Is the idea the balance the burden humanity must bear? At its philosophical best, this is one of the questions ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ poses, venturing into territory the canon has explored. This is one of the beats that makes the central conflict of the Star Wars universe an infinitely compelling experience and provided a certain underpinning that assured me I was immersing myself in something truly confident, thoughtful and enriching. All credit goes to writer/director Rian Johnson, who delivers a masterclass in blockbuster filmmaking.
Just for the record, ‘The Last Jedi’ is a 150-minute jam-packed adventure romp with incredible action, fun, effortless laughs and so much heart – the stuff I imagine Star Wars fans expect as Rian Johnson manages to organically expand this gem of cinema. George Lucas, the Star Wars patriarch, has spoken of how the films in this series are a sort of poem providing a certain iambic sentimentality. This is true of the ‘The Last Jedi’ in certain regards. But its story is ultimately that poem we think we know but not really. There are certain tweaks that keep the viewing experience honest and strive for some original resonance.
The film opens on the remnants of the rebellion, led by Princess Leia, attempting to evacuate a base and avoid extinction as The First Order, aka Empire 2.0, bears in on them. This culminates in an overwhelmingly magnificent space battle and bombing run evoking some recounts of the brutal air warfare during World War II to harrowing effect. Moments like this align ‘The Last Jedi’ more with ‘Rogue One’ than ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and remind you of the stakes in this rebellion. It is war. Rian Johnson does not want as to forget this and he sprinkles in some poignant iconography to that effect.
We get a little more intimate The New Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his strikingly crimson lair, with his all-red elite guard. Of more interest to us within the First Order’s ranks is (the seemingly always sweaty and still tortured) Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his identity crisis. Rian Johnson does some fun meta stuff with the Darth Vader links early on that tie in with one of the key themes of the film, but more layers await us as the story unfolds. His destiny seems to be interwoven with that of Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) who is in search for answers of her own. We meet Rey literally where we left her in ‘Force Awakens’, on the remote planet Ahch-To, lightsaber in hand, stretched out to the weary, grief-stricken, self-exiled Jedi master, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Like the finest character dramas, the film will ride on the choices of these characters, who prove to be impressively complex.
The well-paced character psychoanalysis we will sit through is wrapped around a very simple plot. The opening evacuation is actually stretched out in this ‘Speed’-like manner, with a few variables spiced in in the name of stakes and, to be honest, partial filler. The likes of Poe Cameron (Oscar Isaacs) and Finn (John Boyega) feature heavily in this regard, alongside one of the standouts and surprises of the film, Kelly Marie Tran playing Rose Tico, who excites and delights in equal measure bringing so much goodness to this film. She is basically what Finn was to ‘The Force Awakens’ only without the extensive marketing. Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro also show up in small but critical roles that I’ll leave you to discover.
To go back to something I may have touched on, Rian Johnson is operating like a man who knows he will be making a new trilogy of Star Wars films. The first six Star Wars films were properly acknowledged in ‘The Force Awakens’. Now it’s about re-aligning the mythology, seemingly making nonsense of legacy, undoing some flaws and leaving a sense of the unknown I doubt Star Wars fans have experienced for decades.
The script spends a lot of time on the basics of the central conflict of the Star Wars universe – the dynamic of the light and dark side viewed through the lens of some meditation and debate on the spiritual significance of the Yin Yang-type ethos. It gets very dark at times and embraces the fact that even the favoured and most hallowed characters in this franchise are very flawed and broken. But it’s all fine, Rian Johnson seems to say, and I loved it. The study of Rey and Kylo Ren rams this home the most, as the script cuts to their cores in the most unexpected, but incredibly fun and poignant manner. They are mirror images of each other whilst also being projections of their best and worst selves, soaked simultaneously in hope and angst.
No one talks about this a tonne, but approaching Star Wars films with a degree cine-literacy makes the homages and pastiche elements a gleeful bonus. The time we spend with Rey and Luke on the island is straight out of classic Wuxia flicks complete with the obligatory master student duel and the wide shot of the apprentice showcasing unlimited potential as the master watches on. It’s great – made me want to get into Chinese films all over again. The expected, but still enticing samurai and western sensibilities feature when the ink on these characters’ destinies is dry and the black and white hats have been clearly defined.
Then there’s the lightsaber melee action, more intense and visceral than we have ever seen. For the first time, in “Force Awakens” I felt like Jedi and their lightsabers felt like instruments of death, putting the ‘Knight’ in Jedi Knight. Rian Johnson takes it up a notch and shoots one of the more intense and stylish action sequences of the year – and certainly in the Star Wars franchise. This sequence is doused in a crimson hue and composed of a lot of medium shots with superb pacing and must be seen on the biggest screen possible for full effect. All that was missing was the blood splatter.
Johnson seems to have a thing for red, as the colour again features prominently in the final battle of ‘The Last Jedi’ on this salted planet which births clouds and slices of crimson when the ground is disturbed making for some alluring colour composition. Funny enough, and quite typical of this film, the visual that left my jaw on the floor was essentially monochromatic and basically a sequence of stills. You’ll know it when you see it. It’s a moment laden with heroism and tragedy and you will want it to go on forever. It made me want to sell my limbs for the storyboards of this film. The audience I saw this with was dumbfounded by awe. Again I say; see this on the big screen if you can.
For all the praise ‘The Last Jedi’ will get, it is by no means perfect. The script accomplishes the quite difficult task of hinging a lot of stakes on the flawed moments, or at least etching in an important message that we can’t help but warm to. There are these Game of Thrones style time jumps that are questionable at best whilst there seems to be a lot of plot and world-building rammed into a small section of the film (along with that weird James Bond nod). Less is always more, and the attempts at more are quite tedious here.
These notwithstanding, a certain earnestness remains at the core of ‘The Last Jedi’ and Adam Driver’s performance seems critical to this. It’s such a joy to have such a character exist in a blockbuster film and I sometimes fear the spectacle demanded of this franchise will eventually suffocate the impressive feat of character depth thus far. We want redemption for Kylo Ren so bad. Our director feels the same sympathy and there seems to be a denial (and lack of consequences?) following his massive heel turn in ‘The Force Awakens’.
‘The Last Jedi’ is satisfying on so many levels; the laughs are aplenty, the visual nuts get their due, the pastiche junkies like me get their fix, the action is a glorious ballet and hell, if exposition is your thing, there is even a fair bit in here. But its most impressive feat remains the narrative anchored firmly in character development, raising the bar for mega-budget blockbusters that will follow it.