnest) are less training and more reprogramming, turning what she thinks of the world on its head. Traditional notions of Sith and Jedi, right and wrong, are all thrown out the window, crafting a grey-shaded universe where there is no righteous distinction between the gifted and not-gifted, where family lineage doesn’t matter and where a bearded Luke Skywalker drinks bright green milk from the udder of an oversized aardvark living on a cliff.
This is the richest, densest Star Wars entry to date, stuffed with thoughts on heritage, legacy and its relevance to younger generations. That sounds far, far away from The Force Awakens, but what Johnson does is tune into the same note that JJ Abrams was playing with, riffing on how the myths and legends of old can be lost today. “That’s not how The Force works, kid!” Han Solo told Finn (John Boyega, still infectiously enthusiastic) in Episode VII – and while Johnson’s script appears to burn sacred texts with glee, it takes that sentiment as gospel.
It’s baked into every inch of the movie. This is a film centred on the very concern of how to recast Star Wars for a new era, and it does so with the most diverse cast of any Star Wars film yet. Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose is inspiring as the security guard-turned-flag bearer for the resistance, while General Leia (Carrie Fisher) passes her leadership torch on to the wise, purple-haired Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, having an absolutely blast – when your leader says the word ‘pew!’ every time they fire a gun, you know you’re in good hands). Poe Dameron (the swoonsome Oscar Isaac), of course, is still on hand to provide rogue thrills and aerial combat skills, but he’s bathed in a modern light, not the hero who would have saved the day in the 1970s but a hot-headed man with an arrogant, selfish streak. Even General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) is reduced to a laughing stock, as his maniacally barked orders get louder and louder.
It’s a masterclass in how to develop character, drawing out new sides to familiar faces. Everyone has an arc to follow, from Finn learning to love the resistance more than he pines for Rey to Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren trying to stand up to Supreme Leader Snoke (a deliciously snarling Andy Serkis). That attention to detail makes the narrative at once coherent and entirely unpredictable. The Last Jedi’s approach to plot and lore isn’t logical: it’s organic.
That becomes clearest in the conversations between Rey and Ren, as they thrash out the film’s new dividing line between the light and the dark. Both know their generation has to inherit the world, but Kylo – an acutely tragic take on toxic masculinity – remains a tantrum-loving teenager who is so desperate to carve out his own future that he can’t figure out how to do it. The good guys, by contrast, understand the healthy answer – to embrace the mistakes, as well as the victories, of the past. It’s not a question of new or old, but new and old.
It’s a thoughtful, weighty blockbuster, then, but you wouldn’t know it while it’s playing: just as with Brick and Looper, Johnson is a natural at finding the humour and the fun in the noiry darkness. He runs with his plan from planet to planet, undercutting every serious beat with a subversive grin, joking about floating rocks and giggling at Porgs (Furbies, if they were actually cute), while still marvelling at blowing up ships. A sequence at a Mos Eisley-meets-Wings casino on the glitzy resort of Canto Bight seems like our filmmaker’s imagination has run too far, but instead deftly highlights the inequality and moral ambiguity of the galaxy, before cueing up a rewarding final flourish, as the movie’s ambitious, inclusive philosophy reaches a stunning pay-off. Even before then, there’s more to make your jaw drop, as a mining planet covered in red salt sends crimson flying through the action-packed air without a single drop of blood spilled.
There’s seemingly no end to the bold, dazzling spectacle Johnson has in store, and he seems just as excited about it as we are – every time you think the film’s about to end, he just keeps coming up with one more idea, one last set piece. The result is a non-stop rush of philosophy, history and identity, all delivered with a lightness of touch that’s breathtaking. It’s Stars Wars, but it grows beyond the definition of those two words, an achievement it pulls off with a natural sense of purpose and a thrilling unpredictability. It’s hard to believe that this is the second film in a trilogy – it’s anybody’s guess what will happen in the final part. In an age of nostalgic retreads and reboots, what more could you want from a sequel? That’s not what Star Wars is, some might argue, but The Last Jedi’s success is that it’ll leave you thinking The Force always worked that way.
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