Does any franchise carry such cultural capital, such weighty expectation? Star Wars is a law unto itself, and with The Last Jedi Rian Johnson has carried off a bravura feat of momentum and balance. The characters introduced and refreshed by The Force Awakens sweep through a thrilling and surprising story of sheer romance, soaring emotion and searing action.
Beginning where The Force Awakens ended, we are quickly situated in the struggle left behind by the First Order’s setback on Starkiller Base. The Resistance are led in constant flight by Leia (Carrie Fisher), while Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron struggles to restrain his bellicose instincts. Finn (the irrepressible John Boyega) is an injured non-combatant, while our hero Rey struggles to connect to Luke Skywalker. As Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill dance around each other, each demonstrating their underappreciated actorly range, Adam Driver’s seething Kylo Ren stalks the background.
The Last Jedi‘s structure is linear, branching into meaningful sidelines when needed, and quickly builds a momentum that is impossible to resist. From its opening moments we are in a race against time, our heroes fleeing before obscene odds, scoring hits where they can. The stakes are high – affectingly portrayed sacrifices are made constantly, and characters coming into conflict regularly. Its opening scenes are exemplars of character establishment, and the film more widely a lesson in character development. Much like in the superb Paddington 2, it is remarkable to see how effective simple and well-crafted scripting can be in major films.
Rian Johnson’s directorial handiwork grants characters new and old ample and even-handed screentime in which to surprise us, and the film’s runtime is a hefty 152 minutes as a result. Yet such is its structural intelligence that by its concluding act we are carried with it enraptured. We are offered comedy throughout, welcome levity punctuating a number of intercut scenes of surprising grimness and threat. These jokes land, just as the emotional reach of the film punctures any cynicism about the creeping monetisation of this cultural vehicle.
By way of action, The Last Jedi features gripping space dogfights, a reimagining of The Empire Strikes Back Hoth siege that draws real-time battle plans on the very landscape of its setting, and a lightsaber battle that takes its place at the pinnacle of the small-scale conflicts in the Star Wars oeuvre. It observes the fantastically tense and risky duels of the original films, and explodes them with a fast-paced and brutal tag-team, against a visually arresting backdrop.
As much as Disney’s behemothic power seems to ensure relative quality, it is a remarkable pleasure to be rewarded by such a corporate entity’s spawn. If The Force Awakens was a folkloric retelling of previous films, The Last Jedi is a reimagining, a twist upon a beautifully familiar formula. It is a devastating hyperspeed jump straight through the series’ strengths.