Director: Rian Johnson

Running Time: 152 Minutes

Release Date: Thur 14 Dec 2017

“On every movie, I work very hard to make them different. I make them completely different.


Speaking to interviewer Charlie Rose in 2015 a mere handful of months prior to the release of the hugely anticipated The Force Awakens, Star Wars’ creator George Lucas offered one (of several) not-so-veiled swipes at the direction Disney and Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy looked set to take the beloved Sci-Fi franchise in.

For many, it was a critique that held water; as effortlessly as it channeled the fun and spirit of the original Wars releases, Awakens was dismissed by a hefty chunk of the fan community as an overly familiar retread of the former film’s narrative beats, particularly that of the 1977 original. 

Kennedy and Disney argued their case that the first film in their new multi-strand approach to the galaxy-hopping saga was deliberately designed to be just that - an introduction for the new, younger generation to everything the films were about: epic space battles, wrought father-son clashes, the light versus the dark, and a grand, sweeping sci-fi adventure… with the obligatory weapon of mass space destruction thrown in because, well, you need some sort of Death Star.

It left many pondering whether Rian Johnson’s follow-up would present a similar rehash of Irvin Kirshner’s The Empire Strikes Back, doubly so given that film’s standing as one of the most successful, beloved and acclaimed sequels of all time.

If nothing else, The Last Jedi should be celebrated then for being so balls-to-the-wall unprecedented in its execution, so wildly set apart from what the franchise - and cinema as a whole - would deem ‘safe’, and so confidently experimental with almost every core ingredient of the franchise, that it makes for one of the most gripping, if occasionally jarring, blockbusters of recent memory. 

Picking up where Awakens ended, Jedi launches with a brief detour to General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher, putting in a beautiful, resonant final performance) and her depleted Resistance forces, scrambling to escape from an impending attack by the villainous First Order, who are primed and ready to do some serious striking back of their own. 

It’s a belter of an opener from Johnson, setting the benchmark for the film that will follow, with plenty of humour, excitement, edge-of-the-seat escapes and a surprising emotional clout.

It’s then back to Daisy Ridley’s Rey, reunited in those final moments from Awakens with Mark Hamill’s grizzled Jedi Master, hoping to coax him back to fight the good fight. Once again, from the off, Johnson quite literally tosses away expectation. In fact, throughout Jedi as a whole, there’s the definite sense that the director is taking meticulous care in setting up the conventional strands and ebbs of Star Wars, only to take great delight in upending them. 

This is Star Wars, but most decidedly not as you know it.

To delve too deeply into Johnson’s twisty-turny take on this latest chapter in the Skywalker story would be to potentially undo much of Jedi’s impact, but come the almost breathless final hour, few in the audience will likely feel comfortable in predicting what will happen next. There’s an edge, a fire and an unpredictable spark that ignites throughout the film, offering up what may be truly divisive moments for ardent fans of the franchise, but it all certainly makes for thrilling viewing.

Particularly enjoyable are how irreverently Jedi handles some of the wonkier characters and ideas inherited from Abrams and co., to an extent that it almost feels like the film is offering a backhanded dig at the tropes and familiarity of its predecessor. Domhnall Gleeson, for instance, continues to be truly woeful and hammy as First Order leader General Hux, but here everyone almost seems in on that fact, with the character painted in such broad strokes as to almost seem this time round a conscious parody of the figure we saw in Awakens.

And he’s far from the only character Johnson seems to enjoy over-aggrandising as part of his readiness to pull the rug out from under the audiences feet.

The flourishes of invention and new ground extends not just into Johnson’s narrative choices and character work, but visually and aesthetically, too. A trippy visit to a mysterious underground cave is about as experimental and non-conventional a set piece as the saga has offered, whilst a visualisation of exactly what the force is similarly plays around with frame rate and extreme close ups to an extent that even a confident visual auteur such as Kirshner avoided. 

With that being said, Johnson clearly has his finger on the pulse of what makes the franchise tick in a lot of ways. Haughty, agitated alien nuns hobble around on Luke’s mysterious island with a presence and character that echoes back to the creatures and whimsy of the original movies, whilst an almost customary nod to the iconic cantina sequence, bursting with brilliantly imaginative creature and character designs scratches a similar itch. There’s also a real sense of levity and humour that (for the most part) works throughout, reminding us in a film that is peppered with betrayal, death and sacrifice, that there is still a lot of fun to be had in this Sci-Fi adventure in a galaxy far, far away.

It doesn’t all work, though. In fact, Jedi is so bursting at the same with new ideas, surprises and misdirections, and seemingly so bent on not taking these characters or their journey through the traditional and predictable pathways, that it can at times feel a little overcooked or too ambitious for its own good. Significant chunks of the middle act tread water or create incident simply to give characters such as John Boyega’s still-likeable Finn, newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and Oscar Isaac’s dashing pilot Poe something to do. Similarly, with such hugely didactic moments happening sometimes within seconds of one another, the tone is all over the place, with Johnson rarely giving a particular shock, surprise or laugh the breathing space it needs before something new and jarringly incongruent throws itself up on screen.

There certainly feels like there is a tighter edit lurking away in there, too. Finn and Rose’s subplot to the casino world of Canto Bight, for instance, whilst imaginatively designed and offering up Benicio Del Toro’s fun (but ultimately pointless) DJ, adds little to the picture and story overall. 

Most of the quintessential Star Wars boxes are ticked, though. John Williams returns with another sumptuous score, and ILM and friends’ visual effects are as industry-leading and seamless as you would expect (though there are the odd distracting moments of CG overload or green screen awareness spread throughout). Further credit to Johnson here though, who, much like Abrams before him, finds ways to blend the effects work with some wonderfully striking cinematography and imagery from DP Steve Yedlin. From the stunning, silent moment of two ships colliding in hyperspace, to plumes of red mineral erupting to fill the frame as resistance fighters skim across a battlefield, there are countless moments of visual invention and delight to savour.

But it isn’t difficult to envisage Jedi proving even more divisive to audiences than Awakens before it. If anything, it’s a film that makes Abrams’ offering look even more safe by comparison. It certainly leaves his return for the upcoming Episode IX something of a quandary; Jedi plays nothing at all like a conventional middle act, tackling and wrapping up so much, and ending on such a distinct note, that one could almost forgive there not being a follow-up at all.

It’s a bold, striking and confidently original piece of franchise cinema that shakes off many of the preconceptions about what Star Wars is and can be. There’s an undeniable appeal to a film that so casually dismisses major plot points and theories without so much as an explanation or second glance. Sure, some ardent devotees will hate this, and not doubt be shocked or even appalled at where Johnson takes some of the characters, but there seems - for the most part - a degree of inspired method in his madness. 

It’s certainly the most interesting and affecting take on Luke Skywalker yet, with Hamill putting in a brilliant, roughly-hewn turn as the disillusioned former hero. And Adam Driver, as the conflicted, rageful Kylo Ren, once again offers arguably this new trilogy’s most dimensional character and assured performance. The growing bond and connection between Ren and Daisy Ridley’s Rey also serve up some of the films most human, intriguing moments, even if Ridley continues to be oddly stiff in moments of anger or frustration.

As George Lucas was busy in 2015 making passive aggressive digs at the formulaic offering that was to come in The Force Awakens, that film’s co-writer, Lawrence Kasdan, was already looking ahead to the future. Of Rian Johnson’s appointment, and the project that was to become The Last Jedi, he observed: “He’s going to make some weird thing.”

“You know it’s not going to be like anything that’s ever been in Star Wars.”

Couple that with Hamill’s initial reaction to the screenplay being that he “fundamentally disagreed” with pretty much every choice made with the character of Luke, and it’s clear that Johnson had taken the training wheels off from the get go, and this bold, surprising, fun, bizarre and at times jarringly original take on the saga was very much his raison d’etre for taking up the reigns.

And whilst, for some, such boldness and deviation may lead to Jedi proving itself to be something of a disappointment, it’s important to remember just how unprecedented and unpredictable a follow-up Empire was when it debuted back in 1980.

No, The Last Jedi is no Empire Strikes Back. It is a more muddled, tonally erratic and slightly overcrowded affair, and lacks Empire’s seamless flow and focus. But in an era where soft reboots, retreads and rehashes have even bled into the halls of Lucasfilm, its confidence, daring and originality should absolutely be applauded.

And for those who walk away from Jedi as disillusioned and jaded as Skywalker himself, determined to stick too slavishly to the template of what has come before in Wars, then perhaps Johnson’s shakeup and his offering this time round is best encapsulated by a sagely message from a venerable character midway through:

“We are what they grow beyond.”

RATING - ★★★★

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