REVIEW / SPACE FANTASY
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (PG)
150 minutes/Now showing/ 4 stars
The story: Picking up from The Force Awakens (2015), the characters are on separate missions. Rey (Daisy Ridley) finds Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and hopes he will join the Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher). Finn (John Boyega), the former stormtrooper, tries to find a way out of an imperial blockade, aided by engineer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), servant of Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis), is still a follower of the Dark Side of the Force.
There is every chance that this movie will beat all others at the box office this year. There is that brand name, of course, but in this episode of the long-running space opera, there is also huge entertainment value.
The movie opens with a giant space battle and, except for a saggy middle section set in the island where Luke Skywalker (Hamill) lives, the action never lets up.
Writer-director Rian Johnson's story treats the cast as an ensemble - no single story dominates this mission-driven piece. Each member of the Resistance has a job to do on a different planet.
Johnson, thus, has the luxury of making each mission a mini-movie.
Finn and Rose (Boyega and Tran), for example, have to pull a heist on a resort planet. Rey (Ridley) and Skywalker (Hamill) have a Shaw Brothers gongfu set-up, in which she is the Jackie Chan student and Skywalker the crusty old master.
Meanwhile, pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Resistance leader Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) have a loose cannon-versus-uptight boss dynamic of the sort you might find in a cop movie.
Doing a slavish copy of a Shaw or shouty politics film could have made for a terribly cliched and by-the-numbers experience, but Johnson's love and respect for genre works is clear in how he makes each story feel fresh.
Big space battles are one thing, but there are smaller action setpieces here that can only be described as beautiful. In one lightsaber duel, First Order guards in bright-red robes do battle with the Resistance in a dark chamber. The choreography of colour and movement would not be out of place in a samurai movie by Akira Kurosawa or a Zhang Yimou period piece. The effect is breathtaking.
That rapid-fire pace is bolstered by low-key humour. The bits featuring the by-now famous cute Porg creatures are especially well-executed and never pandering.
Johnson is not afraid to use silence either and its use in the final battle drives home the emotion of the moment.
There are a couple of weaknesses, the Rey-Skywalker thread being one. Johnson's affinity for the New Age-y tone of Jedi spiritualism is apparently not as deep as his affection for other kinds of films, but it is all saved by snappy editing. "Meanwhile, over at planet X" could be this film's motto.
A day-after review like this one gives one time to reflect on plot holes and other weaknesses. And, yes, there are narrative gaps you could drive a lorry through, perhaps because of concessions to the already lengthy 21/2-hour running time.