"Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That's the only way to become what you are meant to be."
When we last saw Rey (Daisy Ridley) in ‘The Force Awakens’, she stood with her arm outstretched, lightsaber in hand, towards the silent and weatherbeaten figure of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a look of hope and need in her eyes; a need for answers and a need for guidance. It’s been two years since we were left with this image, the new face of Star Wars reaching out towards the old, and now we see what becomes of that exchange. Once again, we’re taken to a galaxy far, far away, and with that triumphant trumpet fanfare, it begins:
THE LAST JEDI
As with my review of ‘The Force Awakens’, you won’t find plot details here for ‘The Last Jedi’. If there was ever a film to walk into cold, it would be this one, because what writer/director Rian Johnson (‘Brick’, ‘Looper’) offers is something genuinely new to the beloved franchise. If J.J. Abrams returned it to its roots, Johnson takes that newly set foundation and jettisons the series into bold and exciting territory.
As if a comment on its own predicament, ‘The Last Jedi’ continues to build on the themes of inheritance, destiny and the tension between past and future. While ‘The Force Awakens’ introduced and focused on Rey, Johnson builds stronger connections between characters, uniting them in shared concerns and trajectories. Luke’s presence in the film could have been the comfort of nostalgia like Han Solo’s had been, but instead it is used as provocation, the question of whether it is better to hold on to the safety of the past or whether to trust in the future, no matter how fraught it can be. The temptations of legacy still pull at our new characters, but while they celebrated that legacy in ‘The Force Awakens’, here they must tear themselves away from it in order to survive, learn from it or be swallowed by it. Faith is a key theme to ‘The Last Jedi’, but where lesser films would indulge in the sentimentality of it, Johnson digs further into what faith means, its complexities and inconsistencies. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) runs on reckless faith in his abilities, Rey holds on to her faith in the Jedi as a solution, General Leia (Carrie Fisher) puts her faith in logic and reason, and the even more tortured Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has his faith continuously ripped apart by the darkness and light of the Force. In ‘The Last Jedi’, faith offers hope but also antagonises hubris, and all this comes down to how Johnson describes and uses the Force, its balance and danger explained with beautiful simplicity without even a mention of midichlorians. Johnson’s screenplay - sharp, funny and heartfelt - revels in the opportunity to play with George Lucas’ mythology, but finds new and deeper ways to explore it.
Almost immediately, ‘The Last Jedi’ bursts into life at a breathless pace, moving between multiple narratives without ever breaking a sweat. This is the biggest canvas Johnson has played with, and arguably the biggest of any of these new Star Wars films, but not only does he handle everything with great skill and an assured hand, he somehow manages to craft something distinct and idiosyncratic. On the one hand, with its gorgeous in-camera effects and a keen understanding of the classic trilogy’s unique sense of humour, this is a Star Wars film through and through, but the immediacy of Steve Yedlin’s cinematography and Steve Ducsay’s editing make this unlike any Star Wars film we’ve seen yet. Most of the team behind the film are new to the Star Wars universe, bringing a new energy and approach to how the film looks and feels, and many being past collaborators with Johnson, completely in-step with the directorial intent.
For all its thematic intelligence, the film is a rip-roaring piece of entertainment, with extraordinary set pieces that manage to be both a wild ride and visually sumptuous at the same time, and it's pervaded by a wicked sense of humour that always lightens the mood at the right moment. Yedlin’s cinematography is really wonderful, and along with Rick Heinrichs’ production design, introduces new colours and textures to the series. Best of all is the clarity of Johnson’s vision, so much so that this is the first film in the series where I was aware of the filmmaker working behind the camera, in the best possible way. There are moments totally unique to this film, visual and aural beats that genuinely take you by surprise. Johnson understands all the rules that make these films work, and that just gives him further permission to push, bend and break them at all the right moments, held together by a furious and thrilling John Williams score that has the legendary composer racing to keep up with the new energy.
The temptations of legacy still pull at our new characters, but while they celebrated that legacy in ‘The Force Awakens’, here they must tear themselves away from it in order to survive, learn from it or be swallowed by it.
With all the technical and narrative merits though, the cast still make sure that story and character are in the forefront. The returning ‘Force Awakens’ cast are all excellent, especially Adam Driver, who continues to craft Kylo Ren into one of the series’ most fascinating characters. New additions Kelly Marie Tran and Laura Dern are an absolute delight, and while both take a moment to find their feet in the film, once they do they’re off and running. The heart of the film belongs to Hamill and Fisher though. Hamill relishes the opportunity to bring his and our understanding of Luke into a new chapter, and his performance keeps you guessing as to where the iconic character fits within all this. It’s hard to watch Fisher as Leia in the film knowing this is the last time we’ll ever see her, but while the film doesn’t indulge in the knowledge of this, it ends up being a fitting and moving chance for us to say goodbye, Fisher often delivering the most emotional moments in a film so very much in love and awe of her.
‘The Force Awakens’ brought a lost franchise back to its roots, and only because of this can ‘The Last Jedi’ finally shake off the shackles of the original series and become something of its own. This is the most singular and distinctive episode yet in the Star Wars Saga, an extraordinary achievement for Rian Johnson and for the franchise. This is what the turgid mess of ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ should have been - a chance to try something different, to add further and bolder variations to the symphony - and Johnson and his team relish the opportunity to push the boundaries of what Star Wars can be. Hopefully this will embolden J.J. Abrams when he returns for Episode IX to throw away the rules and bring this saga home with something as thunderous, thrilling and breathless as what Johnson has offered us. ‘The Last Jedi’ is an absolute blast, endlessly entertaining and genuinely surprising, and the finest Star Wars film in decades.