Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro
Director: Rian Johnson
Writer: Rian Johnson
The reception The Last Jedi has proven to be rather divisive, perhaps more so than even the prequels, and I must confess that I myself wasn’t sure what to make of it at first. In that kind of situation I think it is important to consider what exactly it is you expect of a film such as this going in. With The Force Awakens for example, with the prequel PTSD still making itself felt, I went in hoping to see a movie that looked, sounded, and felt like the Star Wars I loved as a child. If that meant playing it safe and recycling plot points from the previous movies then so be it because I walked out feeling elated in the way that only Star Wars can make me feel. This time, with my child-like faith now restored, I hoped to see a movie that would take more risks and would take the franchise in new directions. The Last Jedi did exactly that and it caught me completely off guard the first time I saw it. On the second viewing I loved it more than I loved The Force Awakens.
The film picks up immediately after Episode VII with what’s left of the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (the dearly departed Carrie Fisher), fleeing the First Order. A counter-attack by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) allows them a chance to escape, but Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and his fleet remain relentlessly hot on their trail. After an attack led (but not executed) by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) leaves his mother incapacitated, Leia’s command is assumed by Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Disapproving of her inactive strategy Poe, Finn (John Boyega), mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), and BB-8 concoct a plan to disable the device that allows the First Order to track their fleet through light speed. Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley), having arrived on Ahch-To with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and R2D2 in search of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), find him living there in a self-imposed exile, disillusioned by his own failures and with the teachings of the Jedi. It falls onto her to inspire Luke to complete her training and to help them save the Resistance from the wrath of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and the First Order before it’s too late.
Making a great sequel is a tricky thing, especially with an iconic property like Star Wars. It’s a matter of making things feel old and new at the same time; giving the audience what they want and also what they didn’t know they wanted. The Force Awakens did this by reviving a familiar story while throwing in new, compelling, likeable characters. The Last Jedi does this in a more challenging but ultimately more rewarding way. It harkens back to the past, sometimes nostalgically, sometimes humorously, and sometimes unsentimentally, and provides arcs for the characters that parallel what we’ve seen in the original trilogy, but it also builds on the new elements that were introduced in the prior instalment and allows the torch to be passed into the hands that promise to lead the franchise into an unfamiliar but promising future. The movie tackles themes of legacy and questions whether the past is something that we should allow to shape us and define us or if it is something that should be rejected so we may be allowed to decide our own futures. The answer, the film shows us, is somewhere in the middle and it is fascinating to see how the it gets there.
This is evident in Rey’s anguish over not knowing who her parents are and not knowing her place in the galaxy and in Kylo’s agony over destroying those for whom he cares in order to forge his own destiny, two arcs we get to see mirror each other wonderfully in the telepathic conversations they share. Both feel broken and lost and they find within each other the potential to overcome their past traumas and build a greater future for themselves (for light and for dark). Luke meanwhile, having already grown from a young and naïve dreamer to a learned and capable warrior, is now old, cynical and haunted by his past in a way that Rey can recognise but barely begin to understand. Hamill delivers one of the greatest performances in the epic saga’s decades-long history as a Luke who failed to live up to the promises of Return of the Jedi and has spent the years since punishing himself for it. The fulfilment of his arc at the end is moving and profound in a way that only a story told over several years with a reflective, poetic sense of theme and character can possibly be.
The film demonstrates far more interest in telling the story it wants to tell rather than playing to audience’s expectations (not least of which is its complete and total indifference for fan theories), and that can be understandably unfulfilling and even alienating for fans who deeply love this franchise and its characters. Those who love the hopeful ending to Return of the Jedi and the state of redemption and enlightenment that Luke is able to reach after all he’s been through might not be able to reconcile themselves with this disheartened, pessimistic Luke whose triumphs were defeated by his own failures. But if we truly want Star Wars to continue and evolve as a franchise, we must necessarily open ourselves to ideas and directions that go against our expectations, whether or not we ultimately agree with and embrace the road taken. Personally, I found the direction taken by The Last Jedi to be not only great but also true to the spirit of the franchise and to the characters in it.
The debate over whether The Last Jedi is the best or worst movie in the Star Wars canon is one that will continue to rage many, many years after we’re all dead, buried, and forgotten, but everyone can surely agree that this is the most visually stunning Star Wars movie ever crafted. The set-pieces we see such as Snoke’s throne room, dominated by a shade of red so dreadful and sinister it could’ve been lifted straight out of a Roger Corman film, or the climatic battle on the salt planet, where the white surface is brushed aside to reveal an under-layer of crimson, almost as if the planet itself were bleeding, are masterpieces of colour and composition. Another visual highlight involves a starship going into hyperspace in a way that is as blindingly striking as it is emotionally powerful (and it involves a character we only just met!). Johnson, in my eyes, has secured this movie’s position as the best directed Star Wars movie in the series not just for his inspired visual realisation but for how he handles the story as well. Using the lessons he presumably learned from his tenure on Breaking Bad, he unravels the story with the confidence of a director who trusts that the different plot threads will come together and that everything that has been set up will come through, even when it appears the movie has seemingly miscalculated and leads us down a worrisome path. It all pays off in the end and is all the more powerful for having been doubted by us in the first place.
There are imperfections, as there always have been with Star Wars. The quest undertaken by Finn and Rose feels like more of an aside than it does a major part of the plot (even if it does ultimately get them where they need to be by the time we reach the climax), there is an early scene involving Leia that I’m still not sure how to feel about considering her untimely death, and the resolution to the conflict between Poe and Holdo doesn’t really make much sense. However, after the film’s marvellous work of character development done with Rey, Kylo and Luke, the bold story, the stupendous action, the sharp sense of humour, and all the emotionally overwhelming moments that follow, I’d have been willing to forgive a lot more. This is a movie that fulfils the promise of taking this universe into uncharted waters, expanding on the mythology in unprecedented ways, and bringing a beloved chapter of this franchise to a satisfying close so that we might follow it into a promising and exciting future. It is also an enormously thrilling, funny, moving film that delivers all a Star Wars fan could possibly want and more. As I beheld the image of a sunset that recalled Luke’s last night on Tatooine before the start of his great adventure, I felt that same sense of wonder, sensation and awe that makes Star Wars so special.