The solid foundations on which the rebooted Star Wars franchise has been carefully built will not be crumbling any time soon, if the latest episode in the beloved outer space series is anything to go by.
The Last Jedi sports dazzling special effects work, interestingly well-rounded characters and second-to-none action, with a cynical harder edge that lifts it out of the blockbuster comic-book arena. And with events taking place all over the galaxy, the adventure this time takes on an extra epic dimension.
This mid-section marker in the current trilogy simply doesn’t disappoint, realising the courage of its convictions with an intelligent story and a heart-swelling emotional resonance.
Much like The Empire Strikes Back (itself the second episode in the first classic trilogy), The Last Jedi is split into several plotlines. We follow the quests of various key characters, which all converge in one satisfying ensemble ending – a bittersweet closer if ever there was one.
The Resistance against the First Order is on its last legs and General Leia (Carrie Fisher) is the only one protecting the line of defence. As “trigger happy flyboy” Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) takes out an enemy Dreadnought craft, little does he know he’s playing straight into the hands of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Leia is injured in battle, with Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) taking command, but Dameron has no faith in her decisions. Could mutiny be in the air?
Meanwhile, on that remote island seen at the end of The Force Awakens, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trying to convince a self-exiled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join Leia’s righteous cause. But Luke is in turmoil because of his past failings with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and is convinced the Jedi line needs to end. Will Rey develop her newly discovered abilities with Luke’s guidance even though he’s unsettled by the strength of her powers?
Finn (John Boyega) learns about a chink in the First Order’s fleet. Together with besotted engineer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), he searches for a master code-breaker to disable the tracker mission device that is sabotaging Resistance escape strategies. But is the genius DJ (Benicio del Toro) someone they can rely on?
The Last Jedi is an involving yarn, tremendously well told, which throws in Easter Egg curve balls to add the kind of exhilarating texture that ardent fans adore. For that we have to thank writer/director Rian Johnson. His earlier films Brick and The Brothers Bloom showed he was smart and sharp, while Looper demonstrated his sci-fi chops. But never have his visuals, clever wit (Galaxy Quest comes to mind a few times!) and storytelling melded together so harmoniously as they do here. Every frame contains something of importance, relevance or interest.
Johnson can be uber-flashy one moment (the outer space Monaco-like gambling hub, with its vast casinos and exotic creatures, is A New Hope’s cantina scene beautifully upgraded and re-imagined) and deadly dramatic the next (Kylo Ren and Rey’s combative telepathic connections are truly breathtaking).
Johnson brings an artful impact to every special effects set-piece, helped in no measure by his cinematographer of choice, Steve Yedlin. The action simply leaps from the screen (even without 3D glasses), whether during the exciting lightsaber battles, the audacious weaponsing of light speed, Rey’s self-reflecting mirror moment or when pulling out the fairy-tale stops to portray Leia’s misfortune.
It’s great to see Mark Hamill back in the Skywalker saddle, albeit now riddled with self-doubt and a broken spirit. But it’s hard to watch every Carrie Fisher scene without feeling a nostalgia-tinged sadness (The Last Jedi is dedicated to her in a lovely end credit). Heritage characters aside, this is most definitely Adam Driver’s finest hour. His conflicted villain is quite the best new-wave Star Wars creation of them all. Evil emanates from his every pore, despite tiny notes of regret peeping through at key times, and the grim grit he manifests in his beautifully rendered salt desert showdown with Luke will bring audible gasps.
This hugely anticipated return to a galaxy far, far away goes deliciously deeper and darker into allegorical space fantasy and the human/alien condition than ever before, and only serves to strengthen the myth-making qualities that creator George Lucas recognised in the genre 40 years ago.
Primarily, though, it’s a celebratory reunion of a universe and its treasured characters that have already redefined popular cinema culture. The Star Wars saga gets richer, more accomplished and elaborate with The Last Jedi and proves that when film-makers with Johnson’s enormous skillmanage to balance the visceral with the cerebral, they come up with one extraordinary entertainment.
The Last Jedi is released in UK cinemas on Thursday 14 December