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'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' (2017) - Film Review

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Director: Rian Johnson

Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendolin Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern

The enduring popularity of Science Fantasy stories on the big screen might, if I were a cynic, have more to do with wringing every penny from a captive dedicated fanbase than telling an engaging, credible and dramatic story. Recent iterations of this franchise, as well as others such as Marvel, have managed to produce a crowd-pleasing conglomeration of elements which will put a temporary smile on your face, but which lack the substance of later scrutiny that would generally hold the movie up as great rather than merely good. This was my experience with the previous film Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), which appeared to duplicate all the ingredients of the original film, Star Wars (1977), including its shallow style-over-substance approach to storytelling. If however The Force Awakens was a little nostalgic with the franchise, The Last Jedi takes a positively mature cue from last year's spin-off Star Wars story, Rogue One (2016), and is all the better for it.

If you take the time to consider Star Wars by its franchise name, then it is regularly heavier on star content than warfare. Yes you get a good battle in space, and yes, ships are blown up and people get killed, but the usual gravitas surrounding the art and consequences of war are rarely explored. It is admittedly a challenge when the main aim is to create a family-friendly blockbuster that tries not to alienate it's audience with all the heavy stuff real war represents, but here The Last Jedi has had a good stab at it, and succeeded terrifically. Love and loss, hope and survival, internal and external conflict, bravery and cowardice, inequality and opportunity, integrity and corruption, belief and doubt, anger and jealousy - all these things are carefully crammed into this slightly-too-long movie to subtly gnaw away at your subconscious and make you realise that this is as much a clever commentary on our modern day conflicts as it is an escapist mechanism away from them.

The plot, you'll be relieved to know, is much less complicated, although it involves several strands that eventually combine in the finale and sets up what looks to be a revolutionary (as in regime-change) ninth story. Until then we find craggy old Luke Skywalker (Hamill) living a hermit's life on a remote island and Rey (Ridley) trying to coax him out of retirement. General Leia (Fisher) is bravely and wisely leading the diminishing Resistance army against a determined Empire and trying to reign-in hot-headed youngsters from jeopardising their survival. Meanwhile the Empire is intent on wiping Leia and her band out for good, aided by patricidal Kylo Ren who is just so angry with everyone, including himself, he's not only extra dangerous, but his unstable emotional antics are occasionally less-than-beneficial to the Empire he serves.

Performance-wise, the youngsters get to do most of the action stuff, with the chaps (Boyega and Isaac) actually proving less plucky and engaging than their female counterparts (Ridley and Tran), demonstrating a refreshing change in the often male-dominated dynamics of action movies. Expanding on this change, the late Carrie Fisher provides a performance that is grounded and maternal, conveying the necessary gravitas befitting of her rank as Rebel leader in the story. In doing so, Fisher demonstrates her genuine proficiency as an actress, not necessarily evident in her earlier Star Wars performances. Equally strong on the performance front is Laura Dern, whose smaller yet vital role carries the same strength and wisdom required of a resistance leader. Heading up the Empire, Adam Driver growls his way through the movie with just enough charisma to take Kylo Ren beyond his two-dimensional design, and Domhnall Gleeson proves adept at playing a serially loyal-but-limited foe. Andy Serkis again excels in his motion-capture performance as the menacing Snoke and comes across as genuinely nasty. Finally Hamill comes out of his shell, and proving his cameo in the last film was worth the wait.

Kudos must also go to writer and director Rian Johnson for pulling together a disparate mess of little character stories into a homogeneous focal-point for the Star Wars franchise. It is exhilarating from start to finish, but with enough humanity, wit and warmth to counteract John Williams' omnipresent themes and the visual effects that genuinely dazzle and amaze the senses, especially if viewed in 3D.

Although I have never been a great fan of the Star Wars franchise, this time around it has left me deeply impressed. It is still a crowd-pleasing family roller coaster ride, but carries an emotional maturity worthy of being remembered as a fine work in its own right. If only it had been a bit shorter in running time, full marks may well have been earned!

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© 2018 Chris Sandles