Having found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries to convince the ageing Jedi Master to train her. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the First Order wage war against the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher).
After the disappointment of George Lucas’ prequels, director J.J. Abrams was given the unenviable task of revitalising the Star Wars series. Having already found success with his Star Trek reboots, Abrams was a safe option to direct Episode VII and kick off a new trilogy. His film, The Force Awakens was a resounding triumph - taking $2.07 billion at the worldwide box office and receiving considerable critical acclaim. A combination of the charisma of the returning stars, a talented young cast, exhilarating set-pieces and a healthy dose of nostalgia made the film a worthy, if a little unoriginal, addition to the series.
Whereas TFA was archetypal Star Wars and used the 'greatest hits' to do the vital job of getting the series back on track, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is bold, dark and innovative. The film adopts the approach of The Empire Strikes Back insofar as it is the dark middle chapter of the trilogy, but this is Star Wars as you have never seen it before. Writer and director Johnson (Looper, Breaking Bad) has crafted a film that is distinctively his, rather than film-making by committee and takes the series in an unexpected direction - as Luke says to Rey, ‘this is not going to go the way you think’.
Johnson’s direction is superb. His accomplished camerawork and Steve Yedlin’s cinematography create a stunning aesthetic, while the action sequences are handled with aplomb. The film opens with an immersive aerial assault, in which the First Order and the Resistance do battle in spectacular fashion. Many impressive sequences follow, but the film's standout scene is a Lightsaber battle in Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) throne room. Visually stunning and unpredictable, the sequence is not over-choreographed like many duels in the prequels and is one of the best in the entire series.
Johnson revels in classic Star Wars as well as pursuing his own vision of the franchise
As well as the action, Johnson brings out the best in his cast. Daisy Ridley retains her tendency to overact, but gives a more confident performance as Rey, while John Boyega is again terrific as Finn. As fighter pilot Poe Dameron, the immensely charismatic Oscar Isaac flourishes in a larger role and Mark Hamill is superb as an older, grizzled Luke Skywalker. Ridley and Hamill’s scenes are real highlights and delve into the mythos of the Force and the Jedi to great effect. Crucially, The Last Jedi is a very fitting send off for the late Carrie Fisher. As General, rather than Princess, Leia is a commanding presence and knowing leader, worthy of Fisher’s talents.
However, it is the brooding Adam Driver as Kylo Ren who steals the film with a menacing performance. Ren’s petulance, megalomania and explosive temper make him a truly intimidating villain, worthy of the film’s frequent comparisons with Darth Vader. Driver captures the character's bruised, conflicted nature superbly and gives arguably the best performance in a Star Wars film.
As seen with the Vader allusions and several triumphant appearances made by the Millennium Falcon (piloted by Chewbacca), Johnson revels in classic Star Wars as well as pursuing his own vision of the franchise. Rather than merely satisfying fans’ nostalgia, returning features and characters are crucial to the narrative and, in some cases, distorted. It is this that sets The Last Jedi apart from its predecessor. While Episode VII was an enjoyable and satisfying return to the series, Abrams’ film offered little change to what had come before and was accused of essentially being a remake of A New Hope. This instalment expands the universe’s lore and takes characters in bold and surprising directions, without losing that Star Wars touch.
J.J. Abrams deserves a lot of credit for the groundwork set by The Force Awakens, but with The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson elevates this sequel trilogy to new heights. Despite a couple of missteps and a second act which is a touch too long, this is a brilliantly dark and exhilarating film that contains nuanced performances, grand ideas and thrilling action set pieces – simply premier blockbuster filmmaking. It is slightly unfortunate, therefore, that it is Abrams, rather than Johnson, who will return to direct Episode IX. But fear not – we all know what that leads to.