NB: The following assumes you’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
One of the refrains in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, writer-director Rian Johnson’s sequel to 2015’s The Force Awakens, is that we have to let go of the past in order to move forward. Kylo Ren, still licking his wounds from the last movie, says as much at least once. So too does Luke Skywalker, disillusioned and curmudgeonly on the planet Ahch-To, and fixed on placing his Jedi past behind him. But it’s also a sentiment that extends to the movie itself – Johnson’s Star Wars sequel feels like a sustained effort to break with at least some of the 40 year-old saga’s traditions. Fan reactions will, we suspect, be more than a little divided.
Picking up where The Force Awakens left off, The Last Jedi sees the Resistance on the run from the First Order, led by the villainous, unholy trinity of a sneering General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), the perpetually angry Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the scheming enigma, Supreme Leader Snoke (a performance-captured Andy Serkis). The bad guys were delivered a stinging blow in The Force Awakens, but with their seemingly endless resources remaining largely unbowed. Without spoiling things, the plot involves the disparate members of the Resistance – among them Leia, Rey, Poe Dameron and Finn – trying to figure out a way of fending off the First Order’s counterattack.
After JJ Abrams’ affectionate homage to Star Wars movies past, The Last Jedi feels like a bold departure. Johnson seems to enjoy contrasting the bright and the stark: vivid reds and doomy grey. Comic book pursuit scenes with Finn (John Boyega) and his new sidekick, a Resistance blue-collar worker named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) give way to quieter exchanges between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The landscapes are exotic, but Johnson – and cinematographer Steve Yedlin – also deals extensively in Sergio Leone-like close-ups.
Neither is Johnson afraid to dive deep into the more outlandish corners of the Star Wars universe: his is a galaxy of avaricious space leprechauns, pig-like caretakers in white hats, wide-eyed puffins (or porgs) and colossal beasts with bulging udders. One trippy scene even appears to pay homage to John Boorman’s loveably odd sci-fi epic, Zardoz.
The Last Jedi’s take on the Star Wars universe feels confident, broad and decadent, both in the expanse and restlessness of its ideas, and its duration – at 152 minutes, it’s the longest film in the franchise to date. In its best moments, this big, brash sequel acts like a tidal wave, carrying the audience along on the back of its explosive action and curiously insistent jabs of slapstick comedy. Elsewhere, its humour can feel over-worked, even goofy; there are sight gags and one-liners, pratfalls and assorted bouts of clumsiness. Some of the jokes work; others are borderline baffling.
Your mileage may vary with the humour, then, and with that huge run-time, The Last Jedi also feels somewhat flabby around the middle. There’s at least one action scene that feels like it could’ve been excised, and a couple of sub-plots that don’t really go anywhere – at times, it feels as though Johnson’s straining to find stuff for his huge cast to do. Cut to John Williams’ evergreen score, the battles and chases look and feel exciting, but beneath it all, the characters are spinning their wheels: the plot gives the likes of Rey, Kylo Ren and Finn plenty to do, but fails to do much to advance their characters. Luke Skywalker’s one of the few who gets a discernible arc.
Fortunately, the performances are roundly great – particularly Adam Driver, whose glowering and embittered Kylo Ren is as magnetic as ever.
One of the criticisms often levelled at The Force Awakens was that it was content to play with existing Star Wars iconography without adding much else to the mix. The Last Jedi quite rightly attempts to make a break with the past, emphasising new characters over old and distancing itself – at least to a degree – from the military hardware and other devices that are now so familiar. In all its iconoclasm and irreverence, however, it’s hard to say whether The Last Jedi has left the Star Wars saga in a greater position of strength – whether its brave effort to forge a new direction will see the franchise go on to greater heights, or whether the response from die-hard fans and general audiences will leave Lucasfilm wondering how to back away from it all.
Then again, there’s a brief, almost incidental scene in The Last Jedi where a group of kids – no more than six or seven years old – are shown gathered round, playing with makeshift Star Wars toys. There they sit, recreating good-versus-evil battles with their little homemade action figures. It’s a charming scene, and a reminder of who this Star Wars is really for. Despite all its flaws and curious story decisions, which will likely be debated for years to come, The Last Jedi retains the saga’s childlike sense of adventure and romance.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is out in UK cinemas on the 14th December.