An old hope. A new realism. An old anxiety. A new feeling that the Force might be used to channel erotic telepathy, and long-distance evil seduction. The excitingly and gigantically proportioned eighth film in the great Star Wars saga offers all of these, as well as colossal confrontations, towering indecisions and teetering temptations, spectacular immolations, huge military engagements, and very small disappointments. The character-driven face-offs are wonderful and the messianic succession crisis about the last Jedi of the title is gripping. But there is a convoluted and slightly unsatisfying parallel plot strand about the Resistance’s strategic military moves as the evil First Order closes in, and an underwritten, under-imagined and eccentrically dressed new character – Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, played by Laura Dern.
More successful is a new figure from other ranks: Kelly Marie Tran is terrifically good as Rose Tico, the Resistance soldier who steps up to meet her destiny as a key player in the battle against tyranny. Like The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi offers variations on the mighty orchestral themes of the original trilogy, switching occasionally to muted tones and minor keys, before cranking the volume back up. This auto-reference has become an accepted and exhilarating part of the new Star Wars rhetoric.
We left the last movie as Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, is in the act of handing over a lightsaber to the haunted and monkish figure of Luke Skywalker himself, played of course by a poignantly grizzled Mark Hamill – a handing-back-of-the-baton moment of inspired paradox. No spoilers, obviously, but what Luke says and does first at the beginning of this film is startlingly unexpected: an upending of the tonal apple cart, that signals writer-director Rian Johnson’s determination to wrest the lightsaber away from JJ Abrams and put his own mark on the project.
Rey must now ponder her own future and vocation. And, as for Luke, he has to reassess what the third act of his life now means. Hamill comes into his own here with a very intelligent and sympathetic portrayal of his great character. Luke is now part Prospero, part Achilles. He is potentially the great magician or teacher on this remote island, in a position to induct Rey into the Zen priesthood of the Force, and show her it is not just a matter of silly conjuring tricks and making rocks rise into the air. But might he not also be sulking in his tent, reluctant to help, for reasons apparently connected with his catastrophically failed mentorship of Kylo Ren, but perhaps for other, more complex reasons?
Which brings us to Kylo Ren himself, superbly played by Adam Driver. He is now a wounded, damaged figure and he insinuates himself like a sensually predatory Satan into our consciousness in a series of dreamlike cross-cutting dialogue sequences that are the most successful part of the film.
What does Kylo Ren want? As ever, the closeups on Driver’s face are gorgeous. He is never the Easter Island statue of hardness that it is possible to misremember: he is tremulous, unsure of himself, like an unhappy teenager, and his mouth seems almost on the point of trembling with tears. That breathy, resonant voice is unmistakable even from behind a neo-Vader mask. This is a villain who seems troubled about the mantle of evil on his shoulders; and, again, there are surprises in store about what Ren has in mind for the future and what his past relationship with his Uncle Luke actually was.
Meanwhile, General Leia, played by the late Carrie Fisher, is commanding a complex military manoeuvre in the face of malign incursions from the First Order, represented by General Hux, played more obviously and successfully for laughs by Domhnall Gleeson. Romantic hothead pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is on the point of outright insubordination in his desire to lash out against the First Order but reformed stormtrooper Finn – an excellent, muscular performance from John Boyega – working with Rose (Tran) has a new and subtler scheme in view, which involves finding a codebreaker on a distant Vegas-ish planet offering casino betting and track racing. It is, bafflingly, a digressive plotline that gets tangled up in itself, though not without offering a good deal of entertainment.
The Last Jedi gives you an explosive sugar rush of spectacle. It’s a film that buzzes with belief in itself and its own mythic universe – a euphoric certainty that I think no other movie franchise has. And there is no provisional hesitation or energy dip of the sort that might have been expected between episodes seven and nine. What there is, admittedly, is an anticlimactic narrative muddle in the military story, but this is not much of a flaw considering the tidal wave of energy and emotion that crashes out of the screen in the final five minutes. It’s impossible not to be swept away.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010
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