Christmas is coming: the season to celebrate the birth of Christ and the release of new Star Wars films. After last year’s spin-off, Rogue One, we’re back to the main event with The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the sci-fi saga. As expected, its release is being accompanied by the usual hype and bluster. Mobile phones had to be placed in sealed bags at the press screening I attended and critics were warned ad nauseam not to post their reviews before the proscribed time (the punishment for any embargo breakers presumably being death by light sabre). All of this sensitivity seems rather pointless because, if ever a franchise was too big to fail, surely it’s Star Wars; particularly after The Force Awakens got it back on track following the trio of appalling prequels.
One of the reasons The Force Awakens proved such a hit was that it went back to basics, or, to be more precise, back to the source, unashamedly riffing on the original trilogy with Han Solo, Princess Leia and Luke Skywalker being swept along by familiar plot points and Dark Side dilemmas. Not everyone liked that approach, but the vast majority did. The fact that George Lucas made a surprisingly smart move by handing over the reins to JJ Abrams, a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing, meant that the resulting movie was both a fan-friendly delight and a dynamic blockbuster in its own right.
This time around, Abrams has himself relinquished directorial duties, with Rian Johnson, who made the excellent neo-noir thriller Brick and slick sci-fi Looper, taking over. As ever, a plucky band of rebels are being chased around the galaxy by black-cloaked villains and nervy British character actors. Leia (played, of course, by the late Carrie Fisher) is in charge of the last surviving partisans, with Oscar Isaac’s headstrong fighter pilot Poe Dameron and John Boyega’s stormtrooper-turned-goodie trying to work out a way of blowing up the First Order’s fleet. Supreme Leader Snoke – a kind of baldy, evil lizard man – is intent on crushing the rebellion for good by destroying Leia’s posse and, with the help of his young protege, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren (aka Darth Vader junior), luring Luke Skywalker out of hiding and killing him. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley), the heroine of the first film, has been taken to a remote Jedi outpost by Chewbacca, where she is herself trying to coax Mark Hammill’s bearded Skywalker out of retirement to join the fight against the evil empire once more.
Sensibly, Johnson, who has also written the screenplay, takes up Abrams’s nostalgic approach with relish, and all the regular Star Wars tropes are there, from C-3PO hastily working out survival odds to rebels infiltrating spaceships, donning their enemies’ uniforms and searching for computers to unplug.
The Last Jedi lacks the heady rush of The Force Awakens by virtue of the fact that its predecessor was such a welcome and, to some extent, unexpected blast from the past. The central storyline that this new film hangs on, namely the chase of the rebels by the First Order (which is ham-fisted even by Star Wars standards), also feels overstretched. However, these quibbles are minor ones because they come wrapped up in what is, ultimately, a thrilling package.
The mid-space battle scenes are superbly realised, with Johnson finding moments of texture and surprise, from the brief silence that follows one breathtaking assault on a First Order ship to the battle scene that plays out in a blaze of crimson and white as the Rebels are cornered in a salt mine on a remote planet. The acting is generally pretty solid, with Driver the best of the bunch and Ridley doing good work as Rey, despite previous sniping. There are some brief but very welcome appearances from Benicio del Toro as an amoral code breaker and Gwendoline Christie, of Game of Thrones fame, as an oversized stormtrooper.
For those keen to take Star Wars seriously, Johnson also offers enough depth to dive into, as he takes time, via exchanges (in a range of configurations) between Kylo, Rey and Luke, to explore the meaning of the Force and what makes men, such as Vader and Kylo, turn to the Dark Side. Yet, for all the serious thought you could, and many will, give The Last Jedi, the best advice on how to read it is offered up by the film itself. Star Wars has always had a way with a snappy one-liner, but Johnson has stuffed his script with so many jokes that it seems he is daring audiences not to take any of this stuff too seriously. Chewbacca being interrupted when he’s about to settle down for a barbecue dinner and Luke’s perpetually exasperated housekeepers are just two of the many comic highlights.
So, what we end up with is a rollicking sci-fi adventure that doubles as a wisecracking comedy. The references to previous Star Wars films are there for all to see but, at times, the zingers come so thick and fast that it almost feels like a homage to Mel Brooks’s Spaceballs, too – and that’s a good thing as far as I’m concerned. It’s just a shame Rick Moranis doesn’t turn up in an oversized Darth Vader helmet. You can’t have everything, I suppose. Not even in a galaxy far, far away.