How best to follow up a mega-hit like Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Expectation is sky high; fans of the Star Wars universe have embraced new, youthful characters while new fans have happily jumped on board the nearest available transport to a galaxy far, far away. The director with the unenviable task of expanding the universe further is Rian Johnson, a man hitherto un-burdened by huge studio films or wild fan expectation, now thrust front and centre into the madness and rather than flounder and flail or simply repeat the winning formula, Johnson has stamped his own take on the space-set behemoth, creating what is certainly the most unexpectedly batshit instalment to date.
Opening with the shivers-up-the-spine bombastic theme, we learn that since the events of The Force Awakens the Resistance are evacuating their latest base having been discovered by the First Order. The sneering General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) plans to wipe them out entirely while Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is keen for his apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to step up and fulfil his destiny as a force of evil. Meanwhile the cocksure Poe Dameron, now promoted to Commander, is launching a dangerous attack on the First Order’s fleet under the watchful eye of General Leia (Carrie Fisher). Having previously been sent to bring back Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) from his self-imposed exile on the planet of Ahch-To, Rey (Daisy Ridley) discovers that things are not black and white.
It’s easy to assume from the trailers and from our own expectations that Star Wars: The Last Jedi will follow a similar plot to The Empire Strikes Back – particularly when The Force Awakens was a hugely enjoyable rehash of Star Wars: A New Hope - but what Johnson has done is create a new beast, one that has its own identity and takes its own path. Oddly feeling in many ways like a conclusion, the next episode could literally take any direction and that is an extremely exciting prospect.
This time around Isaac gets to really stick his teeth into a meatier role with Poe given as much screen time as Rey and Finn. There’s a dangerous quality to his earnest pilot, clashing with his superiors and recklessly putting himself in danger. He may be Resistance but this boy is pure rebel. With bags of natural charisma, Isaac truly shines when paired with Fisher’s Leia or butting heads with Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo and frankly it’s impossible to imagine anyone not enjoying his partnership with his BDB – Best, Droid, Buddy - BB-8. Ridley is solid as Rey, hitting a few duff notes in her delivery but absolutely nailing the emotion and the physicality of the role. Tragically Boyega’s Finn is underused, partnering with a new character, Rose (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) their dangerous mission sags a bit and includes an encounter with a mildly bizarre Benicio Del Toro.
Through no fault of the actors the pairing sadly falls a little flat leaving the audience desperate for Finn and Rey to re-team, Boyega and Ridley’s easy chemistry is sorely missed. Tran’s Rose is a little too earnest to feel fully rounded which is a shame given the hype Rose has been given in the lead up to release. Fisher gives her best performance as Leia, regal and noble yet with humour and sass. Her pain at the predicament of the Resistance and the loss of Han Solo are etched on her face. It’s a fitting final performance from the much missed actress, so cruelly taken from us last year. Hamill too is excellent as the broken Luke, a hostile, grumpy loner he nonetheless shows moments of the callow youth of the first two films and gets some wonderfully fan-pleasing moments.
As for the dark side, Gleeson is back as the smarmy Hux, at loggerheads with Kylo Ren, the duo can barely contain their contempt for one another. Whilst Gleeson felt somewhat shackled in The Force Awakens he gets to let loose this time around, clearly having fun delivering hokey villain lines with a glint in his eye. Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma returns but makes little impact save for a satisfying face off with Finn and Andy Serkis is nicely malevolent as arch manipulator Snoke. But once again it’s Adam Driver who is exceptional, turning in an outstanding performance and elevating Kylo Ren/Ben Solo into a complex, conflicted villain. Never quite knowing what he’s thinking, Ren is a fascinating character in Driver’s hands, turning the franchise on its head to truly make it about his journey.
The stunning effects and gorgeous cinematography – the final battle scene is a visual treat – are served wonderfully by IMAX’s clarity and seemingly endlessly large frame. It’s worth forking out a little extra to see the film as intended, a visual and sonic assault on the senses.
Director Rian Johnson hits an audacious curve ball taking Star Wars: The Last Jedi into territories unknown making it refreshingly hard to predict and adding real danger and tension. It’s Star Wars but not as we know it, funny, thrilling and dramatic, The Last Jedi is a grower, and a triumphant one at that.