“I can’t wait until I can actually talk to you about this movie,” The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson told the audience at the top of a preview screening of his seismic entry into the Star Wars canon, a feeling I share embarking on a review of a movie so highly anticipated that to even disclose what a Rebel Alliance lieutenant eats for breakfast in the canteen would be to stray into spoiler territory.
Plot dissection will have to be saved for another day (and boy is there a ton of it to be done in this densely-packed film), but I can reassure you this: The Last Jedi makes up for The Force Awakens‘ shortcomings.
Landing the middle film in a Star Wars trilogy is a directorial dream, really. Unburdened with establishing core characters and goals nor pulling together plot strands and paying them all off, the director can take the narrative for a walk, meandering into new realms and trying out more risky stuff. This is exactly what Johnson does, in a 152-minute film that in a lot of ways throws out the one that came before it (quite literally at one point, in a visual metaphor early on that gets a big laugh from the audience).
The Force Awakens was loved for the most part, and it was hard not to. JJ Abrams’s saga revival had heart and a palpable affection for the story it was reigniting after so many years. But it was perhaps too nostalgic, trading on your love for old Star Wars characters, vehicles, music and tropes, like a child holding up its toys to show you. It needed a follow-up that pushed not only the saga’s narrative forward but its universe, showing the kind of creativity and pop surrealism that made George Lucas’s original trilogy so captivating to begin with.
Johnson jumped at this opportunity. In fact, he force-blasted the opportunity to the other side of the film stage. There is a pleasing feeling of “where to begin?” coming out of the cinema for one of those dazed, so-what-did-you think discussions. There are new aliens and areas aplenty, and the movie zings with fresh ideas. There is one new city in particular – wisely withheld from the trailers as a surprise – that is just bonkers, functioning like if the infamous cantina scene from the A New Hope was afforded the opulence of a second-act Bond location. The reasons for main characters to be in this place is incredibly shaky, feeling almost like an optional side-quest in a video game, and you can tell Johnson (who also wrote the script) was determined to find a narrative excuse for them to be there, but you won’t care – it’s just a fun place to be as a viewer.
That’s probably a good frame of mind to go into this movie in, actually, as one of the criticisms will be that many of the plot devices feel clunky – just excuses for cool scenes. Hardcore fans will spend the two years leading up to the next saga instalment picking apart plot holes, scrutinising chronology and assessing whether such-and-such strategy was really a smart move for the Rebels or First Order. You, dear reader and potential ticket buyer, are more than welcome to be That Guy too, but I would take this fast-paced, dizzying feast of a movie over a bunch of Rebel commanders authentically holding week-long talks and ultimately deciding that no action is the best course of action any day.
The Last Jedi is also very funny – the funniest Star Wars film to date for sure – showing a self-aware, even self-deprecating humour for the first time in saga history, which is necessary when it’s trying to do things like make you believe the First Order would ever work as a legitimate enterprise. Crucially, it doesn’t come across as forced, a trap so many comic books adaptations have fallen into recently after seeing that “hey, humour worked for that one other film so let’s try and shoehorn it in”.
This is not to say that it’s a light-hearted film, though. The joke count may have increased but so has the amount of time characters spend staring down the barrel of their own mortality, and there’s a brutal quality to the way the fight scenes are shot that reminds you this film was made by a guy who directed a few (action-heavy) episodes of Breaking Bad. The visuals are stunning and so is the fight-scene choreography – whether it’s lightsaber-to-lightsaber combat or a hive of X-Wings taking on a Dreadnought cruiser – which is inventive and often breathtaking.
The cast all handle themselves as consummately as you’d expect given the eye-watering check they’re no doubt collecting, with Adam Driver throwing everything he has at the role – the man just soaked in rage and conflict-derived sweat the entire movie – and Mark Hamill providing, perhaps unexpectedly, its heart and soul. Supreme Leader Snoke, one of my least favourite The Force Awakens additions, is less frustratingly nebulous this time around, feeling more like a proper Star Wars villain, and General Leia has a couple of scenes that are quite moving in light of Carrie Fisher’s death.
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The newcomers, however, feel somewhat surplus, in particular Benicio Del Toro, whose character, with so much already going on the film, it might have been wiser to have just left out. Jettisoned in for about 20 minutes, he doesn’t make a lot of sense in a way that surpasses even my high tolerance for nonsense-making in these kinds of movies.
If The Force Awakens was an homage and Rogue One (a complete waste of time, in my opinion) was a bonus chapter, The Last Jedi is definitely a new proposition. Between getting about as philosophical as its possible to in a kids film about the nature of the Force and examining the notion of the hero and the crises of masculinity tied in to this, it wants to break the idea of Star Wars apart, inspect it and then put it back together in a different and more nuanced way. In this sense, it’s easy to see why Disney has entrusted Johnson with developing an entire new trilogy.
Sure, The Last Jedi can occasionally be too goofy or free-roaming for its own good, but it’s an impossible film to sit in front of and not have a good time.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in cinemas 14 December
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