The Last Jedi is an assuredly bold and subversive film that digs beneath the surface of the space fantasy franchise, finds its mythological heart and puts it on a monumentally striking canvas.
Immediately following the events of The Force Awakens, the film depicts the Resistance’s tenacious efforts to survive in the midst of being in the clutches of the First Order, whose merciless tactics have resulted in the rebel group being trapped in a dwindling and immobile position. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley returns with a truly touching and commanding central turn) attempts to convince the long-exiled Jedi Master Luke Skywalker to restore hope by intervening in the central conflict and her persistent battle with Kylo Ren. (A captivatingly snivelling and vulnerable Adam Driver).
Much like his previous directorial effort, (Looper), Rian Johnson joyously pricks at established genre conventions and in the process finds a genuine emotional truth that both resonates and rejuvenates. In the context of The Last Jedi, many heroic moments are built up with galactic grandiosity and are subsequently deflated for comedic effect.
The figurative and literal cliffhanger of The Force Awakens with Rey and Luke Skywalker (a heartbreakingly frigid and commendably wacky Mark Hamill) is amusingly cast aside with a straight-faced tossing of a lightsaber. And an extended sequence combines sly framing, sublime irony and comical physical acting, as Finn (John Boyega) tries to convince a maintenance worker- Rose (Kelly Marie Tran in an impressive debut performance) of his heroic and noble facade amid deserting the Resistance.
Though the picture is littered with many of these sequences, Johnson is fundamentally above postmodern snark and instead earnestly comments on heroism. The brash and trigger-happy archetype of the series (typified with Han Solo and now Poe Dameron) is juxtaposed with the methodical and the underhanded planning of his superiors, who at first seem passive but are revealed as brave and noble in their sacrifices for the overarching cause.
A mid-plot excursion to an affluent and lavishly constructed casino planet- Canto-Bight seeks to do away with the sweeping heroics of the main conflict and instead illustrates the small acts of generosity that embody the spirit of the Resistance and its effects on the galaxy. Perhaps more than any Star Wars film before it, The Last Jedi wrestles with its own nature as a franchise, which is most embodied by the character of Luke Skywalker.
The crestfallen Jedi Master has hidden away from the conflict because he fell victim to the hubris of his own legend, presuming the positive aspects of his family line could be passed on. Instead, his choices have only had wrought destruction and pain. Much like Skywalker is grappling with the failure of living up to his lionised image, The Last Jedi feels like it’s wrestling with its identity as a franchise as its central spiritual core is examined and found wanting. The end result is a cathartic and calm acceptance of the importance of the series’ mythical underpinnings for its cinematic and narrative future.
Elsewhere, Johnson’s first venture into tent pole fare is impressive. The writer/director constructs action sequences with graceful flair. The opening space battle deftly balances the external conflict with the insular tension of a pilot who attempts to retrieve a bomb release button in a Hitchcockian inspired Mission Impossible sequence.
However, it’s the lightsaber battles where Johnson truly excels. In particular, the climactic duel has the dramatic heft of a Sergio Leone showdown with its persistent close-ups of eyes combined with it being a vivid demonstration of Yoda’s Jedi mantra from The Empire Strikes Back- “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defence, never for attack.”
In this final stretch of the picture, Johnson’s imagery is at its most evocative and heightened. The flickers of shadows and sumptuous daybreak light result in the main characters visually becoming like characters from fabled tales of yore. And the final shot of a boy pointing his broom upward, while watching a ship jumping to light speed in the night sky, beautifully illustrates the perpetual power of myth and by extension the saga itself.