In my review of the Blu-ray release of ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ back in 2016, I wrote that “J.J. Abrams may have stuck to the familiar with Episode VII, but you can bet writer-director Rian Johnson will do no such thing. When Episode VIII picks up where VII left off, I suspect we’ll have no idea what’s coming for us in that ever-growing galaxy far, far away.” When Johnson’s instalment ‘The Last Jedi’ erupted onto screens late last year, that prediction was proved right. Much to the amazement of some and the horror of others, he had rewritten the rules of what a Star Wars film could be, taken the familiar tropes, ideas and expectations and turned them totally on their head.
George Lucas often spoke about each episode of Star Wars as being a continuing variation on a theme, repeating motifs altered each time to make them both fresh and familiar. Of the eight movements we have so far, Johnson’s is the most radical with its variation but perhaps the richest, taking notice of parts of Lucas’ motif we often take for granted and pulling them apart. What exactly is the function of the Force? Or the Jedi? What can possibly be the endpoint for this never-ending war between the light and the dark, and have the old ways of fighting been exhausted? The ghost of legacy hangs heavy over the film and its characters, whether looking back or looking forward is the answer. Rey (Daisy Ridley, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’) looks to the past, to her unclear parentage or to the legends of the Jedi for answers to who she is and where her destiny lies. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, ‘Paterson’, ‘Inside Llewyn Davies’) is haunted by father figures he deems inadequate, so he aims to kill the past, carve out his own future seperate from them. In the middle of this is the returned but weary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, 'Brigsby Bear'), punishing himself for his past, believing in its death but unwilling to push for something new. And for the Rebellion, their future hangs entirely in the balance, the First Order bringing them closer to oblivion than ever before.
Much of this makes ‘The Last Jedi’ the most thematically interesting Star Wars film since ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ (1980), which similarly explored the complexity of embracing or rejecting a legacy placed in front of you. What Johnson explores with the film and within the characters isn’t out of step with what we know about Star Wars; it shows a deeper understanding of the themes and ideas that make the mechanisms of the series work. And it’s this that allows him to shoot off into new directions where he does, offering a Star Wars film that looks, feels and sounds unlike any other.
Revisting the film for this Blu-ray review, I was struck by just what a visual feast it is, and how endlessly inventive. Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin find a visual language for the film entirely its own, and many of the set pieces rank among the finest in the saga. The fight in Snoke’s chamber, the destruction of the First Order fleet and the Battle of Crait burst with bold colours and sweeping, almost operatic movement, elevating the grandeur of the saga and bringing a new level of cinematic language to it that only a filmmaker as assured and idiosyncratic as Johnson could. And most important of all, it’s one hell of a ride - a rollicking, often insane film that throws you between its many plot lines with unbound energy, bolstered by an unexpectedly wicked sense of humour and a refusal to play by the rules. New worlds and characters feel totally at home (even the Porgs and especially the fish-nun Caretakers), and even the radical reinterpretations of familiar characters, while surprising, feel entirely earned and logical.
Rian Johnson threw down the gauntlet with ‘The Last Jedi’. His love for the saga is in every frame of the film, and in every turn towards the unexpected. In many ways, the same questions of legacy proposed to the characters are proposed to us - do we want to hold on to what this saga used to be, the familiar and comfortable and safe variations, or do we find out what else it can be, how far the motif can be pushed, find out just how big that galaxy far, far away actually is? Clinging to the former gives us a mess like ‘Rogue One’, and as a devoted fan of this series, that wasn’t the future I want for it. ‘The Last Jedi’ is what I want, an evolution in form and storytelling that reminds you why you fell in love with this saga in the first place.
What Johnson explores with the film and within the characters isn’t out of step with what we know about Star Wars; it shows a deeper understanding of the themes and ideas that make the mechanisms of the series work.
So now, J.J. Abrams will bring everything to a close with Episode IX. One more John Williams score, one last chapter in the Skywalker saga. Rian Johnson has redefined what a Star Wars film can be. Let’s hope Abrams picks up the gauntlet and brings it all to a thunderous, thrilling end.
PICTURE & SOUND
Once again, Disney have pulled out all the stops to give ‘The Last Jedi’ a flawless presentation on Blu-ray. The 1080p 2.39:1 transfer is absolutely stunning, bursting with colour and crystal clear, while maintaining the natural textures of the 35mm film stock on which it was shot. Equally impressive is the DTS-HD MA 7.1 track, a reference-quality audio experience that has both the richness of sound and the aural balance to replicate the cinema experience. After being let down by unsatisfactory presentations of other great films like ‘Blade Runner 2049’ and ‘Baby Driver’ in their recent Blu-ray releases, this is a home entertainment gift indeed.
The film is also available on 3D Blu-ray and 4K Blu-ray.
At first, this seems like a much slimmer collection of extras than those offered with ‘The Force Awakens’, but one of the special features in particular included on the second disc of this set is almost as vital as the film itself. ‘The Director and the Jedi’ (1:35:23) offers an intimate and honest portrait of Johnson’s experience making the film, from its early development right through to the end of shooting. Featuring extraordinary behind-the-scenes footage and extensive interviews with everyone involved, this is easily one of the best features included on a Blu-ray release in a long time, as detailed and fascinating as those Lucas created for the DVD releases of the prequels. It also demonstrates the faith everyone has in Johnson’s vision, even when, in the case of Mark Hamill, it takes them by surprise.
Johnson gets to expand on his vision with ‘Balance of the Force’ (10:17), where he discusses how and why he reinterpreted the Force for ‘The Last Jedi’, how that works in tandem with what we know from the original trilogy, and what it could mean for the future of the series. This, along with his excellent audio commentary on Disc One, help to contextualise his decisions and further establish where ‘The Last Jedi’ fits within the canon. There are also a series of scene breakdowns examining key sequences in the film in more detail - ‘Lighting the Spark: Creating the Space Battle’ (14:23), ‘Snoke and Mirrors’ (5:40), and ‘Showdown on Crait’ (12:56) - plus a look at raw motion capture footage of Andy Serkis’ performance as Snoke with ‘Andy Serkis Live! (One Night Only)’ (5:49). Last of all, there’s a healthy collection of deleted scenes (23:02) in various unfinished states, the highlight being more of the bizarre fish-nun Caretakers.