Unless a franchise is refreshed every so often it will become stale and, great though The Force Awakens was, even its biggest supporter would surely agree that the film was something of a greatest hits package. A better indication of how to develop Star Wars for a new generation lay in the standalone Rogue One which added a satisfying edge to this normally airbrushed universe. While The Last Jedi doesn’t quite go that far it is a refreshing take with director / writer Rian Johnson adding splashes of contemporary narrative and a visual palette that is far more inventive than any film in the series. The results appear to have upset some fans but for the less committed this is a strong film that in taking risks rewards viewers with something that feels different.
Warning- Major spoilers in the rest of this review
The story picks up more or less immediately after the closing scenes of The Force Awakens. The resistance are on the run pursued –even across lightspeed in one of the film’s early surprises- by the resurgent First Order. Meanwhile Rey finds a curmudgeonly unco-operative Luke Skywalker, far from the heroic legend she expects. This is one of several pleasant developments that mark the film out as having some intelligence. Some fans have derided the idea of a bitter Luke in hiding but it proves to be an absorbing storyline moving away from the expected master / pupil training montage template into something more thought provoking. Exploring the real person, scarred from experience, is surely better than Luke just being some kind of mystic Yoda- like character? Likewise when Finn and new character Rose are despatched on a vital mission to a rich planet this seeming diversion underscores one of the film’s key points which is that simply dividing people up between good and evil is far from the truth. Finn is horrified to discover that the planet’s wealth derives from selling weapons to both sides in the conflict.
The best of Johnson’s innovations is enabling Rey and Ben to communicate directly across space as their enigmatic connection is explored. This is an intriguing push and pull- while the trailer suggested Rey is drawn to the dark side, this is misleading as there is just as much of a likelihood that Ben will be drawn to the light. Pleasingly this scenario –rendered powerfully by both actors and with a suitable air of mystery- offers no easy answers eschewing the usual simplistic Star Wars resolutions. One scene sees the films’ main antagonist- Supreme Leader Snoke- declaring he enables this cross space commune but this proves not to be the whole story.
Johnson’s visual choices add a lot to the film. Star Wars is full of an iconography that seems over familiar so to find different ways of showing these is a plus. So we see ships popping into the sky from below, there’s a whole sequence set on a white sanded covered planet which when disturbed is blood red underneath. There are some delightful creatures too notably crystal covered dogs and the puffin like Porgs. The best examples can be seen in the design of Snoke’s lair which looks totally different to anything from this Universe with plain tall red walls and Samurai styled guards. Later there’s a lightsabre battle in there that is one of the best ever staged in any of these films. Johnson’s space battles are lithely executed meaning we never tire of what should by now be over familiar material. His sense of movie history burns throughout adding a flair that really impresses especially if you see it on an IMAX screen.
While the cast are uniformly good and have plenty to do, there is a lack of development in two important cases. Finn in particular after being the focus of The Force Awakens is given standard heroics that don’t really play into his story. After all the build-up Snoke proves to be something of a generic villain rendered extremely well by Andy Serkis but with a character that is simply used to provide a threat and nothing much more.
On the other hand Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo proves to be an excellent addition to the cast with her behaviour being constantly mis-read by Oscar Isaac’s Po in another well written narrative strand. Her part- and that of Rose - have been flagged up as signifying this is a feminist movie. I wouldn’t go quite that far but it is good to see female characters not simply being defined by gender. They occupy various roles in the resistance and even the First Order without comment. Both Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver give powerful performances as the conflicted Rey and Ben / Kylo Ren. There are strong turns too from Oscar Isaac whose Po has become this strand’s Han Solo equivalent and pleasingly is not always right, Benicio del Toro as a slippery safecracker and Domnhall Gleeson’s slimy General Hux.
Mark Hammill has plenty of lines this time which he delivers with a gravitas that convinces. He has become a much better actor over the decades and I don’t understand those fans who say they don’t recognise the same character. I think it’s a realistic take on someone who has been through those experiences. Carrie Fisher’s final bow is equally effective for the older Leia and best watched if you try and separate it from what happened after it was filmed. Johnson manages to enable a brief encounter between the brother and sister which feels like a line drawn under the old characters.
The film does feel slightly too long and I have issues with the final confrontation, in particular one development where you just think “no way would that character be fooled by that”. After the rough edges that Johnson has provided throughout the ending feels just too neatly tied up even though it doesn’t answer all the questions. They might have been better going with a cliffhanger for which there is a perfect opportunity about ten minutes from the end.
Johnson chooses his last shot well though- we see a child who’d briefly been involved in helping Finn and Rose earlier in the film looking up at the stars, wearing a resistance ring and with a broom in hand like a lightsabre as if to show how a new generation are inspired to take up the fight. After all the hardware, energy and speeches it’s a perfectly simple motif both for the narrative and the franchise itself. Overall The Last Jedi breathes new life into an epic that would otherwise be repeating itself and in its own right is an invigorating film.