Star Wars: The Last Jedi – movie review

by James Robins / 14 December, 2017
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For the past two years, Star Wars has been cannibalising itself, turning a beloved space opera into a machine of weaponised nostalgia.

In The Force Awakens, which opened a new trilogy to continue the saga, director JJ Abrams repeated the same narrative beats as George Lucas’s original: undiscovered hero on a desert planet, misplaced droid with vital information, planet-sized superweapon, and so on.

It was a film geared to extract maximum recognition from its audience (young and old), and included so many moments of transparent manipulation that it’s almost galling to revisit it now. Looking back, it’s plain to see Abrams was doing Star Wars karaoke.

Last year’s Rogue One was the first in a series of spinoffs, all part of Disney’s shameless bid for the Marvel-isation of the galaxy far, far away. It plundered celluloid from the 1977 first film and recreated some of its characters with questionable digital trickery.  It also featured a brief shot of an X-Wing pilot grinning from ear to ear after hitting his target. That was our own childhood smile, reflected back at us.

There is nothing unusual in this kind of pilfering. Lucas himself pieced Star Wars together from elements of Flash Gordon, Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, The Dam Busters, The Wizard of Oz, or The Bible.

Nor does such reverence for golden ages gone by make The Force Awakens or Rogue One any less entertaining. But the wellspring of nostalgia, and the need for fresh imagination, was fast running out. Soon enough, there’d be nothing left but severed limbs.

And yet, here is Rian Johnson’s latest instalment The Last Jedi, directed with a verve, panache, and virtuosity that Abrams and Edwards could barely muster. Johnson truly has tuned up the hyperdrive and set course for shinier new worlds.

We pick up the action in the immediate aftermath of The Force Awakens. The New Republic has been destroyed. A band of Resistance fighters are huddled into a small squadron of ships fleeing into deep space. The opening crawl tells us these rebels are “brave heroes”, as if we needed reminding of Star Wars’ Manichean morality. But we’d know that anyway because they’re led by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), still as elegant and steely as ever, and hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).

Pursuing them is the First Order who, astonishingly, seem even more Nazi-ish than the Galactic Empire they sprang from. This bunch of no-gooders are overseen by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis in mo-cap), a figure with a face like a deflated football, and his apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who’d really prefer not to be called by his real name.

Driver is still a magnificent villain – not purely evil but conflicted, and all the more malevolent for it. “You’re no Vader,” Snoke tells him, “just a child in a mask.”

Meanwhile, our chief hero Rey (Daisy Ridley)  and tracked down a scraggly Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to a far-flung planet where he’s agonising over past failures and despairing over the fate of his Jedi Order. “This not going to go the way you think,” he warns, and he’d be right.

The Force Awakens followed the template laid out in A New Hope rigorously, and The Last Jedi does resemble The Empire Strikes Back, even as it contends with it for the honour of being the best Star Wars film to date. There is budding warrior training with a reluctant master, the good guys are in retreat, and there’s a showdown featuring four-legged walking weapons on a white planet (it’s salt this time, not snow).

But there are dozens of ways Johnson has improved on his immediate predecessors. Noticeable even from the opening space battle is a lightness and humour which never lets up throughout The Last Jedi’s two-and-a-half hour runtime. Even at the most sincere or dangerous moments, there is room for gags, many involving that spherical mischief-maker BB-8 or a breed of fluffy puffin-like alien creatures. And there is Johnson’s skill in storytelling, powering along the narrative with the thrust of a sublight engine, cutting between distant settings and contexts without suffering too much sag.

Far beyond all of this, however, his masterstroke is to electrify The Last Jedi with genuine visual originality. The film contains, by my count, five sequences that are utterly unlike anything seen before in Star Wars. They are truly inventive, and in one instance concerning a major hero, serenely surreal. It’s almost unbelievable that a studio like Disney allowed Johnson, who made his name with a brilliant indie noir potboiler called Brick, to experiment with such sacred material. We’re all the better for it.

The Last Jedi is precisely what The Force Awakens should have been – funny and thrilling throughout, pacey, dazzled with aesthetic flair. And, crucially, it’s respectful of the source material without stooping to hit familiar beats for the sake of a cheap payoff. When those nostalgic moments do come, they are wistful, melancholy, and deeply evocative. They tug at emotions other than just a childish giddiness and glee.

To repeat: The Last Jedi might just be the best Star Wars film yet. It’s rescued the galaxy from folding in on itself – for the time being.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★1/2

 

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