Alarm bells may ring when you realise that the second film in the shiny new Star Wars trilogy is taking its cues, at least in part, from the second film in the original Holy Trinity. The Force Awakens may have been The Star Wars Film We had to Have in order to wash the foul taste of the Prequels out of our collective mouths, but repeating that cheap trick again would be a crashing disappointment – do we really need The Empire Strikes Back 2.0?
Luckily, we needn’t have worried. Writer and director Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick) takes familiar figures, archetypes and tropes and pushes them into uncharted territory, examining them, recontextualising them, finding new facets and, occasionally, hidden flaws. The result is a film that simultaneously feels familiar and new – the first “new” Star Wars film since Disney took the reins and clearly, judging by the fact that Johnson will be heading up his own discrete trilogy in the universe soon, the template going forward. And that’s a good thing.
But, in the broadest of strokes, The Empire Strikes Back: while nascent Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) trains on the distant planet Ahch-To with hermit Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the Reb – sorry, Resistance is on the back foot (a bit of a leap considering the massive military victory that capped off TFA), on the run from Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), wannabe Vader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and the First Order fleet.
From there, things get more complicated: with the First Order able to track the Resistance convoy’s every move, ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and new hero Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) must undertake a desperate mission to the luxury world of Canto Bight to find an agent who can help them give the bad guys the slip. Meanwhile, hot-headed X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has to contend with Resistance Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), who has no time for his recklessness, while he thinks her pragmatism is putting the entire Resistance at risk.
The Last Jedi delights in setting up and then subverting expectations. This is a Star Wars movie for a more complex age, and while the good guys and bad guys are still clearly demarcated, at a more granular level everything is a bit more blurred. Not every last-ditch desperate gambit works, not every scoundrel has a hidden heart of gold, not every stuffy officer is incompetent and, most importantly, not every aged Jedi is full of wisdom.
Indeed, what Johnson does with the Jedi is fascinating – old Luke has sequestered himself in some forgotten corner of the galaxy not to meditate, but to hide from the crushing guilt that he may be responsible for turning promising Jedi Padawan Ben Solo into the evil Kylo Ren. We’re used to reluctant heroes – here we have a reluctant mentor, fearful of training the naturally Force-talented Rey in case he makes the same error twice. Skywalker no longer sees any point in the existence of a Jedi Order at all – it seems Johnson is au fait with those fan theories about the arrogance of the Jedi – and in the context of this film, he may be right. Which is of no use to Rey, who simply wants someone to tell her what her place in the world is, and needs a wise mentor, not an old man filled with doubts.
That’s some dark territory, and arguably darker than the simple threat of the fascist First Order: it’s one thing to have the villains put a few runs on the board, it’s quite another to learn that the structures and assumptions on which we base our identities are shaky at best, and perhaps completely unstable. The Last Jedi questions the Light Side/Dark Side binary on which the Star Wars mythos is founded, and while we might wind up more or less where we might expect by the time the credits roll, narratively speaking, it leaves deep cracks in the firmament for later exploration.
We get plenty of adventure and action along the way, though. Exotic locales abound, from the aforementioned casino world of Caito Bight, which brings a little 007 flavour to the galaxy (and a missed opportunity for a pitch-perfect cameo, it must be said), to the salt flats of Crait, site of the climactic battle, fulfilling the Star Wars remit of taking us to places we’ve never seen and blowing up spaceships while we’re there.
The action sequences are top notch. Everyone likes to call Star Wars a space Western, but Johnson instead digs into the other two key stylistic influences on the trilogy – WWII films and Japanese chambara samurai movies, bookending Episode VIII with a bombing run straight out of Dambusters and a lightsaber duel that wears its Kurosawa debt on its flapping kimono sleeve.
All that mayhem is scaled up, too, in a concession to modern blockbuster sensibilities. Why have a Star Destroyer when you can have a Dreadnought? Why odds of a thousand to one when you can have a million? At times it stretches credulity, even for old Star Wars hands, but then this has never been a franchise with much debt to things like physics and probability.
But while there’s a lot of fun to be had, a somber pall overlays it all, to the point where some of the comedy beats fall flat in the overall context. This is a movie where the heroes are beaten within an inch of extinction, where the forces arrayed against them are monolithic, where the odds of victory are infinitesimal, and where terrible sacrifices are necessary to leverage those tiny odds. It is, ultimately, a film about hope in the face of overwhelming darkness – and rebellions, as someone once said, are built on hope.
Still, it’s only a glimmer of hope in this one – victory by the thinnest of margins, with the highest costs. The Last Jedi is an emotional wringer, and the film never lets us forget the human price that is paid in wartime – we’re perhaps all a bit too savvy than we were 30 years ago to think that casualties are bloodless. When we leave The Last Jedi, we’re in a much different and more difficult place than we were when we started, and while there’s definitely a path forward – of course there’s going to be an Episode IX – what that path might be is up for conjecture.
The Last Jedi is, to be clear, a great Star Wars film, one that honours the traditions of the franchise but boldly pushes the envelope in terms of thematic complexity and emotional tone. If this is indicative of the direction the core saga is taking going forward, we’re completely on board.