After two years wait we return to our favourite galaxy far, far away with Rian Johnson’s The Film Formerly Known As Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. It marks the return of Luke Skywalker to the saga, and promises to propel the series far beyond J. J. Abrams’ nostalgic 2015 film The Force Awakens. It is a bold and brilliant film which will delight and divide the fans in equal measure.
This will be a non-spoiler review, excepting one well-marked paragraph towards the end. As always if you can go in without knowing anything – do so.
As it turns out, one of the main forces working against the film is the huge weight of expectation from the rabid fanbase. For two years the internet has been rife with speculation and supposed leaks concerning Rey’s parentage, the origins (or true nature) of who or what Snoke is, the unlimited power of Luke Skywalker, and so much more. Many will be disappointed in the direction Rian Johnson has taken, and much will be written about whether this is a good thing or not. One thing is clear: The Last Jedi is a clear break from the past, and a necessary one. It is an uneven, emotionally driven, beautifully constructed and powerfully focused exploration of the uneasy calm after the storm. It takes the series in unexpected directions, and opens up the world in unfamiliar ways. There is loss, there is death, but there is rebirth. At the end of the film we are in a very different galaxy far, far away.
More than The Force Awakens we are breaking away from the past. Though each character has a satisfying arc, excepting one character new to the franchise, this is now firmly the story of Kylo Ren and Rey. The mystery of their connection, and how they each respond, is one of the main thrusts of the story. Their relationship is built quietly, yet explored with an openness that emboldens the film’s themes. Less energy is spent on saga-altering revelations or fourth wall-wobbling cameos; everything is put into moving forward. If there is an emerging theme in this new trilogy it is what we do now that is important, rather than where we came from. Given the nostalgia with which this series is bejewled this is a bold statement of intent.
On the run from the First Order for most of the film, the battered and bruised resistance claw their way across the galaxy, pursued by an ancient evil growing stronger by the second. Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo is an enigmatic new leader who faces down Oscar Isaac’s overzealous squadron leader, while the gold-cloaked Supreme Leader Snoke brutally chides Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren for his previous failures. Rey attempts to convince a grizzly ex-Jedi Master to train her while trying to glean the truth of Luke’s relationship with Ben Solo. It is to Johnson’s credit that we find ourselves unable to take sides in their squabbles, be it to secure the safety of the rebels, or to have Rey save the Jedi from extinction. As with the growing darkness in Kylo Ren and the fledgling trust in Luke Skywalker experienced by Rey there are very few absolutes here.
This film is all about the characters, and here Rian Johnson puts them (and us) through the mill. It may enrage some fans that little myth or world-building is done, but when it is done it is with purpose and great emotional satisfaction. Some of the deaths appear to come out of nowhere, but as The Emperor once said, “Only at the end do you understand.” The stakes are raised early and the tension propels us into the new unknown. Each of the big moments has resonance elsewhere, and these are clear signposts of the direction LucasFilm and Johnson will be taking the franchise.
If The Force Awakens was Han Solo’s Film, this is Luke Skywalker’s. It is a huge shame that we won’t get more Carrie Fisher on screen, as Leia is a fearsome presence here (the film carries with it an emotional dedication). Luke is an enduring cinematic hero and this film, named after him let’s not forget, is as much about his journey as his young student. The road is hard to walk sometimes, and yet Mark Hamill throws everything at this chance to reestablish this iconic character. He is able to leap from the grouchy, broken hermit to wide-eyed farmboy yearning to save the galaxy in an instant. This duality serves to mirror the hesitancy and uncomfortable nature of some of the relationships and events which occur. It takes an assured hand to steer a ship as large as Star Wars in a new direction but if this is to be the first step into a larger world then we are in for a treat.
The goofy humour is redoubled (with one visual gag that is utter genius/madness) but there is far less slapstick. There is a broadening of the cinematic language, such as flashbacks, added to the Star Wars lexicon, but each new step serves its purpose. The lines between the old and the new, the overtly good and the absolute evil, are blurred. We may not have a grey Jedi but there is immense richness in the moral shades that are explored here.
Visually the film gives us a new vision of the galaxy. We are up close, and drawn into the thick of it countless times. There is a curious mix of Prequel and Original trilogies present in the design. However, where the film impresses the most is in what it brings to the table, rather than what it uses. Likewise John Williams’ themes for the new locations galaxy soar above the altered sounds of a familiar galaxy.
It is also the first Star Wars film to end with a coda, distinct and separate from the previous scene. It’s an unexpected moment, but it is a flourish of emotional underlining and gives all that went before even greater weight.
In its intent to break new ground there are a few stumbles on the way. Several characters remain underdeveloped, and appear as well dressed plot devices which contribute to an unevenness hard to justify in the 151 minutes running time. And then there’s… well. Let’s get to it.
Spoilerish warning – it’s impossible to talk about the film without hinting at something which happens towards the end. If you’re the inquisitive type, adept at reading between the lines, I beg you stop now and preserve yourself. I won’t spoil it by naming it, however the warning is here.
And then there’s the ending, which as I’ve said I won’t spoil here but imagine a near future when thousands of words are expended defending or decrying a particular event, imagine much gnashing of keyboards and wailing into the fanboy abyss and you’ve got a glimpse of the next few months. For my part It left me deeply uneasy, not least because it felt as if the rug I didn’t know I was standing on was pulled from under me. Then, only after a day or so of sorting my feelings did I realise that the film was always leading up to it. It was an inevitability given the overall themes of the film. It will leave a scar too deep to heal for some. For me it was as brave a move as any I’ve seen this year and because of the trust Rian Johnson has earned in me I’m on board.
Spoilery things over.
The Last Jedi is a bold step for the series. It will prove to be divisive and some die hard fans will undoubtedly vow never to watch the film again. For the rest of us we can be assured that a complex and nuanced new direction is out there waiting for us. Star Wars is changing, and it’s going to be a very interesting ride.