It’s quite easy to be down on modern cinema. Prices are expensive, blockbusters and popular fare clog up screens, and viewings are often blighted by talkers, noisy eaters, and mobile phone flashlight wielders. Every now and then though a very special movie comes alone that reminds you why you fell in love with cinema in the first place, why going to the movies is such a special thing.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2016) was more than just a film, it was a catalyst for a coming together of film fans spanning generations. Men spoke of the joy of once again being taken to visit a galaxy far, far away by their fathers, but this time having their own children with them for the adventure. Three generations of fans gripping boxes of popcorn as the Star Wars fanfare rattled surround speakers and that yellow opening crawl moved towards an invisible space horizon. Fortunately the mistakes of The Phantom Menace (1999) had been analysed and learnt from, and J.J. Abrams’ film didn’t disappoint.
Han was back, Leia was back, Chewie was back, and the new characters accompanying them were just as worthy of our cheers. When the excitement settled down though, there was one slight complaint; The Force Awakens was, plot wise, more of a New Hope remake than a brand new start. Seemingly orphaned desert dwelling scamp escapes with an elderly mentor to learn they have the power of the force within them. Said scamp ends up battling the evil Empire/First Order, mentor unexpectedly dies on a lightsabre, while the villain’s giant planet-killing base is dispatched via some well-placed X-wing missiles.
This being the case there was some trepidation that Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) would just be a loose redo of The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Johnson was a relative novice, with Looper (2012) his only big budget film and the last movie he directed. He also had to follow Gareth Edwards ultra impressive Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). Once again though fans breathed a big sigh of relief; Jar Jar Binks and lil’ Ani Skywalker are fast becoming a distant memory.
The Last Jedi is more than just a treat for Star Wars fans though. It’s easy to be sceptical about modern Hollywood. The ‘Golden Age’ of American cinema in the nineteen-seventies seems like another world, a time when studios would green-light blockbusters like Jaws (1975) but would also happily fund the madness of Apocalypse Now (1979) and the quiet brilliance of The Conversation (1974). The landscape of visual entertainment was a lot different. Cinema had no competition from television or the internet. If you didn’t like what was being served to you in theatres, tough. Now though, viewers have a wealth of alternative options, many of them cheaper and arguably better value than £12 for a single cinema seat.
Movies to those of us that love them are art. But Hollywood is still first and foremost a business, so it seems harsh to criticise them for only investing in the sort of products that will guarantee a return. Film fans need to be sure their £12 will be spent on something they know will entertain, otherwise a night at home in front of a Netflix and a 55” flat HD television with surround sound set up is a much more appealing prospect. Hence end of year box office top tens featuring the likes of Finding Dory (2016) and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016). Uninspiring but guaranteed to earn a hefty box office take.
So what can Hollywood do to prevent cinema becoming the fast food of the entertainment world, a mildly fun yet predictable once-in-a-while treat? The Last Jedi is a glorious riposte.
Back in 1977 Star Wars created a new visual experience, a cinematic treat that whisked adults and children alike to a believable, exciting, intriguing world that was also packed with heart and warmth. It was the Saturday morning action serial made by master filmmakers with a budget in the millions. Never had so many people left theatre auditoriums with grins stretching from ear to ear, recreating the sights and sounds of what they just witnessed as they headed to the back of the theatre line to watch the film all over again. The Last Jedi recaptures that feeling perfectly; no mean feat when its audience is the sceptical, post-millennial, easily distracted, want-it-all-now cinema goer who has been wowed by hundreds of quality blockbusters since that wonderful summer in 1977. How did Johnson achieved this extraordinary feat?
The Last Jedi is not an Empire remake. Neither is it a lazy follow-on from The Force Awakens. Another niggle from Abrams film was that it blew its load too early in the new trilogy. The Starkiller Base was just a bigger better Death Star, as was pointedly shown in the film itself, but it was still a great looking and terrifying new weapon for the revamped Empire to wield. But just as it arrived, it was gone, destroyed via another massive design flaw in the movies final twenty minutes. It somewhat undermined the threat of the First Order; they couldn’t be very capable if they managed to lose a war with such a huge weapon at their disposal.
Perhaps in response to this The Last Jedi’s plot is pleasingly simple, even small scale. The First Order has hit back, and the Resistance are now struggling for numbers. Those left are fleeing an armada of First Order ships in their own space convoy. The First Order have found a way to track the Resistance through hyperspace though, so now the Resistance are stuck. The aim of the film then, help General Leia and crew leg it. The various Force Awakens characters follow their own paths to achieve this. Rey tries to rope in Luke Skywalker, now in curmudgeonly hermit mode, Poe hops in an X-Wing to blast the First Order to space debris, while Finn and new companion Rose speed off to a Casino town on a distant planet to find a codebreaker who can get them on to the lead Star Destroyer to disable the First Order’s new tracking device.
The plot points carry a logical sense that’s easy to follow; no complex trade disputes or political machinations here. It’s how Johnson presents all of this though that creates true movie magic. The Last Jedi is the funniest Star Wars film to date, but at the same time it has some of the most beautifully touching moments. The humour isn’t loud slapstick either, but subtle moments that either give a nod to fans (crease free First Order uniforms) or are so throw away (literally in the case of one lightsabre) you barely have time to laugh before the plot moves on. It might be a little jarring for fans of ‘traditional’ Star Wars but in the spirit of George Lucas’s original vision, to be utterly entertained, it’s a perfect fit.
The all-important plot twists are there. Every film fan and his dog had taken a guess at what The Last Jedi would reveal, so it’s a credit to Johnson that his story still manages to surprise. Not everyone will agree with the choices he’s made but you can’t fault his intentions or the outcome. There are also still plenty of questions left for the trilogies concluding part three.
Johnson also hasn’t scrimped on the visual spectacle. There are so many ‘wow’ moments the film will easily hold up to tens of repeat big-screen viewings. Many of these moments are new and novel to the series. Ever wondered what it would look like if a ship jumped in to hyperspace straight in to another ship? The answer certainly won’t disappoint.
Neither will Luke Skywalker’s contribution. Fans were itching to see him on screen in The Force Awakens but all they got was an amuse bouche, a brief look at the bearded Jedi master on a cliff top. The Last Jedi more than makes up for this. Those wanting to see just how capable an aged Luke is won’t be disappointed. But rather than go for the obvious, post The Matrix (1999) limb-flinging kung-fu moves, Johnson gives Luke moments that are much more subtly powerful. Its telling that one of Luke’s best moments from the entire series will now be the simple act of brushing some dust off of his right shoulder. Credit to Mark Hamill here for what is his best acting performance to date. There has even been talk of an Oscar nomination; as ludicrous as that might sound for such a genre film it would be genuinely well deserved.
And then there are those heartstring tugging moments, now so readily available to Star Wars filmmakers thanks to a forty year franchise history. A surprise cameo will give older fans a lump in the throat, and despite offing everyone’s favourite space smuggler Adam Driver manages to imbue Kylo Ren with a ton of pathos, no longer the whiney brat from The Force Awakens but a strapping, towering figure well on his way to matching his granddad Darth Vader. It’s the unfortunate passing of Carrie Fisher though that tragically lends the film so much more weight. One scene in particular will bring a tear or two to the eye, acted brilliantly by the two performers involved with dialogue that offers up the perfect tribute. It’s as fitting a farewell as fans could wish for. Those familiar blue end credits on a starfield say a final goodbye, ‘In loving memory of our Princess, Carrie Fisher’.
It really is impossible to ask for any more from a multi-million dollar blockbuster film. Laughs, thrills, gasps, tears, and wide-eyed wonder; there aren’t many experiences in life were you can have this all for £12. And those noisy eaters, those cinema talkers? Nowhere to be seen. Star Wars carries a reverence that no other film franchise has. An audience is respectful in front of a Star Wars film. It would be rude not to give full attention to a film series that has delivered so much, has provided so much astonishing escapism, and placed beaming, giddy smiles on so many faces.