20 December 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi review

There's a moment quite early on in Star Wars: The Last Jedi that concisely sums up writer/director Rian Johnson's approach to his entry in this new trilogy. After an opening space battle establishes the stakes of the main plot, we cut to where we left Rey at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, still standing in front of Luke Skywalker with her arm outstretched, offering him his father's lightsaber. He slowly reaches forward, gently takes it from her... and throws it straight over his shoulder and off a cliff. Like Luke, Star Wars: The Last Jedi simply isn't interested in the plot threads left hanging by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, nor is does it care for what direction you thought the franchise might take - and it's all the better for it.

Rather than trying to answer the questions posed by its predecessor, Star Wars: The Last Jedi either ignores them or undermines them entirely in what feels like a deliberate refutation of J.J Abrams' "mystery box", instead choosing to spend its time in much more interesting ways. What we have here what many (myself included) wanted Star Wars: The Force Awakens to be - not a movie that panders to the characters and iconography of the original trilogy but one that isn't afraid to take bold creative risks with them, and while that's certain to anger the more possessive Star Wars fans, it also results in the most original, imaginative and genuinely exciting Star Wars film since 1980.

It might be part of an enormous blockbuster franchise, but it's also Rian Johnson's film through and through, driven by the kind of creative vision and thematic intent that's rarely seen in films of this size, and while that doesn't stop Star Wars: The Last Jedi from having problems, it does go a long way towards ensuring that those problems ultimately do very little to harm the overall experience. It's the perfect example of a film being greater than the sum of its parts, a movie in which even its weakest aspects still have something important to offer thanks to the way that they add to the overall picture. Take, for example, the most obviously flawed section of the film which sees Finn and new character Rose Tico travel to a wealthy casino planet - it might feel a touch perfunctory in the moment, but it doesn't take long before you understand how well it ties into and informs the ideas that Star Wars: The Last Jedi is interested in.

Which means that while it might be just a little rough around the edges (particularly in its first half, where Johnson is doing the most work towards moving past the setup left by Star Wars: The Force Awakens), you could never accuse Star Wars: The Last Jedi of being a mess - it's simply too well-written, offering too cohesive and compelling an exploration of its themes and characters, for that to be a fair criticism. And if it sounds like I'm being vague, a little light on details... well, I am, and that's very much on purpose. I'd hate to "give away" exactly what it is that Rian Johnson is doing with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, simply because it's an enormous amount of fun to see just how he builds your expectations - whether they be expectations about characters, plot or even what Star Wars: The Last Jedi is ultimately about, thematically - before subverting them entirely.

But that's only half of what makes it such a great movie - it's also littered with some of the best moments, cinematography, action scenes and character arcs that a Star Wars film has ever contained. It's not just the story that benefits from what looks like a huge amount of creative freedom - it's the film-making too, and while Star Wars: The Last Jedi is still recognisably a Star Wars movie, it's also one that seems more willing to push at the boundaries of the "house style" that Star Wars is known for. The trademark screen-wipes are rarer and less obvious, the score far less reliant on the pieces of music we already recognise, which when added to Rian Johnson taking inspiration from a wide variety of sources (including Akira Kurosawa and William A. Wellman - film nerds are going to find a lot to enjoy here) makes Star Wars: The Last Jedi look (and more importantly, feel) every bit as new and different as this story deserves. Hell, even the fight scenes here are like nothing we've ever seen before, a far cry away from both the stilted, careful duels of the original trilogy and the flip-wizard ballet of the prequels, instead relying on nothing more than strong, impressive choreography filmed from a distance at which we can really appreciate it - and it's simply sublime.

It's also worth mentioning that the performances contained within Star Wars: The Last Jedi are pretty much across-the-board brilliant, to the point where attempting to give a comprehensive run-down of those I was especially impressed by would end up being nothing more than a lengthy list of cast members. What I will say, however, is how genuinely brilliant Mark Hamill is here - his ability to sell us on this character's regret, pain, anger and loneliness makes Luke more interesting than he's ever been before, regardless of how "fans" might feel about this older version of Luke not living up to their expectations (which is... kind of the entire point).

There's more I could talk about - hell, you could write an entire article about how nice it is to see multiple well-written female characters in a franchise previously led almost solely by men, and it's such a deeply layered and thematically rich film that a more spoiler-filled analysis could go on forever - but at a certain point I'm just gushing about a film that exceeded all of my expectations in every single way. No, it's not perfect - the first half suffers from a number of moments that don't quite work in execution, and there's so much going on that it maybe could have done with either being cut into two shorter films or being expanded into a genuine, three-hour-plus long epic - but these would-be flaws end up taking so little away from the overall experience that it's impossible to hold them against it.

So I'll say it - Star Wars: The Last Jedi isn't just my new favourite Star Wars film, it's also the new best entry in the Star Wars franchise, a tremendous achievement that I'm already looking forward to rewatching time and time again. What Rian Johnson has delivered here is a truly special piece of blockbuster entertainment, and I'm glad - no, thrilled - that he'll be a driving force in wherever Star Wars ends up going after whatever Episode IX ends up being called. Will J.J Abrams be able to conclude this trilogy in a satisfying way? I doubt it, to be honest - but even if he can't, at least we'll always have Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

5 stars

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