Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, and the last two Star Wars films have explored and plundered their past with great success. Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi knows and loves its predecessors and it certainly isn’t above a heart-warming (or a heart-breaking) call-back every now and then, but it’s a bold step away from what’s come before and that ambition is thrilling to watch.
The film’s darkness was expected. This is the middle chapter in the trilogy after all, but it’s much more than a glum springboard for the grand finale and it doesn’t just crib from The Empire Strikes Back. It’s about finding hope when all hope is lost, and the way it foregrounds the need for humanity in times of conflict resonates even more strongly than the “Rebel!” rallying cry of Rogue One.
Which all makes The Last Jedi sound rather grand and self-important, but that’s not really the case. Rian Johnson’s script is very funny (almost jarringly so early on until you click with the tone), with one-liners and well-played character humour puncturing the portentous moments and allowing much-needed relief in an increasingly grim time for the rebellion. It also has a wealth of thrilling action sequences, real character development, beautiful production design, ace new creatures (yes, the Porgs are great), and somehow there’s a caper in the middle.
That being said, the film starts in a fantastically gloomy place. The First Order has Leia’s dwindling rebel forces on the run and at the end of their rope. The dashing Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is learning the hard way that there’s a difference between being the best pilot in the galaxy and being a leader. Finn (John Boyega) heads off on a dangerous mission with plucky maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and discovers that there are grey areas in the galaxy and insidious corrupting forces beyond “The Dark Side”. And, of course, there’s Rey, who finds that convincing Luke Skywalker to return as the hero the rebellion needs is not going to be an easy task.
Hamill’s not been shy about expressing his initial disagreement with Johnson’s treatment of Luke in the script, and it is hard to accept the cynical, abrasive recluse we’re given. But one of The Last Jedi’s most impressive feats is that every big swing, every moment that makes the fan in you a little uneasy as Johnson steers away from the past (which Kylo is so keen to kill), is earned. The film is overlong at two and a half hours, and you may well catch yourself thinking “this could probably have been cut.” But it’s all there for a reason and for the most part it’s not to simply prop up big flashy twists and reveals (although, goddamn, it’s not a spoiler to say there are plenty of those). It’s all about character.
Each of our leads, old and new, is forced to take a step back and look beyond their most visceral instincts. That even includes Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who’s pushing to prove to the sneering Snoke (Andy Serkis) that he’s stronger than ever. Driver is superb, his performance getting more nuanced as we dig deeper into Kylo’s past, and he’s matched at every step by Ridley, who goes on a similarly complex emotional journey and has only got better in the role.
In fact, everyone’s great. Hamill is fearsome, unpredictable and totally compelling, Isaac adds a short fuse to Poe’s cockiness, Serkis is magnificently odious, Domhnall Gleeson looks much more comfortable as Hux, and franchise newcomers Laura Dern (steely Vice Admiral Holdo, who doesn’t hesitate to put Poe in his place) and Tran (who is wonderful as Rose) quickly make their mark. Everyone matters, everyone gets their moment, and everyone is full of surprises.
This helps to make The Last Jedi a surprisingly emotional experience, although we knew in advance that we’d be struggling to hold back tears every time Carrie Fisher was on screen. She has a lot more to do here than in the previous chapter and, for fear of spoilers, we’ll just say that she is wonderful.
There are moments that don’t quite land and sequences that go on longer than they need to, but there’s so much to admire here that quibbles are quickly forgotten. The emotional pay-offs are huge, the visuals are stunning, the performances are brilliant and, even as it eagerly explores the darkness, The Last Jedi never loses sight of its heart. We can’t wait to see where the story goes from here.