Film Review | Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Though divisive for a large chunk of the saga's more conservative fans, Rian Johnson's journey into a galaxy far, far away is a bold, suspenseful and emotionally wrenching charge of blockbuster sound and fury  • 4.5/5

The space opera to end all space operas returns to its regularly scheduled Christmastime programming in the wake of last year’s ‘side-quel’ Rogue One, with ‘Episode VIII’ of the Star Wars “sequel trilogy” continuing where The Force Awakens (2015) left off, with a story that is equal parts exhilarating and grim, as handled by the genre-hopping auteur writer-director Rian Johnson.

With the orphaned, impoverished but Force-sensitive Rey (Daisy Ridley) now roped in by the Resistance to lure the legendary Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) out of his self-imposed exile on the remote planet of Ahch-To, the new face of the rebellion – led by Leia Organa Solo (Carrie Fisher) – is stuck in space trying not to get summarily slaughtered.

This is because the First Order – the new face of the Empire, in turn, and led by the perma-sneering General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) – has figured out a way to keep tabs on the rebels even as they jump through light speed. Joined by the resourceful maintenance officer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), rebel heroes Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) come up with a plan to disable the First Order tech that’s tracking them. But it’s a high-risk mission that will take them to another edge of the galaxy – namely, the ‘space Monaco’ planet of Cantobight – while the clock is very much ticking.

Meanwhile, the First Order’s Head-Sith-in-waiting Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) finds a way to telepathically contact Rey as she struggles through her own Jedi training and journey of self-discovery. Can these two learn something meaningful from each other, even if they stand on opposing camps of Good and Evil?

There is a darkness and maturity to Johnson's writing, whose shades evoke the overall tonal texture of Rogue One, and which helps us truly invest in the characters and feel the pulse of their peril when it comes. Even the “dashing rogue” pilot Poe Dameron comes across as rash at best, downright pig-headed at worst as the action escalates. His head-butting with the newly-arrived, assertive tactician Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) has stoked some interesting debate on toxic masculinity and its many malcontents, and to see even an ostensibly heroic figure like Poe scruitinised at that level – and the analysis is not all that reaching – is a surprising development.

Flyboy: Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron has a problem with authority
Flyboy: Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron has a problem with authority

It’s less surprising to see the angsty, conflicted and reeling-from-daddy-issues Kylo Ren tap into that same toxicity, but his trajectory is the biggest emotional coup of the film; here is a character truly shorn in two, and the unlikely, tense relationship he develops with Rey – who is dealing with similar identity issues of her own in an entirely different way – is inspired, and one hopes it will come to full bloom in Episode IX.

On the raw narrative level, this rather long slice of space pulp melodrama zips along rather nicely for the most part, intercutting various missions and following a richly-populated cast of characters with a dynamic glee which reminds of that, after all, the Star Wars saga was modelled after old school serials of the Flash Gordon ilk. Each little adventure the characters go on could very well stand on its own as a little episodic segment, but neither does this mean that the whole thing doesn’t feel streamlined enough. Johnson’s careful attention to character arcs means we’re glued to their destinies for the duration of the entire journey, and when the big action pieces do show up, their stakes are pumped up to the max: this is Resistance at its weakest, and we get a feeling that everyone is expendable.

More than anything, however, The Last Jedi represents a true changing of the guard. Where The Force Awakens reassured the audience that this new take on Star Wars would erase the prequels from collective memory, Johnson’s film in turns moves to erase plenty of preconceptions we may have had about even the ‘Original Trilogy’, and some of its key protagonists.

While it has drawn outrage nevertheless – there’s no way to please all the fans, all the time – Johnson’s innovations are borne out of a deep understanding of the characters in question. It’s not a case of novelty for novelty’s sake.

Taking advantage of the real-world time lapse between the original trilogy and this one, we now see Luke as a defeated, crusty veteran of far too many religious wars to be fit to fight yet another one. But his arc feels right and true, and here’s hoping that when The Force Awakens helmer J.J. Abrams once again picks up the mantle for Episode IX, he retains some of Johnson’s revolutionary spirit, instead of quashing it in reaction to fanboy-rage and a desire for appeasement over truth.

A divisive entry among fans for fairly clear reasons, Star Wars: The Last Jedi remains a bold and full-blooded chapter in the ongoing ‘sequel trilogy’, delivering both the thrills we expect of the Franchise That Lucas Built along with a weighty emotional and thematic wallop that will linger in the memory.

It is also very much a Star Wars film of its time, interweaving a deconstruction of some of its most beloved heroes to match the (supposed) maturing of its core audience – a fact certainly not borne out in some of the online vitriol the film’s writer-director has been getting. However it’s also timely in another way.  With our heroes not only flawed and conflicted at ever turn, but also squeezed of just about every inch of hope – an operative word – in nearly every frame, this is one of the gloomiest of Star Wars entries – matching the ‘grimdark’ trend of blockbusters while also evoking the spirit of that other mid-trilogy entry, The Empire Strikes Back.

Given this, it is hardly surprising that Rian Johnson was also behind some of the most successful episodes of AMC’s acclaimed anti-hero tragedy Breaking Bad.

A tonal narrative palette that may be leagues apart from the galaxy far, far away, but it is precisely what gives The Last Jedi its urgent, compelling lustre.