With every new Star Wars film comes the obvious comparisons to its predecessors. Yes there are epic space battles between X-Wings and Tie Fighters. Yes there are wild twirling lightsaber fights. And most importantly there is the deep, spiritual and emotional journey of our characters (some more than others). These have always and will always be the staple of Star Wars films. Where director Rian Johnson succeeds is in trying to balance the good versus evil and the light versus the dark and for a film in the middle of a trilogy that can be tricky. And oddly enough it’s the middle of this movie that seems to be unsettled whilst its beginning and ends seem to stick the landing.
With barely a breath to be had from the ending of Star Wars: The Force Awakens we are dropped right into the thick of it with The Last Jedi. The traditional pre-film crawl lets us know that the Resistance (aka Rebel Scum) are far outnumbered by the First Order and if they don’t shake a leg and make a hasty retreat to a new hideout they could easily become extinct. So we get to see the swashbuckling Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his trusty BB-8 lead a battalion of bombers to attack a Dreadnought, a new imposing ship that could wipe them out. They manage to win the battle but not without taking heavy losses, which plagues General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher). This first melee then leads us to Rey (Daisy Ridley), longingly hoping for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to take the lightsaber from her and rejoin the rebellion. But if she thought he would come easily or willingly, she’s mistaken as Skywalker shouts at her “This is not going to go the way you think!”. It’s as we reach the mid-section of the film that it breaks off into three separate stories.
We have Rey and Luke on the island of Ahch-To, the eager and desperate pupil with a bitter and reluctant master. Then there’s Poe and Leia and the Resistance, being trailed by the First Order, running low on fuel (that’s a first) and options of escape. Then there’s Finn (John Boyega), who’s returned from near death and out of sheer lucky coincidence, partners up with Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to go on a mission to find a hacker (Benicio Del Toro) to try and help save what remains of the fleet. Splitting up the characters is clearly a necessity for plot and pacing but it also results in some story weaknesses.
Finn and Rose journey to Canto Bight (think Monte Carlo in space) to try to find their codebreaker, but this whole “side-mission” feels protracted and ultimately ends up being pointless to the story. It only seems to serve as an opportunity to drop a politicised message regarding the exploitation of young workers, and disapproval of arms trafficking. As well as introduce us to Del Toro’s character DJ who we may or may not see in the final installment. Back over at an unnamed location in space, we’re aware of the First Order barrelling down on Poe, Leia and the rest of the Resistance trawling in reverse on their cruiser, and despite having suffered losses not 15 minutes earlier, the stakes don’t seem quite so high. When Admiral Holdo (a purple-haired Laura Dern) takes command there comes a moment when one simple self-sacrificing move becomes one of the most bad-ass scenes in the film but it’s quickly overtaken by our need to focus on our two Force-powered leads.
Where Johnson’s screenplay comes into its own is in the connection and the evolution of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey. It was hinted at in TFA that there was some sort of link between these two, besides Kylo’s obvious Jedi skills and Rey’s burgeoning abilities . Here we see it manifest beautifully and the juxtaposition of their characters fluctuates as Rey’s optimism and faith becomes challenged and Kylo Ren becomes more conflicted. Throw in Supreme Leader Snoke (mo-cap king Andy Serkis) and it brims with tension. Seeing these two duke it out mentally is actually far more engaging than watching them in a physical fight. And honestly getting to see them come head to head again in the final film will be nothing short of epic.
As with all Star Wars films the fans are serviced plenty, with Johnson obviously leaning into many references to The Empire Strikes Back. We get some new aliens to look at, there’s the gorgeous crystal fox Vulptex and after this I definitely think Porgs are stupid bug-eyed furry puffins but they’re obviously the next merchandising plushie so they’re going to be e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. Then there’s the wicked new AT-M6 (All Terrain Megacaliber Six), an upgraded version of the AT-AT walkers with extra firepower that roll up in the final battle. There are the beautifully scored John WIlliams themes and cinematographer Steve Yedlin (who collaborated on Johnson’s previous work Looper) switches the scenery around from the storm-lashed island of Ach-To to the white salt covering crimson desert of Crait.
Though sometimes it’s the new touches that are more surprising, like the purposefully laugh-out-loud funny gags, or getting your new favourite droid to do something completely unexpected. Last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story garnered a lot of favour with its diverse casting and the fact that Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose gets a sizeable chunk of screentime is yet another representation win onscreen. And it certainly didn’t escape my attention that much of the film was being driven by strong female characters/actors – Fisher, Ridley, Tran, Dern and Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma to name a few.
The touchstone of Star Wars and the mythology surrounding the concept of ‘The Force’ is one of hope, and how even in the most desperate of hours, believing in that can help you to make the right choice. But sometimes those choices also come at an emotional cost. Here the toll is high, with battles to win and lose and it’s clear that they are quickly sweeping away the old guard in favour of the new.
Review Score: THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running Time: 152 minutes
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is screening now in Australian cinemas through Lucasfilm and Disney Pictures.