As mammoth an undertaking as The Force Awakens was, it arguably had the easier job in the context of the new Star Wars trilogy. With love, care, humour, and the template of A New Hope, The Force Awakens pulled off an exhilarating re-introduction to the Star Wars that fans thought was lost after the prequels. It gave us instantly iconic characters like Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren, and gave Han Solo a heart-breaking send off, while building up the legend of Luke Skywalker. It’s now up to director Rian Johnson to continue this story in a way that advances the plots of the new characters, gives Luke and Leia enough meat to please fans, and answer burning questions posed by The Force Awakens, all while trying to steer clear of an obvious re-tread of Empire Strikes Back. No pressure then.
The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film to pick up directly after the previous installment. We have to wait for the conclusion of the Luke cliff-hanger for a little while as Johnson flexes his action muscles in a fantastic space battle as the remains of the Resistance are being pursued by The First Order, fronted by General Hux. It’s a brilliantly creative sequence that continually plays with audience expectations setting up the central threat of the first of the main two plot threads. The other, and much stronger plot belongs to the once and future Jedi’s. Rey and Luke’s introduction starts off with a hilarious shock and only gets better from there, as a mysterious presence connects Rey and Kylo Ren through the Force amidst Luke’s refusal to answer Rey’s call to action.
The Last Jedi’s strongest theme comes from the endurance of the past, and how you need to let go of it in order to move on. Luke and Leia are the ties to this past, although Leia’s continued presence on the front-line of the fight keep her, well, present. Luke represents the flickering embers of the Jedi order, with his greatest failure, Kylo Ren, continuing to scourge the Galaxy. Johnson, who also wrote the script, is aware of all the hopes that are put on Luke, by the characters and by us. Do we really expect him, one man with a laser sword, to take on the First Order and win?
This theme is explored further through Rey and Kylo Ren’s growing relationship. The Last Jedi’s best moments come when Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver share the screen, building an uneasy relationship through their shared burden of raw power, and the masters who, like Supreme Leader Snoke want to use it for their own means, or like Luke, wants to ignore them. If the Force Awakens was about passing the torch, then The Last Jedi shows that it can burn. Luke’s past actions, and the destruction of his relationship of Ben Solo, an act that assured his transformation into Kylo Ren, are cleverly filtered through a Rashomon structure of different perspectives, each giving us, and Rey a bigger piece of the puzzle.
This is what The Last Jedi gets right, but its not a perfect film. Johnson’s need to flip the script falters with the side story of Finn (John Boyega), and new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). It sums up the problem of the film’s need to give everyone their own plot, as Finn and Rose take a detour to a Waspy Casino in order to get a codebreaker to help them break the tech that allows the First Order to track the Resistance through space. Sounds convoluted, and it is, but it also doesn’t come to very much. Poe gets an interesting, but not entirely successful lesson on the humility of leadership from Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo in a plot, though exciting at times, is filled with contrivances.
Still, the films strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. Johnson, who has only directed smaller genre films before this, has a deft hand when it comes to action. His camera may not be as dynamic as Abrams’ but he knows how to let the spectacle breathe, especially when it involves lightsabres. Another surprising aspect is how funny The Last Jedi is, with Domnhall Gleason’s General Hux an unexpected barrel of campy laughs. Some viewers may complain that the humorous tone is close to the Marvel template for comfort, and not every joke lands, but it mostly sticks the landing in this regard.
The Last Jedi is a hard film to love, but it does break away from the template of classic Star Wars. It features fantastic performances, none more so than Adam Driver who has layered his already infamous villain into something so compelling that he may even leave Darth Vader in the dust, great action, and strong themes. Despite some major missteps, it cleans the slate for Episode XI and brings hope to the darkest time in the Galaxy.