The Last Jedi (2017) Dir. Rian Johnson
WARNING: Contains spoilers
After the soft-reboot that was The Force Awakens and the misstep, for me, of the dull prequel Rogue One, with The Last Jedi comes Disney’s third foray into the galaxy far, far away with director Rian Johnson (Looper) stepping into the director’s chair.
We pick up where Force Awakens left us. Luke has banished himself on an island after failing to train Ben Solo, now Kylo Ren who is again played with evil ‘emo’ glee by Adam Driver. A courageous Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on a mission from the Resistance being tasked with coaxing the powerful Jedi back into action against the dastardly First Order. The internet was buzzing over what his (or her) first words would be. Two years in the making and every possible theory pored over and Johnson builds up tension with lingering shots on the two protagonists. And what are they? Well, essentially none. Cool-hand Luke slowly accepts his lightsaber in his robotic palm and then...simply chucks it over his shoulder and walks away.
And this favouring of the unexpected over the predictable is its winning formula and a metaphor for Johnson’s whole film. The moments an audience give assumed importance to are given little significance whilst the smaller details are given prominence throughout. Heck, Johnson provides an entire 10 minute battle sequence even before we return to the island and pick up the story JJ Abrams left us with.
Narrative wise, the film sticks to a basic plot where the resistance have been decimated to a few ships then go on the run tracked by huge star destroyers (now with a super-sized dreadnaught class version). Supreme Leader Snoke, another amazing Andy Serkis creation with pitch-perfect CGI, tasks Domnhall Gleeson’s pantomime Hux and Kylo Ren to continue their search for Rey in a bid to get her to turn to the dark side. The light-hearted family feel is there from the opening, the loveable rogue Poe Dameron, filling Harrison Ford’s shoes (AND clothes at times) delivers an overtly comedic exchange over a radio – again echoing Han in A New Hope. Despite its slightly awkward tone which made me fear “I have a bad feeling about this" it luckily settled down and Johnson balanced the light and dark with vigour.
As the resistance plans to infiltrate the First Order to stop their tracking device, John Boyega’s fantastic Finn gets a chance to shine as he joins feisty newcomer Kelly Marie Tran as Rose on a trip to Canto Bight and its wealthy casino patrons. Gambling on alien-horse races sees Johnson add a throwaway but thrilling CGI chase sequence which along with the city’s building design had the worrying look of the much maligned prequel trilogy. However, for me it felt as though it brought back the links between all trilogies which Johnson had fun in delivering. There’s also seeds sown of a wider universe with farm orphan slaves (“it’s like poetry, it rhymes”) being drawn into the events, perhaps helping to establish Johnson’s recently announced stand-alone trilogy. We’ll have to wait and see.
Rogue One’s fan-service appeared tokenistic but R2-D2’s playback of Star Wars’ original “you’re our only hope” message and a hugely surprising cameo from Yoda as a Force ghost were more than welcome. Context is everything and both served the story and I loved the fact the ghosts had returned for the first time since 1983’s Return of the Jedi.
However, at every turn the film swept me off my feet and pulled out something unexpected in each new scene. Expanding the myths of the force we see new powers including a resurrection and transcendence. Mark Hamill as Luke and the late Carrie Fisher as his sister Leia are both mesmerising in career defining performances and their coming together showed that amongst the battles, fights and comedy, the film’s tender emotional beats are what really draw you in.
Away from the nods, we get new creatures – the loveable puffin-like Porgs avoiding Jar Jar Binks levels of annoyance in the main – as well as new characters. Benicio Del Toro’s stuttering code-breaker and Laura Dern’s focused Vice Admiral are welcome additions with the latter’s sacrifice by flying a ship at lightspeed into another craft is one of the film’s visual highlights. With bombastic sounds being replaced with an eerie silence, the image is lingering and powerful. Alongside that, Snoke’s blood red throne room and a Kylo-Luke showdown showed the film’s cinematic ambitions were far more than space banter and franchise references.
In the end, this is epic blockbuster cinema at its very best. It would have been easy to follow the established pattern but the film sets up a precedent that anyone could be expendable which kept tension high. It also highlights how The Force Awakens, a film I hugely enjoyed, really didn’t tackle many new things yet this one twisted my expectations from the start.
With an expansion of its themes and both the classic and new characters finding their place The Last Jedi will hopefully satisfy super Star Wars nerds and general film audiences too. With such great filmmaking from Johnson, it’s a huge task to tackle the lore and the fan expectations of the infamous space opera, but the director more than comes through. Yet the main thing is the film is a lot of fun. Lots of unadulterated fun. And like the best cinema has to offer The Last Jedi leaves you both with a smile on your face and a lump in your throat.
Midlands Movies Mike