Writer: Rian Johnson (screenplay), George Lucas (characters)
Cast: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Kelly Marie Tran, Domnhall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Benicio Del Toro, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels
Running time: 152mins
What’s the story: With the First Order hunting the Resistance into extinction, Rey (Ridley) seeks out Luke Skywalker (Hamill) to bring him into the fight.
What’s the verdict: Of the new wave of adventures set in a galaxy far, far away, The Last Jedi has the toughest mission to date. To do something different.
Writer/director Rian Johnson knows The Empire Strikes Back 2.0 won’t do if hope for the franchise is to stay alive. Consequently, he delivers a Star Wars movie with fresh themes and new plot beats. Made with the glee of a hungry director whose orders were to defy expectations.
Don’t worry, there are still lightsaber duels, impressive enemy frigates (we particularly like the Dreadnaught), X-wings and TIE-fighters. And elements of Empire, Return of the Jedi… and touches of the prequels (more on that later).
Picking up shortly after the events of The Force Awakens, the First Order has, if you will, struck back. The Resistance is scattered and faces obliteration. General Leia (Fisher) commands aboard her ship, but her transport and its convoy are being pursued by Snoke’s armada… and their shields are weakening.
Poe (Isaac) mounts a risky sabotage mission to buy the Resistance fleet time to escape. Meanwhile, Rey (Ridley) attempts to persuade Luke (Hamill) to return from his island exile and lead the counterattack. Kylo Ren (Driver) has designs on turning Rey’s passion into a power for the First Order.
Rian Johnson has only one previous sci-fi movie in his filmography. Luckily, it is Looper, the best film of 2012. He brings that film’s attention to character and plot here. The Last Jedi’s storyline is a long and winding road, but important twists and plot bends pay off. Even throwaway moments such as BB-8 being mistaken for a slot machine at a swanky casino lay the seed for a later punchline.
Johnson also delivers an epic sweep, reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings as much as Lucas’ original trilogy. Sweeping shots over the crags and hills of Ireland’s Skellig Michael, doubling here as Luke’s self-imposed island prison, lend Episode VIII a majesty and sense of folklore reminiscent of when Alec Guinness first took up the lightsaber.
An opening battle above the Resistance’s hideout planet echoes the spectacle of Rogue One’s climactic assault (admittedly without topping it).
None of this works without characters to champion. Again, Johnson builds on Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt and J.J. Abrams good work in The Force Awakens to deepen new characters Rey, Poe and Finn (yes, he does have something to do).
Crucially, he also lands the aged Luke Skywalker. Wide-eyed wonder is replaced with weary cynicism and caustic humour, without betraying the character.
Not all is perfect. At 152 minutes it is overlong, and Johnson over-indulges on cute critter comedy moments. Note: a little Porg goes a looooong way. CGI sets occasionally recall the airbrushed emptiness of Lucas’ prequels (see an extended sequence in a gaming resort for reference).
Plus, without wanting to come over all Sith, Daisy Ridley struggles with Rey’s key dramatic moments, dialogue delivery missing the required high notes. Sizzling the screen when facing off against elite First Order warriors, she is better at heavy duty action than heavy emotional lifting.
Thankfully, this is the only thespian stumble. Isaac and Boyega are dab hands at this derring-do. Newcomer Tran brings optimism and battle-hardened grit as Resistance fighter Rose, caught up in the mission. Benicio Del Toro we hope returns as galactic huckster DJ…
Driver takes Kylo Ren into emotional areas new, and we’ve a soft spot for Gleeson’s preening cur Hux. We’ll reveal nothing about Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke save we dig his retro 80s-nightclub décor…
Then there are Hamill and Fisher. Added poignancy due to her death late last year, Fisher’s final performance in the role that immortalised her carries the warmth, wit and muscle that made the character so beloved.
Hamill too breathes seasoned life into Luke Skywalker, a pivotal figure in this episode. And given some of the saga’s straight-up coolest moments in the climactic confrontation.
Not that we’re divulging anything else about the climax. Or other surprises Johnson throws our way. At least three biggies will shock, delight and moisten the eyes…
Which is why The Last Jedi successfully continues the saga. Come the closing scene, anticipation for episode IX positively crackles. 2019 cannot come quick enough.