Thanks to strong direction, a smartly balanced script and excellent performances from the ensemble cast, the force is strong with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
With Rian Johnson taking the sole writing and directing credit and J.J. Abrams now on board as executive producer, The Last Jedi is the second part of what’s being called the ‘Sequel Trilogy’, which retrofits the original Star Wars films with new, sometimes obviously stand-in/proxy characters so that the series can just keep going and going. It must now that Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker is getting-on and grim, Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is dead and dear Carrie Fisher sadly left us about a year ago too.
Picking up shortly after the end of The Force Awakens, we begin with a surprisingly funny sequence where Resistance X Wing fly-boy Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) dangerously takes on the forces of the First Order and mocks hapless and pasty baddie General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), which leads to a considerable quotient of comedy because Johnson understands that this would be more than a little dour and pompous without it.
The Resistance is under attack throughout as various faces old and new weave in and out of a multi-threaded storyline that vaguely recalls the structure of The Empire Strikes Back. Therefore the plotlines with the rebels on the run under the command of Leia (Fisher) as the bromance continues between Dameron and Finn (John Boyega) are intercut with the expected sequences where Rey (Daisy Ridley) confronts the exiled, hairy and jowly Skywalker (Hamill) on a faraway planet that, despite the FX, looks rather like the Irish coast.
Hamill only barely (and silently) appeared in The Force Awakens, so here he’s given plenty of room to impress as the brooding, haunted Luke, which feels like a bit of a shock as we’re all so familiar with the youthful, golly-gee-willikers Skywalker we met 40 years ago in A New Hope. Ridley is also terrific as she learns to control her own Jedi-esque talents while Luke becomes a kind of Yoda-wannabe.
This is all happening as Finn and a new character, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), find themselves in trouble on a planet where rich races reign and they must join forces with DJ (Benicio Del Toro as a semi-Han-Solo figure). There’s much detail as well about the Vader-ish Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who’s still conflicted about his evilness and telekinetically afraid of Rey. He’s also insulted by the mainly-FX Supreme Leader Snoke, an ugly extraterrestrial sneerer ‘played’ by Andy Serkis.
With deft direction by Johnson and his script that has its ominous and mythical moments but never quite feels over-the-top or silly (note Luke’s early warning line “This is not going to go the way you think”), this features strong work from Hamill, Ridley, Driver and Boyega. Laura Dern doesn’t have much to do except look worried as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo and Fisher’s role feels somewhat incomplete, though we’ve been assured that she did indeed finish it before her death.
There’s plenty of CG spectacle, striking backdrops (a globe-trotting production resulted in some striking scenery, FX or no FX), details to have diehard fans enraptured and a fair few biting gags.
Then there’s just the right amount of ‘porgs’, an alien race of doe-eyed, penguin-like critters that had devotees understandably concerned in the first trailers for the film. They look like they’re going to become as annoying as the dreaded Ewoks did in Return Of The Jedi, but it seems that Johnson realised how they’d make his film too cynically cute and wisely cut their appearances way back.
Thanks to Disney there are sequels, prequels, spinoffs, rip-offs and more to come (including an already controversial young Han Solo epic), so Star Wars devotees needn’t worry. We might even see a Jabba The Hutt musical comedy as we get into the 2020s. We can only hope.
Rated M. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in cinemas now.