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D: Rian Johnson / 152m

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Benicio Del Toro, Lupita Nyong’o

In the Star Wars universe there is one second sequel to rule them all (to mix franchise metaphors), and that’s The Empire Strikes Back (1980). That movie, even more so than A New Hope, was a lightning in a bottle experience, never to be repeated, and a shining example of what can happen when the stars are in perfect alignment. But now we have Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and though it falls just agonisingly short of being as good as Episode V, this is the closest anyone has come in coming close to the heights achieved by that particular movie. Better than all three prequel movies put together, richer and with more depth than either Episodes IV or VI, and showing even J.J. Abrams how it should be done, Episode VIII is the franchise entry that gives rise to another, newer hope: that Disney, for all that they want a Star Wars movie to grace our screens every year for the foreseeable future, do know what they’re doing. And the main reason for all this? Step forward, Rian Johnson.

Sometimes it’s a case of cometh the hour, cometh the man, and with The Last Jedi, it’s definitely Johnson’s hour, and he’s definitely the man. Not only has he built on the (mostly) impressive groundwork laid down by J.J. Abrams, but he’s made the current trilogy into something that’s in a league of its own. Whatever happens in Episode IX – and there’s more than enough evidence here to have Johnson substituted for Abrams in the writer/director’s chair – it will have to go some to top what’s on show here. This is bold, imaginative, stirring stuff, a clear rebuttal to all those who felt that The Force Awakens was too derivative of previous entries (another Death Star – okay, planet – and another Emperor – okay, Supreme Leader, etc.), and convincing proof that there will, and can be, life after the Skywalker story arc.

For this is the movie’s strongest suit, the way in which it’s pushing the whole Star Wars franchise forward, away from past glories, and toward future glories of its own making. Kylo Ren (Driver) sums up the aim of the current trilogy best when he says: “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to. That’s the only way to become what you are meant to be.” This could double as the trilogy’s raison d’etre, as we move further and further away from the events and legacies of the first six movies, and into a period within the galaxy that involves Star Wars finding a new identity for itself. In making this narrative jump to lightspeed, producers Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman have made the most astute decision possible, and let Rian Johnson loose on their “baby”. And Johnson hasn’t let them, or the fans, or even casual viewers down. The Last Jedi is the Star Wars movie we’ve all been waiting for since 1980: the one that reminds us of just how much story-telling potential there is in the saga, and how much it can all mean to us both culturally and personally.

This is a movie that will delight existing fans, but also will go a long way to persuading non-fans that there’s much more to Star Wars than action toys and cosplay. Johnson has created an exciting, intimidating, intelligent, and emotionally daunting piece of sci-fi, and has done so with flair, confidence, and no small amount of visual style (the prequels, for all their faults, always looked visually stunning, but Johnson has upped that particular ante, and seemingly effortlessly). The movie provides impressive amounts of eye candy in terms of the production design, the locations used, and the special effects, but it’s all in service to the story, and the three separate plot strands that occupy the movie’s extended running time (forget that it’s two and a half hours long; you won’t notice the time anyway once you’re watching it). This is the movie’s greatest strength: in telling these separate plot strands in such a way that you can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next with all of them. Johnson keeps upping the stakes, putting the characters through the emotional, physical, and psychological wringer (and the viewer right along with them), and offering only very brief respites for everyone to catch their breath. It’s a juggling act, but one that Johnson pulls off with all the confidence of someone who’s been doing it all their lives.

Of course, the presence of Luke Skywalker (Hamill) is the main draw this time. Where Abrams had the nerve to keep Luke off-screen until the very last scene of The Force Awakens, here Johnson has to keep him front and centre for much of the movie, and provide some answers for the questions raised in Episode VII. To his credit, Johnson provides Luke with a character arc that makes sense of his isolation, and his reluctance to become involved with the Resistance. Hamill, naturally, seizes on the quality of Johnson’s writing and makes of Luke an old man with huge regrets and an attitude that keeps him feeling reproachful and pessimistic. The presence of Rey (Ridley) serves only as a painful reminder of his failings, and the way in which Luke rediscovers his sense of self-worth is played out with a great deal of attention to the character’s inner emotions, and the added layers of betrayal and guilt that he’s accrued over the years.

The dynamic between Rey and Kylo Ren is given its due, and though there’s a degree of inevitability about the way their Force-led relationship is resolved for now, the path they’re taken on by Johnson offers up a range of possibilities that keeps the viewer guessing as to which ones will be explored the most, and which ones will be held over for Episode IX. Both Ridley and Driver delve deeper into their characters’ individual needs and destinies, and the scenes they share have an intensity that matches the high stakes involved in their manoeuvring around each other. Against this it would be easy to say that the other characters don’t fare so well and have truncated story arcs as a result, but Rey and Kylo Ren are the central protagonists, and it’s their particular story that drives much of the action. Finn (Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Isaac) are kept busy but as secondary characters this time around, while newcomers Tran, Dern and Del Toro have roles that fit the requirements of the plot rather than making their characters as memorable as some of the others. And then there’s Carrie Fisher (involved in the movie’s strangest moment) and as General Leia Organa, carrying the weight of everyone’s hopes on her shoulders – and feeling the strain. It’s a tightly controlled performance, not a swansong as such, but one that contains the gravitas needed to emphasise the importance of keeping the Resistance alive.

In a year where there have been a number of high profile, highly anticipated blockbusters – most of which have proved disappointing on many levels – it’s reassuring to know that there is at least one movie released this year under that banner that matches the expectations required of it. Whether it’s setting pulses racing in its opening sequence as Poe seeks to disable a dreadnought’s external gun placements, or exploring the darker aspects of the Force, or even the notion that power isn’t corrupting of itself but the intent to grasp power is, the movie treads carefully but effectively through a series of emotional minefields and debatable decision making. However, this isn’t to say that it’s all doom and gloom and entirely heavy stuff, because it isn’t. There’s plenty of humour – a lot of it laugh out loud funny and in places where you wouldn’t expect it – and there’s some excellent location work, especially in Ireland’s Skellig Michael (where Luke is found), and the salt flats of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. Johnson’s go-to cinematographer, Steve Yedlin, makes it all look stunning, and this is an episode where more than ever the visuals are used to enhance and support the material, and which can on more than one occasion, elicit gasps of appreciation – much like the movie as a whole.

Rating: 8/10 – with still too many ties to the Lucas era, and still finding its way to a satisfying future without those ties, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a transitional movie but one that is so confidently handled by writer/director Rian Johnson that any qualms about the material can be overlooked – for the most part; a movie that keeps moving and keeps doing its best to be surprising, it’s the very definition of a crowd-pleaser, and one that rewards as it goes, and which sets up numerous possibilities for the next installment, due on 20 December 2019.