With a sumptuous colour palette, interwoven plot lines, and unexpected humour, writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper) has assuredly marked Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi as his own – a new chapter in the Skywalker saga that is at once deeply familiar and unique. Part two in the sequel trilogy picks up right where The Force Awakens left off, with the orphaned heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempting to lure the only remaining Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), out of self-imposed exile. Meanwhile, the last remnants of the Resistance flee a resurgent New Order.
The film opens with as dramatic a sequence as the franchise has ever seen, delivering an exhilarating and poignant battle that introduces a spectacularly menacing new class of space ship known as the Dreadnaught, pits ace pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) against his superiors, and sets in motion a race against the clock. Unable to escape without detection and with only shallow reserves of fuel remaining until the New Order catches up with them, the depleted Rebel fleet limps through space like the Orca from Jaws – a hapless, crumbling ship pursued by a killer whose only remaining hurdle is time.
But as ingenious as this setup may be, it also gives rise to the film's most pointless subplot. After waking from his coma, Finn (John Boyega) contrives a means by which he can disable the New Order's tracking device, albeit one that requires him to sneak off the fleeing vessel, travel to a Monaco-styled casino planet, track down a master codebreaker and infiltrate the enemy's warship undetected. This enormous MacGuffin sees Boyega partnered with the charming Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a Resistance engineer low in status but high in pluck. The problem is that their side adventure does absolutely nothing to advance the actual story.
Finn's reluctant hero arc was already covered off in The Force Awakens, while Rose's belief in (and commitment to) the righteousness of the rebel cause is perfectly encapsulated in her fantastic introductory scene but goes unchallenged thereafter. Benicio Del Toro also pops up, then shortly thereafter departs, in an entirely forgettable cameo. Ultimately they all end up right where they began, having effected no material change except to deliver a heavy-handed critique of war profiteers. The great shame is that in both Boyega and Tran you have oodles of charisma, heart and talent that deserve scenes of equal calibre. Instead, they chew up time in a movie already guilty of using far too much of it.
Thankfully the rest of the cast fares better. Hamill, Ridley and Adam Driver's Kylo Ren find themselves entangled in a fascinating and emotionally-driven power struggle, with each grappling with their complicated relationships to one another and their wider place in the universe. In an appropriate analogy to the franchise itself, Skywalker wrestles with his own understanding of legend and mythos, believing himself unworthy of hero status and wracked with the guilt of failing Ren in his training. Ren, in turn, remains conflicted about his place in the First Order and his murder of his father, whilst Rey feels the growing Force within her yet lacks the knowledge or training to understand it.
It's in sequences featuring this core triothat The Last Jedi hits its highest notes. The exploration of Jedi lore, too, receives the kind of treatment that will delight the franchise's most ardent fans, including a moment of outstanding visual flair, involving replicated Reys, that reminds us of Johnson's unique style and character. And, of course, there's Carrie Fisher, whose few scenes remind us how affecting and groundbreaking a character Princess Leia is, and how captivating an actor Fisher was. Her departure is treated with all the deftness, restraint and respect that audiences could hope for.
Perhaps the biggest departure from tradition, though, especially in the wake of the gritty spinoff Rogue One, is Johnson's use of comedy. With more gags, one-liners and quirky moments than all the other Star Wars films combined, The Last Jedi introduces a levity to the staid franchise in the vein of Roger Moore's turn as post-Connery Bond. At times it works, even to the point of guffaws, but ultimately the humour feels misplaced. In a story where loss abounds and crushing defeat looms large at every turn, the repeated cutaways to doe-eyed porgs purring like extras from a Pixar film distract more than they entertain. So, too, does Domhnall Gleeson, whose character General Hux plays more like a parody of a Star Wars villain. As a result, both the New Order and the film itself are robbed of their most enduring menace: the Empire.
After all, pare back any of the previous films in this sprawling space opera and you'll find that, for all their Sith lords and rogue assassins, what truly terrified was a galactic military-industrial complex so vast and overbearing it was capable of repressing not just people but entire planets. Darth Vaders come and go, and individuals can be destroyed, but totalitarian regimes endure for generations. When an oppressed populace has only ever known a life under the iron fist, it cannot even contemplate an alternative. It's that, more than any great, dark mysticism, that provides the Star Wars universe with its most tangible threat.
Overly long and consistently clunky, The Last Jedi ultimately proves a bit of a mixed bag. Its battle scenes are nothing short of spectacular, including a five-second shot involving Laura Dern and a hyperspace jump that almost singlehandedly justifies the entire film's existence. As a chronicle of Jedi mythology, too, the film delivers in a way the George Lucas prequels never managed, offering new and engaging insights into the Force and the balance between light and dark. Too often, though, the dialogue is exposition heavy and played for easy laughs. One senses Rian Johnson has in him a greater, more exploratory story to tell, one unburdened by so much expectation and history. The good news? He's set to follow Last Jedi with an entirely new Star Wars trilogy. May the force be with him.