With its sumptuous colour palette, interwoven plot lines and unexpected humour, writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) has assuredly marked Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi as his own; a Star Wars film at once deeply familiar and unique.
Last Jedi picks up almost immediately where The Force Awakens left off, with the orphaned heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempting to lure the only remaining Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) out of self-imposed exile while the last remnants of the Rebellion flee a resurgent New Order. It is as dramatic an opening to a Star Wars film as any before it, delivering an exhilarating and poignant battle that also introduces a spectacularly menacing new class of space ship known as the 'Dreadnaught', pits ace pilot Poe (Oscar Isaacs) against his superiors and sets in motion an innovative countdown after which the Rebellion will exist no more. Unable to escape without detection and with only shallow reserves of fuel remaining until the New Order catches them, the depleted Rebel fleet limps through space like the Orca from Jaws - a hapless, crumbling ship pursued by a killer whose only remaining hurdle is time.
Ingenious in its own right, this setup, however, gives rise to the film's most pointless subplot. After awaking from his coma, Finn (John Boyega) contrives a means by which he can disable the New Order's tracking device, albeit requiring him to leave the fleeing Rebel vessel, travel to a Monaco-styled casino planet, track down a master codebreaker, bring that codebreaker back to space and infiltrate the enemy's ship undetected. This enormous MacGuffin sees Boyega partnered with the charming Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a Rebel engineer low in status but high in pluck with whom he does absolutely nothing to advance any part of The Last Jedi's story. Finn's reluctant hero arc was already covered off in The Force Awakens, Rose's belief in (and duty to) the righteousness of the Rebel cause is perfectly encapsulated in her fantastic opening scene but goes unchallenged thereafter, Benicio Del Toro pops up then departs in an entirely forgettable cameo and together they end up right where they began, having effected no material change except to deliver a heavy-handed critique of war profiteers. The great shame is that in both actors you have oodles of charisma, heart and talent that deserve scenes of equal calibre. Instead, they chew up time in a movie already guilty of using far too much of it.
Thankfully, though, others fare better. Hamill, Ridley and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren find themselves entangled in a fascinating and emotionally-driven power struggle, with each simultaneously grappling with their complicated relationships to one another and their confused senses of place in the universe. In an appropriate analogy to the franchise itself, Skywalker wrestles with his own understanding of legend and mythos, believing himself unworthy of hero status and wracked with the guilt of failing Ren in his training. Ren, in turn, remains conflicted about his role in the New Order and the murder of his father by his own hand, whilst Rey feels the growing Force within her yet lacks the knowledge or training to understand it. It is this trio's scenes, both in the early introspective moments and the climax's scintillating battle sequences, that The Last Jedi hits its highest notes. The exploration of the Jedi lore, too, receives the kind of treatment that will delight the franchise's most ardent fans, including a moment of outstanding visual flair involving replicated Reys that reminds us of Johnson's unique style and character. And, of course, there's Carrie Fisher, whose few scenes remind us how affecting and groundbreaking a character Princess Leia was, how captivating Fisher was as an actor and whose departure is treated with a deftness, restraint and respect that few would ever have expected or delivered.
Perhaps the biggest departure from tradition, though, especially in the wake of the gritty spinoff Rogue One, is The Last Jedi's use of comedy. With more gags, one-liners and quirky moments than all the other Star Wars films combined, The Last Jedi introduces a levity to the staid franchise in the vein of Roger Moore's turn as James Bond post-Connery. At times it works, even to the point of guffaws, but ultimately the humour feels misplaced. In a story where loss abounds and crushing defeat looms large at every turn, the repeated cutaways to doe-eyed 'porgs' purring like extras from a Pixar film distract more than they entertain. So, too, does Domhnall Gleeson's character General Hux, who is bizarrely reduced to the status of a parody of a Star Wars villain in The Last Jedi. Disrespected, bullied and frequently choked or tossed into nearby walls, Hux's utter emasculation robs both the New Order and, in turn, the film of its most enduring menace: the Empire. Pare back any of the previous eight films film and, for all their Sith leaders and rogue assassins, what truly terrified was a galactic military-industrial complex so vast and overbearing it was capable of repressing not just people but entire planets. Darth Vaders come and go and individuals can be destroyed, but totalitarian regimes endure for generations. When an oppressed populace has only ever known a life under the iron fist, it cannot even contemplate an alternative and it's that, more than any great dark mysticism, that provides the Star Wars universe with its most tangible threat.
Overly long and consistently clunky, The Last Jedi ultimately delivers a mixed bag. Its battle scenes are nothing short of spectacular, including a 5-second shot involving Laura Dern and a warp-jump that almost singlehandedly justifies the entire film's existence. As an exploration of Jedi mythology, too, the film delivers in a way the George Lucas prequels never managed, offering new and engaging insights into the Force's light/dark dichotomy. Too often, though, the dialogue is exposition heavy and played for laughs, restricting characters to emotionally stilted and less nuanced performances. One senses Rian Johnson has in him a greater, more exploratory story to tell; one unburdened by so much expectation and history. Thankfully, Disney senses it too, and we hence await his next trilogy with great enthusiasm.