It’s been over three years since Rian Johnson reacted to having been announced as the director of Star Wars‘ eighth episode with a tweet quoting The Right Stuff in which Scott Glenn’s astronaut Alan Shepard nervously declares: “Dear Lord, please don’t let me f*** up.”
In the intervening period between then and now we’ve seen the Star Wars saga emerge from the dark side of Episodes I-III to once again become a force for good in the galaxy, with J.J. Abrams’ hugely entertaining The Force Awakens and last year’s action-packed Rogue One.
That three-year wait is finally over for Johnson and the result should not only put to rest any lingering doubt he may have had, but also gives this beloved space opera its most daring and emotionally satisfying chapter since the Empire struck back.
The Last Jedi picks up pretty much where The Force Awakens finished off, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) having travelled to a far-flung part of the galaxy to convince an eremite Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join the fight against the First Order. The rag-tag Resistance, led by General Organa (Carrie Fisher) is struggling to stay one step ahead of the enemy, while the unpredictable Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) seemingly remains in thrall to the mysterious and all-powerful Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).
Abrams faced criticism in some quarters for playing it too safe when he gave us The Force Awakens; however, without the foundations set in place by Episode VII, Johnson would never have been able to play so gleefully in the sandbox created for him. That said, it’s unlikely anyone expected he would empty the contents of that sandbox all over the place and, to paraphrase Luke, give us a Star Wars film that “is not going to go the way you think”.
Such leftfield moments are scattered throughout the film, from Luke’s unexpected reaction to having been presented his old lightsabre by Rey, to a dramatic encounter involving Snoke, Rey and Ren that harks back to Return Of The Jedi… until it doesn’t.
Johnson’s smart and generous script is rich in the saga’s long history, revisiting key moments from the original trilogy and giving them a surprising and often humourous spin.
Star Wars has never been short of memorable characters, but they have often not been best served by emotionally mature dialogue. Johnson clearly had other ideas, though and never lets us forget these are people first who are flawed and impulsive and do what they think is best. The history of past actions weighs heavily, while the uncertainty of what comes next has never been more palpable.
Working on a canvas far larger than he’s previously been used to, Johnson’s confidence with the material is evident, with numerous eye-catching shots (a silent explosion involving multiple ships is pure shock and awe) and a series of well-staged and visually arresting set pieces – in particular a sequence on the planet Crait that uses white and red imagery to startling effect (red is a common colour throughout).
With such a large cast it’s perhaps not surprising that some characters fade in to the background and that certainly applies to Chewbacca, who at least finds companionship with some cute, puffin-like Porgs. Likewise, Finn (John Boyega) doesn’t get as satisfying an arc as he had last time around, although his interplay with the terrific Kelly Marie Chan as Rose is nicely handled.
Hamill, thankfully given plenty more to do than in The Force Awakens (which wouldn’t have been hard), is excellent and offers us a side of Luke that’s a galaxy away from the naive, golly gosh farm boy we met all those years ago. Equally great is Ridley, who makes us think twice at one point about where she could be headed, and Driver, who has fully settled in to what is this new trilogy’s most complex role and delivers a performance that sees him break free of the past while still holding on to some of his more immature impulses.
Johnson has given us a Star Wars movie that, in its own way, reflects some of the chaos and doubt that courses through today’s global landscape. The Last Jedi is daring, spectacular cinema that opens up the universe to wondrous new possibilities.