Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

I’ve gone back and forth over whether or not this is a review I should really be publishing here at Warped Perspective. Having grown out of Brutal As Hell, a site focused primarily on cult/indie horror, we’ve never been one to cover every major blockbuster that comes along; and blockbusters don’t come much bigger than the newest Star Wars movie. Even so, part of our reasoning behind relaunching as Warped Perspective almost one year ago was to broaden our focus, giving us the scope to write about any material which is of personal interest to us; and Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi most definitely fits that description for me.

Beyond this, The Last Jedi should be of interest to less blockbuster-oriented readers as it is the fourth film from writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper), one of the most interesting and unique voices to have emerged from the US indie scene so far this century. Seeing a filmmaker with so few credits to his name and no history in big-budget, family friendly material take on the latest instalment in such a pop culture juggernaut as this is in some respects surprising; then again, a certain George Lucas might have been similarly described when Star Wars first arrived in 1977. Very often of late, when relatively fresh-faced directors who have had the smallest whiff of success suddenly find themselves behind the camera on major studio tent poles, their hiring seems to hinge on the assumption that their inexperience and lack of clout in the industry will make them more malleable and compliant to the demands of the producers; and, given Lucasfilm’s high-profile problems with the directors on their upcoming productions (Josh Trank ditched from aborted Boba Fett movie, Solo directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller fired more than six months into principal photography, Colin Trevorrow kicked off Star Wars Episode IX during pre-production), one would be forgiven for fearing that Johnson has also had to endure those slings and arrows, and compromise his vision for the sake of the sacred cash cow.

Not so. Where JJ Abrams’ Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was met with some reasonable criticism for how closely it adhered to the structure of the original Star Wars (AKA A New Hope), Johnson’s The Last Jedi breaks with series convention in some very big ways. While there are without doubt echoes of The Empire Strikes Back, this is in no way, shape or form a beat-for-beat retread. This is a bold, inventive, sophisticated film that’s loaded with new ideas, and while it delivers everything you’d expect from a Star Wars movie, it also manages what many of us might have thought impossible: it leaves you genuinely surprised, with very little idea where the series might go from here.

To start out on where The Last Jedi does hit similar beats to Empire: from the opening crawl on, it’s made clear that the Rebels – sorry, Resistance – are currently losing the war with the Empire – sorry, First Order. Under the command of Leia (Carrie Fisher, in what was of course her final role), the handful of Resistance troops that remain pile into a single starship in a desperate attempt to flee to safety, as the enemy closes in, lead by Leia’s estranged son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the galaxy’s champion scenery-chewer General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Whilst the impulsive Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) butts heads with his superiors over their plan of action, Finn (John Boyega) befriends technician Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), and together they hatch a bold scheme of their own to bump the odds in the Resistance’s favour. Meanwhile, all hopes are pinned on Rey (Daisy Ridley), who has successfully located the long-lost Jedi legend Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and faces the daunting task of persuading the now reclusive hero to rejoin the fight, as well as helping her advance in the ways of the Force; meaning that, yes, Luke is essentially the Yoda of this movie.

Okay, as you can tell there’s a lot going on here, so if you’re not already fluent in Star Wars lore this clearly isn’t the film to jump on with. Familiarity with The Force Awakens is required at least, although the film does refer back to the original trilogy, with even a few nods to those dreaded prequels. What makes The Last Jedi work is how it takes the core concepts of the series – the on-going battle between Empire/Sith/First Order and Rebels/Jedi/Resistance, and the power of the Force itself – and delves into them in a way no series entry before has done. After all the talk of last year’s Rogue One being the riskiest, most mature Star Wars film ever, The Last Jedi puts all that in the shade (not that I mean to put down Gareth Edwards’s film; all in all it was a fine piece of work). This is by far the most introspective Star Wars movie to date, which takes a lot more time not only to focus on the characters, but also to question their motives, and really delve into what it is that compels them to do the things they do.

This, however, is not to say that it’s all talk and no trousers. The Last Jedi is still as action-packed as any Star Wars movie, with plenty of the expected dogfights in space, lightsaber battles, and daring sneak attacks. We also have a fair bit of added cuteness in the form of the new aliens introduced, most notably the cute and fluffy Porgs. While it’s hard to avoid the sense of these being added primarily to offset the comparative grimness and introspection going on elsewhere, they don’t in any way feel out of place; such creations have always been a vital component of the Star Wars universe.

The key thing to note is that, while The Last Jedi may indeed go to some fairly dark places, this isn’t the wallowing, masochistic gloom of Zack Snyder’s DC movies. This is a film that gets to the heart of Star Wars’ key message: that hope can always be found, no matter how bleak things may seem. Questions of what really constitutes heroism, bravery and sacrifice are presented in a challenging, but entirely relatable way. Optimism in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds may not be easy, but it’s something that we need – and, in this respect, there’s no denying that The Last Jedi feels very much in tune with the current political climate.

Above and beyond all this, though, The Last Jedi is a highly emotional film. The plot developments have weight because of our investment in the characters, and while much of that is rooted in the audience’s enduring love for Mark Hamill’s Luke and Carrie Fisher’s Leia, it also has to be said that (with credit also due to Abrams and The Force Awakens) an excellent job has been done bringing the new protagonists to the forefront; and it’s a pleasant surprise to see Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose prove such an endearing addition to that ensemble. Of course, there’s no avoiding the fact that a lot of The Last Jedi’s emotional impact is down to the fact that this is Carrie Fisher’s final performance. It’s not spoiling anything to say that many of her scenes have an unmistakably elegiac tone, which would have been moving even if the actress had lived; but, in the knowledge that she’s no longer with us, I fully expect that many fans like myself will be taken beyond the brink. I can recall very few occasions on which I’ve openly wept in cinema, but I’m happy to admit The Last Jedi was one of those times.

All of which made it rather painful to come online after seeing the movie, still feeling all aglow, only to be met with a barrage of negativity, many declaring The Last Jedi to be somewhere between a let-down and an outright disaster. Fair enough, opinions will always vary, and I can certainly understand why the film may be prove divisive; but I’m really struggling to see how anyone with a love of this series could hold The Last Jedi in such outright contempt, particularly given that The Force Awakens was met with a similar reaction in some quarters on the grounds that it didn’t do anything new. I will concede that, at two and a half hours, some judicious trims here and there might have been beneficial, and there are a few incongruously goofy moments, but at the same time there’s very little that feels superfluous; it all serves to broaden the scope of the Star Wars universe. And I don’t mean ‘broaden’ as in ‘yay, more new worlds, more cool aliens, more stuff to blow up’ and so forth; I mean as in it broadens and enriches the thematic spectrum of the material in a manner that is at once mythic, yet also surprisingly grounded and relevant to this day and age. In the interests of staying spoiler-free, and keeping this review from turning into a dissertation, I won’t elaborate further here – but, for readers who have seen the movie and are open to spoilers, this appraisal by Eric Vespe echoes a lot of my own feelings.

I know, it seems like this is said every time a new Star Wars movie arrives, but I’m going to say it again anyway: this is the best one since The Empire Strikes Back. And, if I may go one bolder: as a film in its own right, The Last Jedi may well be the finest Star Wars movie of them all.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is in cinemas now.