After being left hanging for two years, lightsaber outstretched, Episode VIII sees fledgling Jedi Rey (Ridley) seeking guidance from the legendary yet self-exiled Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Hamill). As The First Order retaliate against the Resistance after the destruction of the Starkiller Base, it seems that our heroes have no choice but to make their last stand against a vengeful Kylo Ren (Driver) and co.
From the off, the film strikes a peculiar and somewhat irreverent tonal balance. Thor:Ragnarok sprang to mind at first, where the LOLS arguably came at the detriment of the drama. Here though, the laughs are at the expense of the Star Wars mythos and its characters. Traditions are discarded and skipped over whilst once-threatening villains are scoffed at. And it‘s funny, but not always ‘haha’ funny. This is no doubt at the core of many fans’ displeasure, although those same fans may have forgotten the fun that was to be had in the Original Trilogy. Then again, that’s understandable: the Prequels will do that to you.
Rightly so, The Last Jedi is Mark Hamill’s film. He puts in a career-best performance that sticks a firm two-fingers up to those who once accused him of a clumsy, insincere delivery in the Original Trilogy. Failure, affection and a sense of humour are all intricately explored by Hamill, whilst seeing just how powerful Skywalker eventually became feels long overdue and air-punchingly satisfying.
Anyone frustrated by his lack of lines in The Force Awakens gets more than their money’s worth here. From his flippant dismissal of his lightsaber, his certain point of view on Kylo’s betrayal, and admitting that he didn’t do his bedtime reading, Luke’s never been so engaging. His eventual sacrifice to give the Resistance the hope they need is a worthy end for Skywalker. If of course, it is his end; where other Jedi’s bodies have fallen then faded, Luke just faded into The Force.
Nipping at Hamill’s heels is Kylo Ren, who continues to be the most interesting of the new crop. Coming across as truly conflicted as a result of Luke’s fleeting intentions to kill him, he’s no longer a petulant brat embroiled in the Dark Side: he’s detailed in shades of grey. The Light and Dark is present in the former Ben Solo and it breathes new life into the old “join me” schtick. As a result, the developing dynamic between him and Rey is enthralling, even if it does tend to feel a little like an intergalactic “You’ve Got Mail.”
As you’d expect from Star Wars, the action set pieces are stunning. Poe’s one-man assault on a Dreadnought (think a Super Star Destroyer on steroids) makes you look at him with the same want that Finn does, whilst the battle on Crait makes Hoth look like Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland. Even BB-8 gets to go HAM on a platoon of Stormtroopers.
It’s not all rosy though and George Lucas is probably to blame for some of The Last Jedi’s most glaring failures. Over-exposition in the prequels detailed the minutiae of the Jedi, exorcising any sense of mystery. So when certain narrative threads left from The Force Awakens are left un-pulled or suddenly severed, it’s frustrating and anti-climactic to all those that have spent two years theorising.
Looking forward to learning about the Knights of Ren? Don’t get your hopes up. Ready to find out who trained Snoke and how he got scarred? Nah, not important. Is it Rey Kenobi? Skywalker? Binks? Nope…she’s just Rey. Whilst it’s also oddly refreshing and undeniably brave, it does leave us with little upon which to speculate for the next two years. What are we supposed to do? Talk to our families? Ugh.
At least with Snoke getting ‘Darth Mauled’ in half, we see Ren go further than Vader ever could by off-ing his master. It’s an exciting new direction for a franchise which is often formulaic, but to snuff out your main villain so unceremoniously certainly felt anticlimactic. It shouldn’t seem a bold decision to keep the enigmatic elements of the Supreme Leader intact, but it does. However, if it’s simply a ploy to sell comics (a la Threepio’s red arm), then tables will be force-flipped.
However, the issue with The Last Jedi isn’t that it takes Star Wars in a divisive new direction, it’s the basic storytelling that creates the disturbance. Where Director Rian Johnson breaks from this familiar and formulaic got The Force Awakens criticised, what replaces the familiar is more contrived than Naboo’s democratic process. Whilst there are no exhaust ports to bullseye and no oscillators to blow up, we instead get saddled with a McGuffin hunt: ask Maz Kanata via Skype, find an unknown CodeBreaker, fail, find a substitute instead…you know what? It doesn’t matter; it’s all but a moot point by the third act, only serving to get Finn and Rose (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) into a short scrap with Captain Phasma.
All this adds is twenty minutes to the runtime and the tiring amount of last minute saves that our heroes enjoy. Falcon? Check. BB-8? Check. Slightly stalker-ish, unrequited love interest saving Finn from self-sacrifice? Check!
Leia thankfully has much more to do than in The Force Awakens but the opportunity for a serene, beautiful farewell to the late Carrie Fisher was squandered here. The Luke and Leia reunion was an essential and emotional moment without doubt, but imagine if Leia had been left floating in space, tranquil, relieved of responsibility and at peace. If it’s to be believed that Leia will not appear in Episode XI, the only option left is an off-screen death or a “she’s in the toilet at the moment” scenario. Neither sounds appealing.
Chewbacca is more or less shelved and it’s a shame that there’s so little of Finn and Rey’s chemistry on display. Instead we get half-baked, blink and miss ‘em characters such as Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo – who was surely intended to be Leia’s replacement – and Benicio Del Toro’s codebreaker DJ, who’s characterisation is simply summed up by a stutter. All this whilst Maz and Phasma are shoehorned in and ticked off the list.
It’s difficult to hate on a Star Wars film, but it’s also easy to be blindsided by Snoke and mirrors (sorry). It’s far from the finest film in the saga and undeserving of the ‘better than Empire’ tag which keeps getting wheeled out. But it’s also far from the disappointment that others will have you believe. What The Last Jedi is though, is well worth the 30 year wait, and an intriguing indication of the saga’s future direction.
It’s a great Star Wars film, but it’s not a great film
DIRECTOR/WRITER: Rian Johnson/Rian Johnson
STARS: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac,
RUNTIME: 2hr 32min