Star Wars: The Last Jedi – progress, this is

Staaaar Waarrrs, na na na, Staaar Waaars. So sang my partner Saturday morning as we strolled down to the rather lovely Olympic studios cinema in southwest London to catch the latest in the franchise, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson.

This film continues events from The Force Awakens, one which saw the return of old characters that many of us loved so dearly from the original films: Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill); although the latter only appeared in a single scene.

It also ushered in a new generation of heroes that mixed it up well with the golden oldies: scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), Stormtrooper turned rebel Finn (John Boyega), X-Wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) and a few others. Plus, a new bad guy, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), taking on the heavy burden of Darth Vader’s mantle, but giving us a more layered, nuanced and conflicted antagonist than Vader ever really was.

At the end of The Force Awakens, (SPOILER if you’ve not seen it) Rey, realising she was naturally strong with the force, went off in search of Luke and found him living as a recluse on a windswept island, the spiritual home of the Jedi.

So, logically, we pick up (with a brief detour with prequel Rogue One) where we left off and The Last Jedi’s focus, in part, is Rey’s quest to find out why Luke has hidden himself away, and what happened with Ben that caused the young apprentice to bat for Team Evil; causing Luke to blame himself and ultimately retreat to a corner of the galaxy, Obi-Wan/Yoda style, to live out his days.

The Last Jedi is also very much Rey’s journey – who is she, really? Why does she have such power? Who are her parents? What connection does she have to Kylo? What can Luke teach her? Does he even want to teach her? For me, this exploration of character is the most interesting part of the story.

Alongside Luke’s holiday island getaway storyline we have the usual cat and mouse back and forth space tangles across the galaxy, with the First Order chasing rebel scum. Big ships, little ships, cardboard boxes. Although, cleverly, Johnson turns this into a slow burn strategic battle, with the rebels staying a safe (ish) distance from the First Order as they inexorably run out of fuel.

This chase is led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), hamming it up and spitting venom with every chance he gets. On the side of the rebellion we have General Leia, but also a new addition, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, with tremendous purple hair). She lends an air of calm, warmth and gravitas to the impulsive rebellion. Leia version 2.0, in a way.

Her addition helps the gender balance too, with all the big swinging light sabres around the place – something her character directly addresses when putting Isaac’s flyboy Poe in his place, following Leia doing much the same to him in an earlier scene. Both women criticise him for acting the hero no matter the cost, saying that true leaders are less cavalier with the lives of those they’ve said they’d protect. Which is actually a pretty refreshing shift in character for a blockbuster to take.

Moreover, this could be a giant flag planted in terms of where Disney want to take the franchise, reinventing and progressing it and moving it away from the Alpha male Han Solo types, to perhaps a more considered protagonist. Which can only be a good thing for future films. If it works with Stars Wars, it’ll work with most big movies they put out.

So, Johnson has written and directed a film that’s in keeping with – and respectful of – existing Star Wars canon, but also paves the way for the future, with an engaging, progressive story and compelling (largely modern) strong characters (that are both men and women) and feels logical, in terms of a narrative, in that the first film, The Force Awakens, is Han’s story, therefore The Last Jedi becomes Luke’s, with Leia the glue between the two.

(As one internet meme suggested, it’s basically the galaxy’s most dysfunctional family inflicting their woes on everyone else, resulting in decades of war).

Roughly a week since the film’s release it’s also a funny thing because there has been massive backlash, much more so than The Force Awakens, with some have accusing it of being ‘too Disney’, whatever that means. These were always kid’s films, so yeah, odd. Moreover, there’s a lot of adult material in them, but they’re fun adventures. I mean, Wikipedia describes them as ‘epic space operas’, so we shouldn’t really hold them to a higher bar than that.

Then there’s the diversity criticism: all these women, shock, horror, where did they come from? Or a black guy and an Asian woman in such prominent roles? Who the hell signed this off? People of colour can’t be Stormtroopers, women can’t be rebels, admirals, generals, blah, blah, whatever. These people can crawl back under the rocks from whence they came. I mean, honestly.

Hey, listen, this is progress. Whatever the film, however one interprets it, this is all moving in what, presumably, is the right direction in terms of modern cinema. Unless you’re some sort of misogynist, racist, luddite, who considers a ‘modern’ hero to be Harrison Ford leering over Carrie Fisher’s Leia, not letting her escape, then forcing a kiss. Or the fact that the original films had one person of colour, Lando; the satisfaction of a diversity box ticked and a job well done at the time.

Anyway, digressing. To put things in perspective, this film has had the second biggest opening weekend in movie history, $450m worldwide. So, someone is watching (and enjoying it), yet online trolls have loud voices, so we just must remember to take them with a pinch of salt. And not feed them.

For my part, the cast (the new lot) looked much more settled in their roles. The comedy largely works, despite what backwards fanboys/man-babies cry about on the internet. There’s a lot more flesh on the bones of characters, in particular Kylo Ren and Rey and the dynamic between them both. The way their relationship plays out is one of the most interesting things about the film.

And Luke. Good old Mr Skywalker.

In all honesty, Mark bloody Hamill is perhaps the coolest character to make a return to this franchise. Whilst Leia, Han, Chewie and others left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling, Luke returning was actually just hands-down cool. Particularly one or two scenes in the film’s final third, which basically cemented Luke as one of the most compelling (and bad ass) heroes to grace the franchise. Straight out of a Western, in the best sense.

Thinking back, I found him a fairly straight arrow hero in the original films, but here he’s so much more layered. Taking a leaf from Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan in the originals, here Hamill gets to showcase a lot more of his acting chops, and it’s a delight to see.

I’ll need to see Rogue One again to be sure, but I think this might possibly pip it to the post as the best of the new Star Wars films yet. Simply because it’s trying a few new things, which is, frankly, what this franchise needs if it’s going to stay relevant to a modern audience.

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