It’s hard to review a Star Wars film. It’s a series that means so much to so many people, myself included, that it’s difficult to separate the impact of the series as a whole from each new individual film. Fortunately director Rian Johnson and the team at Lucasarts are all too aware of that influence, and The Last Jedi is as much a film about legacy as it is about something new. This theme is largely represented by returning stars Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, with their iconic characters Jedi Master Luke Skywalker and General Leia Organa elevated to legendary status by their actions in the original Star Wars trilogy and beyond. Returning Force Awakens protagonists Finn, Rey, and Poe Dameron similarly struggle to deal with the expectations now placed on them as the battle between the Resistance and the First Order gets more serious, and new characters such as Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico bear the pressure of proving themselves amongst the established heroes. Johnson does a remarkable job at balancing the old, the current, and the new, creating a Star Wars film that seems to signify the original trilogy passing its legacy on to the next chapter.
One of the most common criticisms of J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was that it felt too similar structurally to A New Hope, and a similar complaint could be given to The Last Jedi at times. Iconic scenes such as Luke’s training with Master Yoda, the Battle of Hoth, and Luke’s final meeting with Emperor Palpatine are deliberately mirrored, but every time I thought I knew where the film was going Johnson throws in unexpected twists and subverts expectations to demonstrate how much the Star Wars series still has to offer. Johnson’s script is funny in often surprising ways, particularly in scenes with a delightfully deadpan Mark Hamill, but not afraid to challenge established conventions of the Star Wars universe. The division between the Light Side and the Dark Side isn’t as clear in The Last Jedi, with Skywalker turning away from the teachings of the Jedi Order and the villainous Kylo Ren more emotionally conflicted than ever. Considerable emphasis is placed on the connection between Ren and Rey, and moments between Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley bring a heart and moral complexity rarely seen in blockbuster films lately. Kylo Ren is quickly turning into one of the best characters in the Star Wars saga, with his alliances and motivations never quite clear and Driver’s performance bringing every conflicted emotion to the forefront.
As is to be expected from a Star Wars film there are elements that are bound to be contentious. Two separate moments, one involving Leia Organa and another involving Luke Skywalker, overstate the characters’ abilities and powers so much that it felt to me like Johnson was playing off their reputations among the fans rather than honouring what they could believably do in the established universe. The special effects vary in quality – while for the most part the movie is a visual treat, CGI characters such as Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke stick out like sore thumbs when compared to the beautifully designed sets and top-quality practical effects. Yet two of the climactic battles, one aboard a damaged spaceship and the other on a planet of red salt, provoke such stunning images that certain frames resemble works of art.
Ultimately this is a Star Wars film that delivers what one could want from the series, be it the final heart wrenching performance of Carrie Fisher or John Williams’ typically excellent score, while demonstrating potential for where the series still has to go. By the end of The Last Jedi the pieces are well and truly set for a spectacular conclusion of the new trilogy still to come, one that promises to offer something new and unexpected in a series over 40 years old.
Guess I’ll just have to see this one another two or three more times while we wait.