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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Year: 2017
Production Co: LucasFilm
Studio: Disney
Director: Rian Johnson
Producer: Kathleen Kennedy/Ram Bergman
Writer: Rian Johnson
Cast: Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Kellie-Marie Tran, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro, Frank Oz, Billie Lourd, Lily Cole, Warwick David, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Gareth Edwards, Adrian Edmonson

Why exactly has Batman gone so dark? When he was first created he was just a normal (albeit rich) guy who'd trained himself to be a great detective so he could fight crime in a silly outfit. The idea that his parents being murdered gave him a lifelong sense of purpose was story mechanics rather than character definition. Today, of course, he's become a very different figure.

Most still-surviving franchises from this particular sector (comic book, sci-fi, fantasy, etc) of entertainment plumb ever-darker territory to establish a street cred intended to separate them from the TV and funny pages camp of ages past. No iteration of any superhero is worth its salt today unless it's the tortured soul chasing a dark ideal they know they can never achieve and whom lives in angst in the shadows.

It's not impossible to get right – Chris Nolan did a great job putting a gritty Batman in a real world – but audiences tend to get sick of it and it's very easy to get wrong (look no further than Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice and Justice League).

The trend towards darkness that has so hobbled DC's comic universe so far is something Star Wars cleverly avoided when it returned to the public consciousness with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. No matter how many accusations of remaking A New Hope you want to level at JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan, one of the main reasons it was so creatively successful was because they perfectly captured the spirit of swashbuckling fun we all loved about the original series.

The Empire Strikes Back was a little bit darker simply because of the demands of narrative drama (we'd left the rebel alliance after a victory, now it had to be tested), but Lucas' hiring of Irwin Kershner didn't mean the Star Wars saga was any less fun.

The reason all this is worth mentioning is because any incoming director to the franchise has to be very careful not to descend into the dour, humourless anguish that's infected most other movements in pop entertainment. The influence and power of Star Wars over culture might still be the strongest of any movie in history, and the temptation to unconsciously take it all dark and ominous and lose the freewheeling sense of joy that's pivotal to the brand is only going to get stronger.

In The Last Jedi, it's something writer/director Rian Johnson mostly manages to avoid, but he doesn't do so as confidently as Abrams and Kasdan's script for The Force Awakens did. The interesting thing is that in falling even a little bit into the 'this is more important than the Bible' traps, he doesn't do so with the narrative – in fact, The Last Jedi feels like it has more out-and-out comic gags in the script than any movie in the canon.

There's an ever so slight sense of dourness about it that just doesn't suit a Star Wars movie. They've always been among the most visual of blockbusters, the story told through the colours and textures of different planets, species and machinery as effectively as any plot or dialogue.

Just think back to Rogue One, which did it beautifully. The visuals of the rocky, rainswept Eadu, the tropical atolls and the Imperial data vault on Scarif and the deserts of Jedha all had very much their own colour schemes and visual languages, and even though The Last Jedi has a few flourishes (the red dirt under the salt pans of the planet Crait), it doesn't feel nearly as lush or evocative or have anywhere near the grand scope Rogue One had.

Johnson finds himself in the same position as Lucas after the Battle of Yavin – the second instalment where the evil empire has to get the upper hand. After striking a devastating blow to the First Order with the destruction of the Starkiller Base, the Resistance is now exposed and on the run, Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) pursuing General Organa's (Carrie Fisher) fleet across the galaxy to crush them.

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) knows he's awakened a new power in Rey (Daisy Ridley), and he fears it might further undermine his plans to fully embrace the dark side of the force as he tried to do in killing his father Han in the last film. It doesn't help that his superior, Supreme Leader Snoke (made up of motion capture by Andy Serkis and amazing digital animation by ILM) taunts him as being a failure, never likely to live up to the legacy of the greatest Sith Lord who ever lived, his grandfather Darth Vader.

Meanwhile, we meet Rey exactly where we left her, handing Luke (Mark Hamill) his old lightsabre after tracking him down on a remote island on the planet Ahch-To. In the first effort on the part of the script to poke a hole in profound reverence, Skywalker dismissively throws it over his shoulder and leaves.

As Rey learns over the next days, he isn't interested in bringing the Jedi order back to life – he failed to see that Ben Solo was becoming Snoke's acolyte, the latter ultimately killing Skywalker's other students and destroying the new Jedi Temple. Convinced his hubris has undone everything he once stood for, Luke has renounced the entire belief system, stopped using The Force and now lives like his old teacher Ben Kenobi once did, a hermit in a hidden land.

Rey and Chewbacca desperately try to convince Luke to return with them to help the Reistance before it's destroyed altogether – the fleet is low on fuel and the First Order warships show no sign of giving up the chase. But while he agrees to give her some basic training about The Force, he refuses to leave his island.

Meanwhile, after Finn (John Boyega) recovers from the wounds he sustained in the battle with Kylo on the Starkiller planet, he teams up with young mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) on a mission to get the First Order off the fleet's tail. When it becomes obvious their enemies have new technology that allows them to track the Resistance through hyperspace, Finn knows where they can find and disable the tracking device on the First Order flagship.

All they need is a codebreaker to get them aboard and into the room, and the place to find it is Canto Bight, a casino city where they're prompty captured, the clock ticking while they try to escape and find the codebreaker they need.

Back with the fleet, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is at odds with The Resistance leadership. When Leia is injured during the initial battle it leaves Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) in charge, an officer with gravity and grace who has little respect for Dameron's cowboy tactics, insisting only on retreating. While Poe tries to buy Rose and Finn time to execute their plan so they can get away, the political situation at the top of the rapidly dwindling Resistance ranks crumbles.

Just like the second act of a grand (space) opera must, things go bad for almost everyone and the good guys are left bereft, tentatively hopeful but greatly diminished.

It's fun and it's very recognisable as a Star Wars movies, but the problems with the film go beyond the look and feel of it. Laura Dern, while as talented, poised and gorgeous as she always is, stands out like a sore thumb. It's nothing she does wrong, she's just too Laura Dern-y.

Rey also gets a sequence much like Luke's in the hole beneath the tree on Dagobah, where he faces his fears, that feels so pivotal and promises much more narrative and creative heft but delivers so little. The point of Rey's journey is to learn who her parents are, and after some clever (if visually dull, feeling like an experimental short Johnson loved from his film student days) visuals, the final reveal feels like a cop-out when it arrives, like they couldn't think of anything to do until a few minutes before they shot the scene.

There's also a subtext about war economies when a stolen ship reveals that arms dealers equip both the Resistance and First Order that's clunky and doesn't need to be there, but most of all is the curious, possibly accidental metaphor that distances the franchise from everything that's come before in the design.

It comes about because after Snoke mocks Kylo for his failure, telling him to take 'that ridiculous' mask off, the latter smashes it to smithereens in a fit of temper. So when he meets Luke in the final showdown on Crait, it's just two guys having a swordfight. Maybe Johnson and LucasFilm – even unconsciously – are telling us that the design elements we loved about the original trilogy like the iconic costuming (which made Darth Vader such a great character, for example) no longer apply.

Even if they're not, it makes for a far less visually interesting action scene than Kenobi and Vader on the Death Star, Luke and Vader on Bespin, Luke, Vader and Palpatine on the Second Death Star, etc. The same thing happened with Kenobi and Anakin on Mustafar, where it was just two guys in robes, the landscape around them standing in for the arresting visuals Vader had once represented.

Then there's a sequence that's altogether stupid, of Leia rescuing herself after battle. We find her frozen, floating in space (although it looks like the inside of a giant snowglobe) after the bridge of her ship is destroyed and when she wakes up, she floats herself back to the destroyed cruiser, arm outstretched like a Christmas tree angel and opening a door to get back inside from across the room (with the Force, presumably). It's ridiculous looking and narratively dumb.

Thankfully however, The Last Jedi has the visual scope a grand space opera needs and there are just as many sequences of real imagination to balance out the clunkers – Holdo's jaw-dropping final act to give the fleet more time to get away ups the ante on battles between large spaceships, and that's no small feat in the Star Wars universe.

Few of those niggles detract too much from how much fun the movie is (it is) or how excited you are at the idea you're sitting down to a brand new Star Wars movie (you are), but there's one more problem that's a bit more overarching and which simmers quietly under the surface of everything that's too hard to ignore.

There's a pervading sense that ultimately none of this really matters. One of the most promiment philsophical motifs of the series is that The Force must be kept in balance. It's never really clear exactly what that means, but it seems to be about how the light and dark sides must constantly struggle for supremacy and keep each other in check, that the galaxy will plunge into either brutal totalitarianism or the puffed up pride of the Jedi and frustrating political inaction of the Republic with enough of a prod in either direction.

And that means one thing – there'll always be another rebellion, resistance, Galactic Empire or First Order and another whole battle to fight that ultimately won't affect history for too long. What's the point if the sacrifice, death and suffering is only going to stick for a single generation before the balance swings back again?

So of everyone in both The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, the character you might feel the most sympathy for is Chewbacca. He isn't interested in any mystical energy field or hocus pocus any more than his old partner was, he just wants to make his way in the world, take care of his friends, do the right thing and make a buck.

Instead he's seen his hetero life mate killed in front of him, lived through one major war and is now ensconsed in another one just because he knows it's morally right, and he has a whole new group of kids running around giving orders they expect him to dutifully follow. You keep waiting for him to lean back, put his paws behind his head and growl 'fuck this, I've been through it all before, call me when it's over' with a deep yawn.

We've been through it all too, and no matter how exciting the promise of endless Star Wars movies is, might this all end up like the Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, lightning that struck once and has been a laughing stock ever since, constantly recycling itself until it has no cachet left?

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