Warning: This review includes minor spoilers so if you don’t want to know anything about the plot before you see it, go away now or watch the review video below instead which is spoiler-free!
What the hell has happened to Luke Skywalker? That was the question that haunted all two-hours-and-16-minutes of Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens, and never more so than in the last couple of minutes, when Luke (Mark Hamill) finally pitched up on the far-flung oceanic planet of Ahch-To not as the self-assured, optimistic Jedi Knight we left partying on Endor at the close of Return of the Jedi, but as a grey-bearded monk who’s retreated from the world(s). Eyes hooded and haunted, face as craggy as the cliff beneath his feet, he turned to suspiciously eye new heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) as she offered the thrilling invitation – to viewers, if not to him – of once more clutching his lightsaber.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth canonical episode in the saga, is the first to continue right from where its predecessor left off. But before we get to the little matter of whether Luke accepts or rejects Rey’s offer, we first see General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) lead the First Order in an attack on a secret base that harbours General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and the last of the Resistance.
Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and BB-8 take the fight straight back to Hux, piloting an X-Wing at a Dreadnaught cruiser to neutralise its surface cannons. They return to base just as Stormtrooper-turned-Resistance fighter Finn (John Boyega) awakens from the coma that claimed him at the end of Episode 7. “Where’s Rey?” he asks.
And so it’s back to Ahch-To, where Rey is determined to tag everyone’s favourite Jedi Master back into the galactic wrestling match, or to at least twist his robot arm into training her in the ways of the Force, as Yoda once trained him. All she knows of said Force is “It’s a power that lets you control people and makes things float,” so she sure needs a little mentoring – and besides, as she succinctly puts it, “I’ve seen your daily routine and you’re not busy.”
Meanwhile, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) is no longer hiding behind a giant hologram but instead seated in a starkly modernist chamber painted a strikingly fascistic shade of red, scolding Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) for losing his Starkiller Base lightsaber duel to Rey. “You’re just a child in a mask,” he snarls, fixing his apprentice with wonky eyes as the crevasse in his forehead twists in a furious frown. Kylo must win back Snoke’s trust, and killing Rey, his ex-mentor Luke, and every last Resistance fighter is the way to do it.
This is all just the first 30 minutes of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and is actually the slowest part of the movie. The next two hours zip by like the Millennium Falcon acing the Kessel Run, as writer/director Rian Johnson – something of a Padawan when it comes to films of this scale, having previously made Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper – crosscuts between sub-plots like a magician executing an immaculate riffle-shuffle.
Everyone’s favourites have key parts to play, with the aforementioned characters joined by Chewie (Joonas Suotamo), BB-8, R2-D2, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and, with more impact this time, Stormtrooper commander Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). Hell, even pirate queen Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) rocks up… as do a host of famous fans and guest stars, but we’ll leave you to discover those ones for yourselves.
The new characters, meanwhile, are attention-grabbers – and we don’t just mean the cute Porgs (mercifully not overused), crystal foxes, and a veritable menagerie of creatures and droids. Best of the bunch is Leia’s right-hand woman Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern, giving the galaxy a shock of purple hair and its sharpest cheekbones since Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin), whose tactics to keep the Resistance out of the First Order’s iron fist are not to the liking of Poe, whom she labels “a trigger-happy flyboy”.
Maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) teams up with Finn to undertake a death-defying mission that recalls a cheeky operation conducted by Luke and Han in Episode 4. And helping, or perhaps hindering, them is ace hacker DJ (Benicio Del Toro), a conniving chancer they track down on the casino planet of Canto Bight (think Star Wars’ cantina writ large and spliced with a scene of a tuxedoed Bond seated at the tables).
Johnson, as we know from all three of his previous movies, is a master of misdirection, oh-so dexterous when it comes to sleight-of-hand storytelling full of breakneck twists and hairpin turns. The Last Jedi is no different, packed with subterfuge and shocks. If J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens was exactly what everyone needed after George Lucas’ plastic prequels – a glorious love letter to the original trilogy that dotted every ‘I’ and crossed every ‘T’ in a familiar hand – then The Last Jedi, though every inch a Star Wars movie, propels the saga forward in unexpected ways.
It’s not so much darker, à la The Empire Strikes Back, for it’s the funniest Star Wars film by far, and Johnson was vocal about wishing to avoid “heaviosity”. But it is deeper, delving into the nature of the Force and what it means to be a Jedi, a religion that is thousands of generations old, and concentrating intently on themes of family, myth, identity, treachery, loyalty, and sacrifice.
There are astonishing set-pieces, including at least three up-there-with-the-best ‘saber duels (one has more than a hint of Kill Bill’s House of Blue Leaves rip-roaring carnage) and the climactic battle, glimpsed in the trailer, which hurls TIE fighters, the Millennium Falcon, AT-M6s (the new AT-ATs) and more at each other over a desert-scape that churns up the red stain of violence. But the real drama is in the faces, as Johnson locks in his unwavering close-ups to explore the cloudy planets of Luke’s eyes, the glimmering lakes of Rey and Kylo’s tears.
Who are Rey’s parents? Will Kylo walk into the light, or Rey be swallowed by darkness? And what really happened when Ben Solo spurned Luke’s tutelage and fled to Snoke? This last is revisited several times from different perspectives – surely a nod to Akira Kurosawa’s truth-prodding Rashomon, just as Lucas took so much of his iconography, wipe-and-swipe edits (again in evidence here) and the relationship between C-3PO and R2-D2, from the Japanese master.
But the final word must go to Leia, to whom the film is movingly dedicated. Carrie Fisher here gives a performance of tremendous dignity, wisdom, and love, and is awarded at least three scenes that serve as a fitting goodbye to the fans’ Princess. Her journey from princess to senator to rebel to general of the Resistance is now done and, in a movie that discusses myth-making and the differences between a legend and a relatable, everyday person with hopes and dreams, weaknesses and tenacity, she proves again that she is both. The Force is with her.