Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi has had fans eagerly awaiting the return of Rey, Kylo Ren, Finn and of course, the silent Luke Skywalker, for two years.
And yes, it was worth the wait.
The Last Jedi kicks off immediately where The Force Awakens left us. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has gone to Luke (Mark Hamill), holding the Skywalker lightsaber aloft. The Resistance are on the run from the resurgent First Order. Finn (John Boyega) is recovering from his altercation with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Poe (Oscar Isaac) is still very handsome.
The opening act visually, technically and emotionally hits all the right notes. It’s gripping and it sets the stakes for the entire film. It reinforces the First Order as a force to be reckoned with (as if we didn’t already know that) and it reminds us why Poe is the dreamiest, ahem, best, fighter pilot in the resistance.
From here, Rian Johnson takes us places that Star Wars hasn’t explored before. So no, this isn’t just Empire all over again. While Lucas previously explored the battle between the dark and the light, Johnson embraces the balance and explores the in-between. He embraces ambiguity and uncertainty in the themes he uses and in the journeys he takes his these characters on. Kylo Ren, magnificently portrayed by Adam Driver, is as conflicted as ever but perhaps not in the way you expect. Rey, also brilliantly played by Daisy Ridley, is too battling to find out where she belongs in all this. The two have a brilliantly intertwined storyline which is the heartbeat of the film.
Johnson has put most of his efforts into establishing interesting and compelling character arcs. He gives the characters time to learn and grow and evolve. This, at times, might be at the expense of narrative focus but I’d much rather have a few messy plot-threads with compelling characters than the other way round (Rogue One). There are a few plot holes and some characters are given unnecessary plot-threads which bogs down the second act, but you can forgive this because the narrative is driven by character decisions.
To say the plot is not compelling would be a lie. There is genuine intrigue in how things are going to pan out. Surprises come left, right and centre once the film enters the third act. There are big, big moments. Moments in the third act will have Star Wars aficionados in goosebumps for years to come.
The film makes a point of focusing on war. From the first scene the stakes are high and the horror of war is a message that hits home. The resistance is on the ropes throughout the duration of the film’s run-time. People die and Johnson doesn’t shy away from dealing with this and pointing out that there is no glory in war. In fact, The Last Jedi is, in many ways, trying to tell us not to fight or at least when not to fight. It gives meaning to the loss of life. These ideas provide the catalyst for one of the films most interesting character arcs.
With the new cast raising their game, the old guard are also at their best. Mark Hamill delivers his best performance as Luke, a man struggling to deal with his past mistakes. Luke’s story is tragic and moving in ways I don’t think anyone could see coming. He’s not this ethereal Jedi Master, he’s disillusioned and fragile and the film works all the better for it. Carrie Fisher is also fantastic in her final performance. She’s so assured in the role that she was born to play. It’s a tragedy that we’ll never see her story pan out the way it was supposed to.
With Luke and Leia, there is a clear link to the original trilogy. The Last Jedi plays tribute to these films with some beautiful, if not subtle, homages. Unlike in Rogue One, these homages play a narrative role and add an emotional element rather than provide cheap fan service. Every single moment is driven to fulfil a character arc. It’s narrative driven by the characters rather than the other way round.
John Williams’ score is almost synonymous with Star Wars and he delivers all the old classics here including a tribute to the Binary Sunset theme from A New Hope as well as some of the best new themes from The Force Awakens. It’s impossible to imagine this being scored by anyone else. The Last Jedi delivers some truly spectacular visuals, especially in the final act. With, like The Force Awakens, a greater emphasis on practical effects, the action is generally very, very good although there are one or two sequences that tread a little too close to prequel CGI territory for my liking.
While The Last Jedi is by no means a perfect film, (yes the porgs are the worst thing since Jar Jar Binks) it hits the right emotional beats, which is what really matters. With a focus on failure, redemption and hope The Last Jedi delivers on satisfying and surprising character moments. Maybe this film could or should be half an hour shorter, there’s one chase scene in particular I could do without. Also, some of the humour felt forced and quite awkward and there are a few plot holes. But Star Wars has always had bad dialogue, just ask Harrison Ford, The Return of the Jedi is structurally an absolute mess and the whole plot was contrived after A New Hope was released. But we love Star Wars because it has that essence of goodness, of hope at its very heart and The Last Jedi is no different. In fact, The Last Jedi explores these themes to steer the Star Wars universe somewhere very exciting.
The Last Jedi is, by no means, a perfect film but it is a brave and interesting exploration of the universe and its characters.