Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi ★★★★★

Star Wars films have been a part of my life for about 35 years now, that being the approximate amount of time that has passed since I first watched the one that kicked this all off.

So it was a pretty big day for me seeing The Last Jedi at the cinema because it was the first 'proper' Star Wars film I'd seen there. Of course, like half the galaxy, I trotted out to catch Rogue One last year and emerged fairly entertained but not exactly impressed by what I'd seen.

From the central Star Wars narrative, however, this was a first. Doubly so in that it was the first one I'd seen at the cinema with my ten year old daughter, who became enamoured with these movies when I first showed them to her last year. And just to complete the collection of firsts, I even splashed out on a couple of IMAX tickets for it. It was an experience that I wish I'd had sooner but better late than never, it added a lot to the viewing.

Hiding myself away from spoilers by mostly steering clear of Twitter and absolutely everything Star Wars related on the internet didn't cloak me from the usual stuff that goes with one of these films. There's always a band of dissenting voices who cause a lot of irritation, although quite why that is still the case, I have no idea. Surely we should all have learned by now that you can't please all the people all the time?

Such a band is always going to be more noticeable when it's about a franchise such as this. Because the fanbase is so enormous and so vocal, the dissenters are loud and numerous. It's ALWAYS like this with any huge name franchise, so quite why those who didn't like what Rian Johnson has done with The Last Jedi are being viewed with such surprise and derision is baffling to me. Why aren't we all used to this by now?

I say this as someone who is very, very distant from the dissenting camp, I should point out. From where I sit, the only question marks I think I can see with this film are minor and largely unimportant in the grand scheme of things. I always expected Johnson to knock it out of the park with The Last Jedi, I didn't doubt it for one second. I've enjoyed all his films to date and I felt his intelligent, off-centre takes on genre movies would be the perfect fit for the 'difficult second album' in this trilogy.

I decried JJ Abrams being the choice for The Force Awakens until I saw it, at which point I realised that his safe and risk-avoiding filmmaking was actually the perfect comeback foil for the franchise. Not just in terms of reintroducing us to everyone and everything, even playing a lot of the old hits from the original series to ease new characters into the fold, but also to set up and make Johnson's job easier.

The tactic really has paid off. Abrams has provided the assist and Johnson's stuck it in the net. With old characters addressed, new characters put in place but a recognisable plot and range of subplots to back them all up, Johnson has room to breathe here. He can ask the questions of this universe that SHOULD be asked now after all these years and on the fifth film.

The reason I don't count episodes one to three is not just because I don't like them but because their contribution to The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi is so insignificant that it's almost as if they've been erased from history. A brief mention of the Sith is all you get. Abrams and Johnson have chosen to dwell on the best aspects of the past, and I wonder if that is what has gotten so many people's goat about this.

Johnson goes one further here, however. The very thin line between good and evil has always been one of the strongest parts of the Star Wars series, and here he wipes it away and draws it back in when it suits his film the most. Exposing Luke Skywalker's flaws and refusing to mythologise him beyond his laudable achievements is possibly the best character arc that this series has ever embarked on, even better than his persuasion of Darth Vader back to the light.

This is a film about mistakes, but understandable ones. Skywalker's consideration of how to deal with the then Ben Solo, Rey's belief that she can bring the now Kylo Ren into the light, and vice versa into the darkness. Even Poe Dameron's belief that gung-ho tactics are the only solution to the Resistance's problems despite being told otherwise by two very wise women and Finn's pointless near-suicide. Yoda's reappearance to point out that more is learnt in mistake and defeat is the centrepiece to an overarching narrative that the series has never perhaps tackled as head-on as it should.

I found it to be a delightful and necessarily darkened, if not quite dark, turn of events. Skywalker's reinvention as a disillusioned loner who doesn't really save the day but merely allows the decimated Resistance to fight another day is exactly the sort of thing that Johnson was the perfect choice to tackle. He's complemented by Mark Hamill's strongest performance of the series by far, seemingly thriving on finding a darkness and sadness in Skywalker that he had only been able to briefly flirt with at times during the original trilogy.

Ultimately, these elements are the meat and bones of an outstanding film. There are other unpredictable parts put in place too. The unexpected but wonderful arrival of Benicio Del Toro's profiteer and a ridiculously confident breakout performance by Kelly Marie Tran, forming a lovely chemistry with the once again excitable and incredibly likeable John Boyega, were additional rewards of a very high variety. Tran's arrival could be key in steering the next movie clear of the predicted Finn / Rey romance, which can only mean more interesting areas for them both to explore.

There is predictability here, of course. Skywalker's reappearance to sort of save the day, the tug of war and emotions between Rey and Ren, the power struggle between Ren and General Hux. Unlike with The Force Awakens, I didn't feel as though Johnson was actually playing to the crowd here. There's nothing wrong with recycling themes as long as they are packaged in an enjoyable way.

As clear as it was that neither Rey nor Ren were going to swap sides, it was still one of the most thrilling aspects of The Last Jedi seeing them fight side-by-side. Not perhaps as thrilling as the dialogue scenes between them, as they probe each other not out of distrust or fear, but more curiosity. Why are they so inextricably linked despite coming from such disparate backgrounds? Johnson teases with these questions sublimely, helped in no small part by two absolutely marvellous actors actually being challenged by the material. How often does that happen in a blockbuster movie?

Not often, but more so these days, it seems. There seems to be an increasing number of mega-budget films that seem unhappy to just be franchise tentpoles and crowd-pleasers, wanting to be viewed as something more substantial than that. Whether or not that's what Disney wanted when they brought Johnson on board is questionable, but that decision has led to a movie that dares to try and question so much within its universe, and in turn is one that is emotionally enriching, morally challenging and tirelessly entertaining.

It has its faults, sure. 'Leia in space' was at best a questionable moment, Rey and Finn's reunion felt less of an event than it clearly should have been, and Finn's feud with Phasma had the potential to be a secondary battle that could have given the main plot some very strong support. Plus, my daughter was fuming that Maz Kanata got one very small scene, as was I, frankly.

But if there's one thing, above any other, that I've taken away from these two films, it's certainly none of the negatives that I regard as being pretty minor considerations. It's just how much I'm enjoying seeing a villain who's just a really, really angry and uncontrollable nutcase. I feel like that's the one thing the original trilogy never really had and perhaps Johnson's finest achievement with The Last Jedi is fleshing that out and providing an actual soluble reason for Ren to be this way.

The whole movie is also his finest achievement as a filmmaker. All Abrams now has to do is put the cherry on the cake. The hard work has been done.

Steve G liked these reviews