Three films in and nostalgia just won’t cut it anymore for third wave StarWars. If The Force Awakens marked a celebration of the past, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi harks a new era of unpredictability and exploration in a galaxy far far away. Not all is successful here but for the most part the film is one of derring do and increasingly spectacular set pieces.
From its very first breath, The Last Jedi launches into action, with the decimating attack of the resistance base, under General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher – indomitable and much missed), by Kylo Ren (Adam Diver) and the First Order. Acting for all the worlds as though this were the film’s climax, out springs action-man-commander Po Dameron (Oscar Isaac) ready to singlehandedly take out the oncoming destroyer. John Williams is so often – rightly – lavished with praise for his iconic scoring of the Star Wars canon that it is easy to forget that his instrumentals are just one part of the franchise’s mighty orchestra. As openings go, this one dazzles; an effects masterclass and powerhouse in thrill rides. It’s also comfortable territory for Star Wars, bringing instantly both that sense of familiarity and striking individuality: no other film bears anything like this vision. Yet, new Star Wars is set not on resting upon such laurels. Indeed, under Johnson’s guidance, The Last Jedi follows not the precedent of The Force Awakens but the momentous trajectory of Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One. Even in this showcase opening, Johnson unsettles the balance of good vs evil, light against dark – blue lightsaber on red – that has driven the space opera for the past four decades. Heroism is not noble, in this context, but tactless and consequential.
Counterpart to the story of the crumbling resistance is the conclusion to last time’s cliffhanger, with the meeting of Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill – speaking now), still the last hope. Trailers may bear the banner ‘this is not going to end the way you think’ but be warned that it might not start the way fans expect either, with Hamill finding success in the delivery of an embittered performance. It is a plot and ark which certainly channels 1980’s sophomore Empire Strikes Back, in the same overlapping of Episodes IV and VII, retreading themes, images and weary sentiments. Ridley too is terrific, capitalising on her character’s journey to allow genuine investment for audiences into the tumults of angst, confusion and burden, emotions shared with Driver’s Kylo Ren. The paralleling of the two is the film’s strongest asset and just one daring challenge to the Star Wars formula. When the pair are faced with Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke – far more effective in the flesh – the dynamics are electric.
As might be expected with such experimentation, the result is something of a hit and miss affair, albeit one with a thankful imbalance to the former. Many of the problems here inhabit such a fine line between triumph and disappointment that one’s perception of which side the risk has landed on is likely to be deeply personal. For instance, a pervading feeling that The Last Jedi has been set no pre-established endpoint grants a raw tension and exciting unpredictability to the same end that it leaves certain characters and story lines somewhat marooned in sequential plotting for the sake of plotting.
Likewise, there’s an unfortunate lack of conviction in threats. At no point is the film prepared to harm its main players. In immortalising it’s heroes, unlike The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi falls victim to a state of implausibility – in its own context – that has no jeopardy. Needless to say, this wouldn’t have been an issue were it not for the mass of life threatening climaxes that each character is faced with. Furthermore, Johnson’s eye for galaxy building is enticing in its promise for the future, and the Star Wars trilogy that he is personally to helm, but lacks restraint. There are so many new aliens and creatures that too few seem to be fleshed out in a way that resonates. Whilst the Porgs are delightful, Ahch-To’s native ‘caretaker’ species are ill conceived punch lines.
Which brings forward the matter of comedy in the film. Star Wars has always found a home for humour in its heart but, if The Force Awakens was funny, The Last Jedi is often hilarious, perhaps owing a debt to the recent flippancy of the Marvel intergalactic offerings. Slapstick comes from the consistently adorable BB-8 and black comedy at the expense of the Porgs, whilst there’s dry wit from Hamill enough to reap out-loud laughter on an impressive number of occasions. Lightening a dark story, in which good people can do bad things, the humour helps naturalise the world and relieve characters from the weight of occasionally awkward, heavy, and franchisable dialogue. Among the strengths of the film is its ability, for the most part, to ground characters, holding true to their nature and humanity.
As chapter nine in the saga – and film ten – The Last Jedi is every bit the exciting thrill ride it should be. Stunning visuals and excellent performance would be enough to enthral so it is pleasing to find risks being taken and challenges broached. Character comes first, which is absolutely the way it should be.