Plagued with worry over production troubles on their anthology films, the record breaking numbers of it’s predecessors and of course being a middle installment requiring a certain minimum of quality, The Last Jedi comes to us as the Christmas gift we all need.
While not as lovingly similar to it’s original trilogy counterpart as The Force Awakens was to A New Hope (some have taken to calling it A Familiar Hope), The Last Jedi skews the The First Order Strikes Back jokes for a film that is an emotionally charged, stylish, dark and layered entry into the series that will please young audiences and the die hard oldies alike.
From a story point of view it has the disparate strands that Empire had; we see Rey trying to gain the trust and training from a grizzled old Luke Skywalker, and she takes a different slant to the willing tutorship from Qui-Gon Jinn or Old Ben Kenobi, he’s someone who has no time for being the kooky Yoda to Rey’s Luke. Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill soar in these roles, Ridley able to play someone finding their place in all this, just as Anakin and Luke did before her, no longer a poor no one in the sand, now someone taking charge and demanding that the Force show her the way, while Hamill nails the comedy and the drama of Luke, conflicted, guilt ridden in his exile.
The dynamic here is that while the Jedi were alive and well in the prequels, and were vague legends in the originals, here they are presented as myths, with lies and rumours surrounded, and only Luke to say otherwise. It’s Hamill’s flair for deadpan comedy that makes the scenes by the Jedi temple feel so electric and exciting.
Meanwhile Adam Driver as Kylo Ren continues to bring to life the most layered villain to the saga yet. Gone are the pantomime villains of The Emperor or Count Dooku, and here is someone — even more so than Rey — struggling with their own destiny. Driver is a pro at looking like someone on the verge of both frenzy and tears, and any scene he gets with Ridley is thrilling to watch. Moreover, he is able to load every look and every breath with a thousand meanings.
Both John Boyega and Oscar Isaac continue to bring the joy as Finn and Poe Dameron, two characters destined to fall in love. The (b)romance between them is so offensively there is boarders of the profane. But, like Empire, The Last Jedi wants to split everyone up, and see what happens as the darkness encroaches. With Luke not interested in bringing back the Jedi, Rey confused, anKylo conflicted, it’s down to General Leia and the rebels to bring about change.
The two biggest stand outs, however, come in the form of a little bird creature and the franchises newest hero. The Porgs beat the Ewoks and the Gungans as the best toy tie-in creature around, with their great little wail and subtle underpinning of the tension with bits of comedy; the stakes are high because the laughs come and relieve a bit of it. But Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico is the MVP of the entry. Her character vaguely follows the trajectory of Finn’s, going from a cog in the machine to an instigator of change, but she does so with heart. It’s her who brings emotion to the comedy, insight to the drama and manages to transcend the Space Opera to have a performance that says something about the human condition.
But our Princess, Carrie Fisher, also turns in a performance as a wounded, haunted Leia, one who is less likely to call you a Nerfherder as give you a knowing glare. It’s hard not to see her death in real life as a spectre over which the series cannot escape, but there is so much warmth in her as a person, and a performer that Leia becomes the embodiment of why the series works. She never says die, and when you are one with the force, you never do.
Outside of the drama, the comic moments soar; the drama seers, but this is helped because Rian Johnson — the man who gave us vague Twelve Monkeys remake Looper and Breaking Bad’s arguably best episode (Ozymandias) and it’s strangest (The Fly) — is a stylish director. He knows that no matter how serious or funny things are, this is an action blockbuster. The dog fights are duck and cover stuff, the lightsaber duels incredible, the climax genuinely nail biting and the whole thing bursts at you like it’s 1977 again.
This is helped, it has to be said, by John Williams’ score, which brings the new themes of the franchise and the old ones to the fore for moments that can only be described as audio magic. Williams is possibly the greatest film composer of all time, and in this epic space opera he creates his magnum opus. If you feel the film is losing you at points, and there are missteps and flaws – no one reveal really can live up to the hours of internet debate and Johnson seems uninterested in trying – let Williams guide from his upbeat Rey theme to the Binary Sunset music coming in to remind us that this is a story about fate and about how things work out.
That’s not to say that the overly double crossing story twists of the film don’t become a little tiresome; there comes a point when you want to be able to trust at least one person in the film, and the *enter someone at the last minute* gag becomes a little weary as the showdown on the rebel planet gets underway, but the whole film – though darker – is still so joyous, so why wouldn’t you want to cheer? Director Rian Johnson is playing with action figures, and he’s clearly going to make a billion dollars doing it. The force is strong with this one.