If there is a blockbuster franchise that has managed to weather the slings and arrows of time, then its Star Wars. It is the high watermark by which all sagas are measured. Yet Star Wars means something different to everyone, and STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is perhaps the first film to actively remind us of that.
Picking up almost precisely where Star Wars: The Force Awakens left off, the Resistance are on the run under the command of General Leia Organa (the late, great Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) struggles to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) that training her is necessary, especially given her strong connection to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) remains. Is it all the manipulative machinations of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis)?
On the one hand, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI has some fairly radical politics for a Star Wars film. Writer/director Rian Johnson’s script stubbornly refuses to tell us what the ‘right’ side is. Our historical assumptions of who is on the side of ‘good’ is tested more than once. A connection between Rey and Kylo Ren asks whether balance can only be obtained by making friends with your personal dark side, and also serves as the strongest dramatic thread of the film.
Yet it’s also the first Star Wars film that lacks a clear identity of its own, more so than the extended fan fiction of Rogue One. From the opening scenes, there’s an anachronistic sense of humour that permeates the film’s sight-gags and dialogue. At its worst, such as a chase sequence bursting out of a CGI infested space casino, its dangerously closer in tone to George Lucas’ more recent offerings than is comfortable. When it works, we are reminded of the easy humour of the original trilogy. A tense scene is punctuated, for example, by Rey being comically whacked in the back of the head with her own lightsaber.
Nevertheless, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is dripping with sets and scenarios that look and feel like the Star Wars we’ve been in love with since 1977. Indeed, sequences are lifted wholesale out of Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, just as The Force Awakens was indebted to the original film in all the right ways. This gels nicely with the slick aesthetic of Snoke’s bright red throne room, and the giddy joy of watching lightsabers spark, X-Wings dogfight, and some delightfully unexpected cameos.
It’s the old guard that provides any emotional anchors as well. There’s heavy emotions whenever Carrie Fisher is on-screen, given her death at the end of 2016, and Hamill is allowed to push his 40-year-old character into a deeply grey area. It’s a shame that the rest of the cast is left adrift in a sea of unsatisfying plot threads, the strangest of which involves Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) in a pseudo love story.
Where The Force Awakens used familiarity and shorthand motifs to restore our faith in the franchise, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI simply samples and remixes. Which is ironic given that much of the film’s narrative is spent searching for a newer new hope to respark the rebellion. As the film overstays its welcome by a scene or two, including a coda that steps out of another movie entirely, here’s hoping the franchise can learn from its own stories and see clear to moving forward rather than perpetually looking back at its greatest hits.