It’s always nice to be surprised. Generally speaking, it’s fair to say that modern blockbusters don’t usually throw too many curve balls in the direction of their audiences, so it’s a genuinely pleasant experience when a movie, particularly a huge one like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, really doesn’t go in the directions you were expecting it to.
The movie picks up pretty much exactly where The Force Awakens left off, with fledgling Force user Rey offering the long-missing Luke Skywalker his old lightsaber, while the Resistance frantically try to evacuate their base before the First Order, having failed to blow the place up with Starkiller Base, show up to do things the old-fashioned way. And the movie subsequently follows those strands, with Rey dealing with a wary Luke and the Resistance fleet desperately fleeing from the pursuing First Order as they look for somewhere to hole up.
After The Force Awakens mostly flitting between Finn and Rey, it’s with this film that the latter steps up as pretty much the indisputable lead of the new trilogy and Daisy Ridley proves to be capably up to the challenge. She imbues Rey with a vulnerability that befits both her uncertainty about her family and past and her fear about the rise of the Force within her and what it means for her future, but also gives her a fierce strength that carries her through the trials she faces. She spends much of the movie opposite Mark Hamill, who has simply never been better as a very different Luke Skywalker. This Luke, thirty years on from his last appearance, is utterly disillusioned, blaming himself for the fall to the Dark Side of his nephew Ben Solo and his subsequent rise as Kylo Ren. He’s lost any faith in his ability to make good choices and, having come to see the Jedi as a key factor in many of the galaxy’s ills (an attitude that, from the extensive history of the Star Wars galaxy, is quite hard to argue with), he’s come to the conclusion that the best thing is if the Jedi simply cease to exist. And so he lives quietly in what remains of the original Jedi temple, effectively waiting to die, and doesn’t appreciate a new arrival looking to learn the ways of the Force. Hamill is a powerhouse in this movie and sells every last bit of Luke’s lasting pain.
With Rey elsewhere, John Boyega’s Finn get his own subplot as he, accompanied by new character Rose (an appealing Kelly Marie Tran), head out to search for a way to stop the First Order fleet from tracking the fleeing Resistance. Boyega gives Finn an intensity on his mission, as would befit a former stormtrooper, but also plays him as being more comfortable with his choices – his fear of the First Order remains, understandably given their situation, but he’s come to terms with his decision to face off against them. Oscar Isaac’s Poe feels rather underused, spending most of his screen time butting heads with the Resistance leadership and, frankly, acting like an entitled dick at times, but Isaac brings his formidable acting ability to bear as his character haltingly moves towards understanding what it really means to be a leader.
In The Force Awakens, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren came across, quite intentionally, as being pretty immature and hung up on living up to the fearsome reputation of his grandfather. Having severed one link to the past by slaying his father Han Solo, the Kylo Ren we meet in The Last Jedi has changed. His encounter with Rey has given him food for thought, and now, rather than remaining obsessed with the past, he’s looking to the future a bit more now, considering the possibilities with more calculation than the character previously displayed.
And then, of course, there’s Carrie Fisher, in her last movie role before her untimely death a year ago. Leia doesn’t get as much screen time as we might like, given that it’s the last time we’ll be seeing the iconic character, but Fisher dominates the screen whenever she’s on it. Leia’s many pains are never far from the surface, but Fisher gives her the same steely determination that the character has always possessed as she does her best to get the dwindling Resistance forces to a place of safety. Given the work that she does here, it’s a genuine tragedy that we’ve been denied the opportunity to see how the character would have played out in the final part of the trilogy – all reports suggest that, just as Han was central to The Force Awakens and Luke is central to The Last Jedi, Leia would have been front and centre in the finale.
The supporting cast generally do well. Kelly Marie Tran is likeable as Resistance tech Rose who joins Finn on his mission. Andy Serkis gets a much larger role as Supreme Leader Snoke, now present in the scarred flesh and all the creepier for it as he plays Ren and General Hux off against each other. Speaking of Hux, Domhnall Gleeson does well with a role that’s a bit thankless this time out – stuck between Snoke and Ren, he ends up the butt of rather too many jokes. Laura Dern’s Resistance Admiral Holdo sometimes seems to be present mostly as a non-Leia senior officer for Poe to butt heads with, but gets some good (and in one case downright awesome) moments of her own. Only Benicio del Toro, playing an expert slicer (hacker) recruited by Finn to help rescue the fleet, feels almost totally wasted. And, for fans of British humour, there’s the unexpected sight of comedy stalwart Adrian Edmondson as Hux’s most prominent underling, which is bizarre enough to be a touch distracting.
As with any blockbuster, once the trailers started to come up, the inevitable game of “Guess What Happens” started up around the internet and I’m quite pleased to say that the vast majority of the speculation that I saw around the place was pretty much wrong. The movie takes a couple of genuinely unexpected turns, leaving things in a pretty interesting place for the forthcoming Episode IX to wrap up. The script is a solid one, successfully mixing well-handled action with strong emotional beats throughout. It’s also unexpectedly funny, with some real laugh-out-loud moments – Luke, particularly, has got downright snarky since we last saw him.
One regular criticism (and not an entirely unfair one) of The Force Awakens is that it felt rather too much like a greatest hits revisit of the original Star Wars. Early trailers for The Last Jedi did raise certain concerns that this tendency might continue and, indeed, there are familiar aspects to the movie that raise the spectre of, primarily, The Empire Strikes Back and, to a small extent, Return of the Jedi. There’s a walker attack on a planet with a predominantly white surface, the Resistance are on the run, there’s another cantina substitute (a casino is the latest location for the designers to show off their alien creations), and a character visits a reluctant Jedi Master for training – there’s even an equivalent to the Dark Side cave on the planet Rey finds Luke. There are unquestionably similarities. Fortunately, while these familiar aspects are present, they’re generally handled so differently to the original that all but the most churlish of viewers should be able to step past them.
The movie is, arguably, a little on the long side (it’s the longest movie in the franchise to date by about ten minutes). There’s a bit of a sag in the middle section, with the extended side trip to the casino feeling like the main culprit. While unquestionably plot-relevant and including some impressive visuals, it feels overly padded out; it’s hard not to think that the plot developments involved in the sequence could have been carried out more efficiently and that the main reason for the longer sequence is really to give Finn something to do during the second act.
Visually, the movie is little short of extraordinary to look at. All the different environments are striking and the effects work is, as one might expect, absolutely top notch – the final solution to the pursuing First Order fleet is particularly jaw-dropping to look at. Director Rian Johnson has a good eye for a shot and captures action sequences with an impressive flair, making the recent announcement that he’s been handed creative control for a whole new trilogy to follow Episode IX pretty exciting. The soundtrack is also great, with John Williams doing his usual exemplary work.
Overall, The Last Jedi is one hell of a good movie. There’s the odd flaw here and there, but nothing major, and the result is a film that can absolutely stand among the best in the franchise. I’m entirely sure that I’ll be seeing it again, and will be very interested to see where they take it all from here.