I’m pleased to report that Star Wars has, once again, happened. The Last Jedi feels like a Star Wars film, hitting every emotional and narrative beat we’ve become accustomed to in the 40 years since the first instalment was released, and it looks like a Star Wars film, with Jim Henson-esque animatronic puppets taking precedence over CGI monsters.
Over the course of two and a half hours, family histories are revealed, masters face off against students, Jedi and Sith flirt with rival ideologies. There are intergalactic battles, brilliantly choreographed lightsaber fights, and daring escapes from impossible situations.
Even the backdrops against which the drama unfurls tend to be interesting spins on classic locations – the famous alien-filled Cantina becomes a sprawling casino filled with fat-cat interstellar arms dealers, and what at first appears to be a clone of The Empire Strike’s Back’s ice planet Hoth turns out to be a salt field covering crimson dust, which billows like fresh blood from beneath the feet of colossal AT-AT tanks.
Things pick up exactly where JJ Abrams’ 2015 film The Force Awakens left off, with Rey warping across the galaxy in search of the now-mythical Luke Skywalker. Princess Leia, meanwhile, struggles to save the Resistance from certain death against the overwhelming might of the First Order, which is essentially the Empire rebranded with even less-subtle Nazi regalia. Same as it ever was.
The main point of difference is the gravitas and nostalgia imbued by the return of the original cast members, now playing physically and spiritually weathered elder statesmen. Mark Hamill is exceptional as the jaded old Skywalker; seeing him unsheath his lightsaber again is a special moment, and his deadpan delivery, presumably the result of decades of acting classes given his performance in the original films, provides some great moments of bathos.
The return of Carrie Fisher as Leia is, of course, lent extra poignancy following her death last year, and there’s real weight to her war-weary general. Where the old Star Wars movies celebrated youthful exuberance, this one explores the difficulties of seeing your children – literal and metaphorical – forge their own paths and make their own mistakes.
Oscar Isaac and John Boyega are both on fine form as cocky fighter-pilot Poe and Han Solo’s heir apparent Finn, although both parts are largely tangential to the overall story, their misadventures serving as interludes from the more serious Jedi business.
The real highlights – both dramatic and in terms of spectacle – are the scenes starring Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. Given more breathing space this time around, Driver creates a worthy successor to Darth Vader, conflicted and inscrutable, leaving you guessing to the end where his allegiances will eventually fall. Elsewhere, Domhnall Gleeson hams it up again as the evil General Hux, and Benicio Del Toro makes a brief but memorable appearance as an intergalactic thief.
Where the now gladly-forgotten prequel trilogy tumbled inescapably into its own navel thanks to enough exposition and backstory to send Tolkien to sleep, director Rian Johnson follows Abrams’ example of glossing over detail in favour of the best kind of melodrama. This does, however, mean that some major characters pass through the story with their histories and motives remaining a total mystery, which is all the more surprising given the often ponderous pacing.
The Last Jedi offers nothing new – like at all – but it does lay down its familiar deck of cards in some intriguing ways, offering more vision and complexity than Abrams’ fanboyish – if still fun – homage-filled reboot. At least here there are individual plot-points that are genuinely surprising, even if the overall tapestry is eminently predictable. In a universe where repetition is hard-coded and history is destined to endlessly repeat itself, this is a close to perfect sequel, although you have to wonder how long things can continue in this vein before diminishing returns really begin to kick in.
First published in City A.M.