Star Wars is more than just a collection of disparate sequels and narratives; it has become a true saga, brimming with history and lore. Vast distances are travelled, generations of time elapse, but themes of hope, identity, and family (+Artoo & Threepio, of course) are ever-present.
In this latest, post-Empire trilogy, the Jedi Order is now just an Arthurian legend of old, told to children. Yet there are tendrils that stretch through space and time and establish a continuity. To hear Kylo Ren refer to Darth Vader as ‘grandfather’ is chilling, even more so because we’ve seen Anakin himself as a boy, with the same inner turmoil. The Force Awakens eludes to a mythos among the new generation, of the mysterious ‘Force’, the heroics of Luke, Leia, and Han, the terror of the Sith lords. When Han tells them ‘It’s true, all of it.’, the sense of awe and wonderment are palpable, akin to the moment Harry Potter is told that he is a wizard.
The Force Awakens had the unenviable task of introducing this New Galactic Order and setting the story on its trajectory forward, all the while trying to appease some of pop-culture’s most rabid fans. There are a lot of in-jokes, homages, and easter-eggs in the first film of the trilogy, which are somewhat necessary to cement its identity within the canon. Although I would argue the point, many fans consider The Force Awakens to be a risk-averse, soft reboot of the franchise, bereft of creativity and originality. The same could not be said of The Last Jedi. Where TFA admittedly follows a familiar formula, TLJ defies almost all of the expectations I had of it, as well as subverting most of the fan theories I had seen online. It is anything but safe. Rian Johnson wisely dispenses with the constant throwbacks and creates a darker, moodier picture, in the same way that Episode V evolved from A New Hope.
We pick up almost exactly where the previous film left off. The remnants of the Republic destroyed, the last of the resistance must flee from the First Order as their rebel base has been discovered. With the enemy hot on their tail, picking off ship after ship, General Leia Organa has everything to lose if Supreme Leader Snoke and his fleet cannot be evaded. Luke seems to be the only hope of the resistance, yet his past failings have left him dejected and nobody can reach him.
But Rey must prevail.
Rian Johnson has worked overtime on the screenplay, adding necessary depth and nuance across the board to the pre-existing characters. Two of the best character developments have to be those of Luke and Kylo. Both identities have been deeply affected by their history together as master and student. Their conflicting accounts of who betrayed who is Rashomon-esque in its delivery, and leaves the audience with a moral ambiguity far more interesting than any concrete judgement. Kylo Ren really graduates from the impotent, short-tempered villain of TFA into a complex and tortured soul with whom we can empathise. Where there is room for improvement, however, is in the handling of the characters new to The Last Jedi. Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran, and Benicio del Toro all give respectable performances, but their roles still seem somewhat disposable – the kind of presence that, in years to come, will have viewers scratching their heads and saying ‘They were in that movie??’.
One of the problems with The Last Jedi is that of pacing. Part of the issue is how many subplots there are, each vying for screen time. Rey, Fin and Poe are all off doing their own thing, and to constantly cross-cut between the action does slow down and muddle the flow. I went to see The Force Awakens twice in the cinema, and I have seen it twice again since. Not once have I noticed the 2hr 20 runtime – it is a very taut and fast-paced film. In contrast, The Last Jedi suffers from a bloated middle act and a runtime that could lose at least 15 minutes. Shouldn't the second part of a trilogy should be the easiest to pace, considering you have no obligation to start or end the story?
As director of Brick (2006) and Looper (2012), Rian Johnson is evidently a filmmaker who understands genre. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016), which was widely considered to be a ‘war film’ within a science fiction universe, showed us that Lucasfilm and Disney are interested in pushing Star Wars beyond it’s traditional sci-fi fantasy environment. Personally, I would love to see Johnson at the helm of one of the many Star Wars side-stories, with the narrative and creative freedom to explore his own direction. I’ll admit, halfway through The Last Jedi I thought it was about to become a heist movie. Wouldn’t that have been an interesting development!
On the whole, Rian Johnson and Disney have done a respectable job of continuing the Skywalker saga. The Last Jedi ticks many boxes: beautiful cinematography and effects, exceptional performances from both the charismatic new generation and the resolute older generation, rousing musical accompaniment, and intelligent, witty screenwriting. We are still learning new things about the 'rules' of this universe. The world feels fresh and mysterious even after eight previous feature films. As a viewer, you can’t second-guess the direction, but it is still satisfying; it has the best kind of twists – those which seem to come out of nowhere, but make perfect sense in retrospect. That’s great writing.
I would recommend The Last Jedi to anyone who loves Star Wars, and everyone who enjoys compelling cinema.
Verdict: 3.6/5 vats of blue milk