Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Film Review: Rian Johnson's bold, brilliant The Last Jedi rips Star Wars out of nostalgia and plunges it into war

When Star Wars leapt back onto screens two years ago with JJ Abrams' The Force Awakens, everything felt a little bit familiar. Now, I wholeheartedly and unabashedly adore The Force Awakens - I will forever love the way it introduces us to a whole new roster of characters and how it uses nostalgia to remind us why we once loved this franchise - but it's very difficult to not also gain a sense of complacency from it. Yes, it's a terrific film, but it isn't a particularly brave one, nor is it one that really tells its own story. What we have is a plot that is, largely, beat for beat identical to the franchise's very first entry, only populated with fresh faces. It's enjoyable, but frustratingly superfluous.

Enter: Rian Johnson, and enter Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. While The Force Awakens is credited to three writers (including Abrams himself), The Last Jedi comes solely from Johnson's hand, and it feels like it, too. The film dismisses the lovable nostalgia of its predecessor, replacing it with something darker, more sinister. It improves on the basic cinematography of Abrams' film and presents us with the most visually resplendent Star Wars feature to date. It feels like the work of a man who understands a franchise that once existed without him but remains determined to leave his mark, it's both a wholly singular vision and a complete encompassing of what makes this fictional universe so great.

We begin mere moments after the climax of The Force Awakens. While Rey (Daisy Ridley) is hanging around with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and waiting for some kind of training, our fellow Resistance fighters are attempting to escape the First Order. We find Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Leia (Carrie Fisher, beautifully memorialised in the film's ending credits) on board their cruiser, running out of fuel and without a rescue in sight. The film doesn't waste time re-establishing these figures and their roles in the story, beginning a 152-minute film on surprisingly quick footing. There's a dramatic urgency to the film's plot that kicks off immediately, structurally this is unlike any other Star Wars film to date. Similarly to this year's Dunkirk, a vast majority of the film is spent watching separate narrative strands all head towards the same climactic moment, each one only growing more daunting with every passing minute.

On the Resistance cruiser's tail is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who spends most of his time lounging in his chambers and pitting his loyal servants against each other. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) both vie for Snoke's approval, and so they attempt to defeat the Resistance in their own ways - Hux by catching the fleeing vessels, and Ren by going after Rey herself personally. If that feels like a lot of names then it's because it is, and we also have a handful of new ones too: Laura Dern is on board as Amilyn Holdo, a Resistance leader with a daunting new task; Benicio del Toro shows up as a master code breaker with a shady side; and Kelly Marie Tran is a bonafide scene stealer as Rose, a maintenance worker for the Resistance with a surprising set of helpful skills.

That's a lot of new faces added to an already pretty hefty ensemble, but Johnson's script effortlessly juggles the multitude of characters. People like Finn and Poe (already well established two years ago) are relegated to lesser roles here, albeit both actors still bring their signature charm and energy to the screen. Johnson ensures that, while his focus here is predominantly on Rey, Luke and Ren, his new characters all get their moment to shine - Rose's recent history is quietly affecting and frequently very touching when she delves into it further, while Amilyn provides one of the film's most notable moments in a jaw dropping manner, trust me when I say it won't be forgotten any time soon. Much like The Force Awakens' biggest strength was its characters, The Last Jedi similarly finds greatness in its newcomers.

But while all the new guys are great in their own way, Johnson also understands that this film needs to be about three people in particular. Rey is in a confusing place at the film's beginning, she doesn't know where she belongs in a galaxy bigger than she ever imagined it to be. She's desperate for answers but never comes across as selfish, always putting the Resistance before her own needs - the topic of her family resurfaces here, and the film tackles it in a beautiful, surprising manner. Ridley has come a long way in her portrayal of Rey, giving a much more nuanced performance in the film's first half before the character expands in the final act. Hamill also brings some levity to Skywalker that the franchise hasn't explored before, finding a soul in him that the character lacked in his younger days. The Luke we have before us is wise and powerful, but also old and frustrated - Hamill sells the conflict well.

If anyone gets points for their portrayal of conflict, though, it surely must be Adam Driver. Kylo Ren is defined by his inner turmoil, his inability to pinpoint which side he truly belongs to. While he believably pledges his allegiance to Snoke in the film's beginning, we start to see this uneasiness resurface in him as the story progresses - it all culminates in a series of breathtaking showdowns across multiple environments, each tenser and more unpredictable than the last. Driver once again brings fragility to Ren, but also anger - more than that, rage. He remains this trilogy's strongest character in my eyes, a seamless representation of the real battle between dark and light that the franchise has always looked at but never presented with such conflict until now.

It might sound like heavy going - and, for the most part it is, this is the closest Star Wars has come to a straight up war film, there are POV shots of soldiers in trenches and everything - but Johnson doesn't forget to have a little fun too. BB-8 is on hand to liven up every scene he's in, Poe Dameron remains a brilliant source of humour (his opening moments here are probably his best yet) and a high octane chase through an alien-ridden casino feels like the lightheartedness of the much maligned prequel trilogy but done right. Johnson's control of tone is impeccable, sourcing humour in unexpected places but not once losing the darker atmosphere of his sequel.

While dense on plot, The Last Jedi finds brightness in its cinematography - this is without question the best any Star Wars film has ever looked. More than just finding eye catching images (of which there are enough to fill a Death Star twice over), Johnson's visual palette reflects his film's tone - the jaw dropping final confrontation takes place on a planet whose white salt surface turns up a stark red sand beneath it. The film wrings the visual contrast for all its worth, and boy is it worth it. With the weight of the series' prior wars firmly in The Last Jedi's mind, Johnson soaks his climactic battlefield in a faux blood before anyone's even had the chance to die. Snoke's chamber also makes a solid claim for being Star Wars' single greatest piece of set design: a giant, sweepingly atmospheric room whose walls are illuminated in a glowing red that shines down on the faces of all who occupy it. Red is a strong visual motif here, and it matches the film's tone stunningly.

There's a lot to talk about with this film, in fact I barely feel as if I've scratched the surface of what The Last Jedi achieves. Johnson has pushed Star Wars into new territory here - this is the series at its most thrilling, but also at its most characteristically interesting - but he hasn't lost what makes the franchise so staggeringly iconic. Well, I don't think so at least. The Last Jedi could prove polarising - its final hour is so packed with material that something somewhere is bound to set people off - but I would happily place it in the franchise's uppermost echelon, perhaps even in pole position. This is a thrilling, unpredictable film that rips Star Wars away from the joys of sci-fi and forces it into the burdens and complexities of war, and it looks damn good doing it too. Rian Johnson, take your bow: this could well be the series' finest hour.

In A Sentence

With a superb cast hitting new heights under Rian Johnson's confident direction, The Last Jedi is a thrilling, era-defining entry into the modern Star Wars canon.

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