2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens was an undeniably effective franchise reboot, with J.J. Abrams banishing painful memories of George Lucas’ preposterously earnest prequels by delivering a retro-futurist romp packed with nostalgic call-backs to the original trilogy. But in its slavish devotion to the past, it never really worked as a standalone film, feeling too often like an amped-up remake of 1977’s A New Hope. With last year’s Rogue One proving a solidly spectacular but strangely forgettable spin-off, and with the forthcoming Solo due out in five months, it’s fair to say the release of a new Star Wars is decidedly not the precious event it once was (let’s face it, with Disney now at the helm, it’s likely you’ll die long before this saga reaches any sort of definitive conclusion). Nevertheless, a glimmer of hope remained that the corporate overlords would let former indie auteur Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) bring a touch of his irreverent sensibility to this latest mainline instalment.
The Last Jedi hits the ground running with a bravura, playfully self-aware set piece which initially emulates and then swiftly skewers the angsty tone of fan favourite The Empire Strikes Back. Those who were charmed by Oscar Isaac’s swaggering Poe Dameron but found him frustratingly underutilised in The Force Awakens will be thrilled to see him play a more significant role this time round. This elegant opening sequence pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the film, with Johnson serving up a potent concoction of high-stakes action, mythological mumbo jumbo, and goofy knockabout fun, whilst satisfyingly fleshing out each of his key players. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Adam Driver all get ample opportunity to shine, while series newcomers Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro bring a welcome touch of high-camp space opera to proceedings. But the real revelation is Mark Hamill, who slyly obliterates the notion of Luke Skywalker as a bland archetypal hero. Indeed, the film is packed with playful surprises and unexpected little plot twists, which are extremely gratifying in light of how predictably The Force Awakens played out. Visually, The Last Jedi is a flat-out delight, with Johnson delivering imaginative new riffs on all the inevitable dogfights and lightsaber duels.
With a slightly bloated running time of 150 minutes, it’s not entirely plain sailing. The script has its share of eye-rolling contrivances, and there’s at least one attempt at emotional heft that backfires spectacularly. But I’d take Johnson’s occasionally overreaching ambition over Abrams’ play-it-safe approach any day of the week. I have an inkling it may lose some of its lustre with repeat viewings, and I’m loathe to declare it a series highpoint this early on in the initial hype cycle. But The Last Jedi is leagues above most recent blockbusters, and perhaps the most idiosyncratic studio franchise effort since George Miller’s glorious Mad Max: Fury Road.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi | Directed by Rian Johnson (USA 2017) with Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill. Starts December 14
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