December used to bring chocolate advent calendars and Lord Of The Rings films. Now, it means advent calendars filled with literally anything – and Star Wars. The third of the modern offerings, The Last Jedi, opens this Thursday to continue the story begun in The Force Awakens and the good news is that it’s mostly great. Exciting, surprising and genuinely emotional, this is worth a look even if you don’t know a Tauntaun from a Tusken Raider.
The story begins with a proper space battle, as the First Order, under the grotesque Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), the powerful Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the delightfully hissable General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) engages the Rebel fleet under General Leia (the late, great Carrie Fisher). Finn (John Boyega) wakes up from his medical coma and goes off on a mission to protect the fleeing Rebels with mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran, a super-charming new addition) and BB-8. Meanwhile, we pick up with Daisy Ridley’s Rey where we left her, standing in front of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker and asking him to train her. He doesn’t agree quite as readily as she hoped.
To say much more than that would be a spoiler, but it’s fair to say that director Rian Johnson takes great delight in both delivering exactly what you want and expect from a Star Wars movie, while also subverting that story into something new. So Rey, on one hand, continues to follow Luke’s playbook, going in search of a Jedi master, just as Luke did when he tried to win over Yoda. Rey, too, walks ahead to meet the Dark Side face to face before it’s entirely wise and she faces betrayal and disillusionment. But, on the other hand, she confounds expectations by avoiding the same pitfalls (she finds new ones) and proves a little more flexible and less impetuous – sometimes – than Luke. It’s a neat riposte to the (sexist) critics who called her a “Mary Sue” last time, claiming that she is a sort of overly idealised female role without any depth or complication. If that’s true, it’s hard to see how you critique her, but not the similarly young, gifted and well-meaning Luke in the original films.
Back in the Rebel fleet, fans of perfect hair will be glad to note that Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron gets a much bigger role this time, chaffing at Leia’s command when she tries to restrain him from taking on the First Order single-handed. Laura Dern joins him in the Perfect Hair Club with an extraordinary purple do and a surprising turn as Vice Admiral Holdo, about which we’ll say very little. This supporting cast is an embarrassment of riches, in fact: Benicio del Toro, Lupita Nyong’o, Justin Theroux, Kate Dickie and Gwendoline Christie all drop in, at least briefly, though you might struggle to recognise a couple of them.
Kylo is a portrait of wounded male pride and toxic masculinity… It’s by far the best performance here, comfortably the most relevant to our own times and easily the most interesting "bad" guy Star Wars has ever given us
And then there’s Driver’s Kylo Ren, a walking, Force-wielding Reddit board. He’s still lashing out in uncontrollable rage at anyone nearby, still terrified of being beaten by a girl and still deeply, desperately insecure despite his (over)achievements. Kylo is a portrait of wounded male pride and toxic masculinity, desperate to prove himself against... well, he’s not entirely sure and he may not even care. The progress of his character across these two films has been extraordinary in the promise he has for goodness and the hope he squanders in pursuit of some revenge against those he believes have wronged him. It’s by far the best performance here, comfortably the most relevant to our own times and easily the most interesting “bad” guy Star Wars has ever given us. Not that that should be a surprise. Driver made a film about a guy doing (literally) nothing fascinating in last year’s Paterson; with spaceships and a lightsaber, it’s impossible to take your eyes off him.
The emotional heart of the film, however, is the old guard, Luke and Leia, mourning Han Solo’s death last time and surrounded by all these enthusiastic kids. Luke has turned his back on the cause to nurse his own wounds, but Leia is still dedicated, fighting on and inspiring the next generation. Perhaps the sad fact of Carrie Fisher’s death shortly after the end of principal photography gives her role more weight here than it would otherwise have, but it feels as though you can see the whole Rebel cause in Leia’s eyes. One of her scenes late on will leave you in bits; this is easily the most emotional Star Wars film to date.
If anything, there’s too much of a good thing here. At two and a half hours, this is a long film and a large middle section could usefully have been trimmed, while a few beats at the very end are slightly muddled in the edit. There’s one point where you think everything is going to wrap up, only to realise that there’s an entire huge action scene still to come. But what director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) has done brilliantly is to deliver those gigantic fights in a way that feels very, very Star Wars without just doing the same old thing again. Yes, there are lightsaber battles and dogfights in space and attack runs, but there are also new elements that don’t work the way you think they will, and big emotional wallops that make you feel the high stakes of these battles more clearly than ever before.
Impressively, this middle chapter to the new trilogy is worthy of comparison to The Empire Strikes Back, and the battle scenes and emotional beats here arguably surpass even that. Star Wars is going from strength to strength as the old generation gradually hands over to the new one, a generation that’s less white and less male. It doesn't seem like a coincidence.