I was pretty high on The Force Awakens after I saw it the first time. I think I was caught up in the cultural rush, and seeing a Star Wars film come into the cinema during my lifetime that wasn’t a complete disaster was certainly a rush in its own right. For as much as I’m typically on the outside looking in with Star Wars fandom, I have to admit that, when it’s running on all cylinders, there’s nothing quite like its brand of space fantasy. As I distanced myself from The Force Awakens, though (and even with my first repeat viewing a week later), the flaws started to stick out more prominently. It’s a good and fun film and a solid enough reboot of the franchise, but all it really accomplished was re-energising the series while retreading old ground. Apart from some new and interesting characters, it never took a bold step forward from anything Star Wars had ever previously been.
It’s as much as I would expect from J.J. Abrams, a man who’s made his career from mimicry of his influences and brought very little original material to the table, and it’s why I was so much looking forward to Rian Johnson’s interpretation of the material. He’s long been one of my favourite up-and-coming indie directors and I think one of the best choices to breathe new life into a long-stagnant series, and he certainly didn’t disappoint.
Where Abrams was the sort of director whose love of Star Wars leads him to recreate it, Johnson’s love leads him to reimagine it, and his reimagination comes with a clear respect and reverence for the material but also the vision to take it to new places or at the very least breathe new life into and give it new possibilities. In this sense, his approach doesn’t reinvent the wheel so much as repurpose it. Whereas other successful Star Wars films have portrayed elaborate, fantastical worlds and a plethora of space hijinks at the cost of shallow themes and thin (if enjoyable) characters, The Last Jedi dials back the plot to one central scenario with a couple of minor offshoot ventures and instead begins peeling back the layers of virtually every central character and introducing thematic elements that break down the long-standing light and dark divide of the force and embrace the grey areas in between.
With the focus on the characters comes a more elongated build-up to the real meaty action set pieces, and by the time we arrive there we’re so much more invested in the characters involved on both sides of the coin that every lightsaber duel and blaster battle is a much more emotional investment than ever before. Johnson’s script skilfully juggles different tensions within and without the characters that manifest themselves violently in the combat, all the while continually ripping the rug out from under us, each instance a precise and assured dagger that hits its mark.
One of the other signatures of competent direction in The Last Jedi that hasn’t been seen in a Star Wars film is found in the presentation. Johnson and his longtime director of photography Steve Yedlin coordinate to produce some gorgeous standout visuals, preserving the series’ trademark wipe transitions and rousing score while bringing in their own twists that not only demonstrate intelligent visual storytelling but at times even elicit awe from the audience. One moment in particular (which I can’t spoil here) drew an audible gasp in the cinema the likes of which I hadn’t heard since the truck flip in The Dark Knight. More notable still is the film’s use of colour, particularly the motif of red that flow’s through the film, from salt fields to Snoke’s chamber, that makes it more stimulating and cohesive.
All that to say, I guess, is that, what this film has that every other Star Wars film has lacked to me is a sense of purposefulness. From top to bottom, script to screen, this Star Wars more than any other has genuine direction, carrying with it singular threads that keep it together and focused for the whole runtime and demonstrating the ambition to be more than just mere adventure. After nine films, Johnson is the director that has finally succeeded in elevating Star Wars to something beyond itself.
Not that it’s without any flaws. The first twenty minutes or so were a rocky start, with some odd choices and awkward humour that don’t always land, and I think it’s just a few minutes too long. It’s not as tight as The Empire Strikes Back, even if its peaks are miles beyond where that film hit, and those peaks make shortcomings more than forgivable. Ultimately I think The Last Jedi suffers most from being the middle child between two manufactured bookends. If this is what Rian Johnson can pull off with those limitations, then I’m dying to see what he can do when he and his team have total control over the next trilogy. The Last Jedi is the sort of artistic investment that contemporary blockbuster franchises have long, long needed and that fans of said franchises have long deserved (even if they keep complaining about it for now).