Breathe. Just…breathe. And prepare for the most unexpected Star Wars film yet.
The Last Jedi chooses to take the paths less travelled. For those who bemoaned The Force Awakens’ tight ties to A New Hope, writer/director Rian Johnson’s slice of the saga offers appeasement. Any concerns of the film becoming The Empire Strikes Back: Part Two are quickly banished. Johnson moves the series and its characters forward in genuinely surprising ways, building a story chock full of awe-inspiring action and twists aplenty. It’s not the nostalgia-fuelled unfiltered joy ride that The Force Awakens was, it’s its own, entirely different beast; part war movie, part extended training montage, all epic.
That’s not to say that it doesn’t have callbacks of its own, the relationship between Luke (Mark Hamill) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) harkening back to that of Luke and Yoda in particular. The beautiful, hostile island of Ahch-To provides the backdrop to their trials. Luke’s struggle with his past. Rey’s torment over her origins and destiny. Heavy stuff, for sure, and it’s portrayed wonderfully by Hamill and Ridley alike, the latter in particular. Rey is, undoubtedly, the heart of the film.
The remaining bulk of the first half is formed by Leia (Carrie Fisher), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose’s (Kelly Marie Tran) attempts to escape First Order attack. It’s this side of the plot that can on occasion feel a touch protracted, Finn and Rose’s side trip to a casino planet being a contender for a trim. And yet both of them, along with their travel companion BB-8 have enough charm in the tank to race through their less pressing narrative thread. Leia meanwhile surprises at every turn and Poe shines, his compulsiveness and humour coming to the fore. Humour which is much needed between all of the darkness. He’s not the only one on top comedic form; BB-8 continues to delight, and Ahch-To’s native penguin-like Porgs prove to be the real deal, funny and adorable. They’re also the best of the gorgeous puppetry characters enlisted in the cast, ensuring that the galaxy far, far away feels more tangible than ever, with the blend between the real and CGI struck effectively.
“Now or never” is the overriding mantra here. One last chance for a hero’s redemption. A final opportunity to spark hope amongst the Rebellion. For light to conquer over dark. Though it sits as the midpoint of the trilogy the stakes have a sense of finality, the final act brings grand-scale closure, and the decisions made by those on both sides of the war are impactful. None more than those made by Rey, and the standout of the piece, Kylo Ren. Their relationship grows, ebbs and flows, conflict and camaraderie between the two coming to a head. Adam Driver spotlights Ren’s petulance and inner turmoil impressively, adding depth and shading rarely seen in the Star Wars films, the usually distinct lines between the Dark Side, the Light and the balance in between the two blurring. Kylo Ren is fast becoming a challenger for Vader’s position as the saga’s greatest villain.
There are mysteries yet unresolved. Some might even be perturbed by a handful of the resolutions we are left with. But the biggest question of all, as to whether The Last Jedi can pull itself clear of the shadow of Empire is answered with a resounding yes. Yes it can.
Rating (out of 5):