There’s a moment in Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi. A moment of galactic self-sacrifice so visually stunning and unprecedented that it might go down as one of the most jaw dropping moments in Star Wars. This moment is not only spectacular, its also an ironic metaphor for what Rian Johnson has done to Star Wars fandom: splitting it irreconcilably down the middle.
After JJ’s gentle remake of the original trilogy, his successor has was given a 'clean slate' mandate, and he's rolling the dice on some bolder and more controversial storytelling choices. The results are mixed, but while the backlash to force Awakens’ soft-reboot took a while to materialise, anger at Johnson’s Last Jedi direction was immediate and brutal, with its critics as bitterly disappointed and livid as its proponents were elated and thrilled.
Up front, I’ll state that I’m happily in the latter camp. While not without some significant problems including pacing issues, questionable logic, misplaced humour and redundant subplots; the Last Jedi is an exhilarating journey, increasing the stakes with Empire-level shocks and energetic twists, while also delivering stunning spectacle from energetic start to pummelling finish. While it’s arguably the most ‘different’ Star Wars film, it conversely feels the most 'Star Warsy' of any film since 1983.
Hitting the ground running with an immediate battle scene, the Resistance evacuate their stronghold as the first order fleet arrives in pursuit, resulting in a Battlestar Galactica style quest for sanctuary. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren struggles again with anger management while his light side counterpart Rey is on Ach-To with ageing Jedi master Luke Skywalker, whose years of solitude have made him a little eccentric… If that all sounds very ‘Empire’, it doesn’t play by those rules. Johnson’s plan is to constantly subvert expectations and play things out very differently to how one might expect. Introducing new force powers, vehicles and military manoeuvres, as well as unexpected character arcs. And the characters are portrayed once again with colourful energy by both the returning Force Awakens cast, and some striking newcomers. Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Domhall Gleeson and Andy Serkis (in a powerful and shocking role as mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke), and Laura Dern all make an impression, with Isaac’s Poe Dameron in particular enjoying a strong leadership-based character arc. Jon Boyega, Kelly Marie Tran, Benicio Del Toro and Gwendoline Christie fare less well in a jarring and shoehorned subplot that bloats an already prodigious running time and adds very little beyond prequel-inspired galaxy expansion.
And what of Luke Skywalker? It’s a surprising yet remarkable return for the character that blends his original trilogy personality with Yoda-style eccentricity and a dose of cynical curmudgeonliness that’s a lot different to Ben Kenobi’s grandfatherly mentorship. It’s a great return to acting form for Mark Hamill, and it comes with a delightful cameo as well as a barnstorming (and polarising) final scene.
However the film, and the trilogy, really belongs to two people: Adam Driver’s conflicted Dark-side acolyte and Daisy Ridley’s spirited force-wielder Rey. These two are not only some of the best main characters in a star wars film in decades, they are played to perfection by the actors. And there’s more than a little chemistry between them especially during their imaginatively contrived scenes together.
Visually, The Last Jedi is a triumph with stunning space battles (missing from Force Awakens), bold imagery (Rey’s ‘mirror’ scene) and a spectacular and visually arresting climax on the mineral planet Crait. There’s no lightsaber duel, at least in the traditional sense, but we are treated to a fabulous and surprisingly brutal melee fight involving Snoke’s fearsome Pretorian guards. There’s nothing in Last Jedi to top Rogue One’s mind-blowing 'Battle of Scariff', but it occasionally comes close. It’s a pleasure also to revel in John Williams’ latest masterpiece and for me, his best Star Wars work since The Phantom Menace. ‘A Rebellion is reborn’ is his newest signature theme, although there are some thrilling and emotional reprises from the original trilogy. Magical.
So a mixed bag overall; with higher highs and (for some) lower lows than 2015’s safer and more crowd-pleasing The Force Awakens. Some will be frustrated by the unanswered questions from JJs film, disappointed with some unusual character choices and irritated by some redundant side stories. But with unexpected outcomes, new ships, new creatures (including those love them or loathe them 'Porgs'), new locations and an array of curious new Force powers also ensure the latest film brings plenty of new Star Wars flavours, even if they wont be to everyone’s taste. But approached with an open mind, The Last Jedi emerges as an exhilarating and unique chapter in the Skywalker saga.