The rebellion against the rising forces of The First Order and the remnants of the galactic Empire continues and things are not going well for the Rebellion. If the ragtag fleet of resistance fighters is to have any chance against the superior power of the Empire’s fleet and resources, it seems they will have to take some high-stakes risks.
But as disagreements on the extent of those risks threatens to undermine their path forward, Rey is on a mission of her own: to bring back one of the legends of the battle that brought them to this point. Can the legacy of Luke Skywalker save them all, or will the actions of the past lead to an even darker future?
On its release, The Force Awakens was criticised for essentially echoing the events of the original Star Wars, veering in so close to the template that claims of blatantly ‘remaking’ the original movie were somewhat valid…. after so long away from that galaxy far, far away, the refresher course might have been unavoidable but it was embraced a little too tightly. However, The Last Jedi‘s remit wasn’t just to take the baton but to run with it, to not just warm the embers of a classic nostalgia-powered franchise but to send flames skyward again.
There’s also a lot of death here, maybe moreso than any other entry (discounting anonymous planets etc). A few might be expected, a few not and there’s at least one moment where the film wrong-foots audience expectations.
The result is worth waiting for, but it was easy to predict that it would be a film that would find it hard to please everyone. It’s real predicament is that it tries to do that too much and that means there’s examples of the franchise’s mythological baggage, a Marvel Universe-styled quippery, aspirations of war-story tragedy, set-pieces that can only find so many ways to throw things at each other and a sense of competing priorities. The Last Jedi‘s problem is not one of familiarity but in the amount of canvas it seeks to accommodate and populate. There’s a big contradiction here as it tries include something for everyone: The galaxy is huge, but the main story itself is pretty thin (essentially, the rebels are on the run, tirelessly pursued and blasted by the Empire as they retreat and Rey tries to find out why Luke Skywalker abandoned his role as Jedi Master). Everything else is pretty but essentially set-decoration and padding. That being said, there are moments where the individual stories are so unconnected that one could envision the 140-minute entry being better played out over a mini-series, allowing each to breathe and feel more part of a whole rather than distractions. (A side-mission to a galactic casino provides valiant work for the visual-effects wizards but it’s telling when a fifteen-minute-plus set piece could have been removed from the film with a few strokes of a keyboard with little impact to the bigger narrative – there essentially to try and convince us John Boyega’s Finn is pivotal rather than an annex to the main action).
With a double-digit central cast that includes the surviving mainstays and the new generation of heroes, it’s a mix that works better than one might expect given the chance to fail and flail, but still falls well short of servicing everyone and everything. Some main characters barely interact at all (a late ‘Hello, I’m…‘ feels like a quick script rewrite as the Powers That Be suddenly realise two heroic key players have never even met before this moment) and others get but cursory nods. Old favourites like Chewbacca, C-3P0 and Artoo-Deetoo are little more than contractual cameos with less than ten lines between them, almost entirely superfluous to the plot, which is a shame (though the latter character is involved in a nice call-back).
Daisy Ridley as Rey does everything required – both in the acting and action department. Her story is one of the main threads that has to stand up to scrutiny. The connection between Rey and Ben Solo / Kylo Ren is well performed, though the visual-side of the dialogue-across-the-lightyears is somewhat unimaginative in execution for the most part – but the supposed comments/revelations about her lineage avoid the stumbling block they could have become.
After less than a minute of screen-time in The Force Awakens, Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker has more to do here – essentially a more world-weary version of Obi Wan Kenobi complete with mistakes that have impacted others and the galaxy. On one hand it’s a shame to see one of the science-fiction genre’s brightest,biggest heroes painted in darker hues and almost literally cloaked in regrets, but happiness has rarely been a good engine for drama and Hamill embraces the journey of redemption with all the gusto a career-resurgence requires.
The torch IS being passed like a lightsabre and and it casts both shadows and light in the process. There’s a melancholy attached to the film that goes beyond the screen. The death of Carrie Fisher will inevitably affect the main column of stories going forward and it would have been fascinating to know what was intended if Leia had moved to a more central role again. There’s glimpses here of a stronger, more intense Leia, an intuitive, resourceful and resilient general rather than merely a princess. Though lip-service has been made to her Force lineage, Jedi is probably the first time we see anything worthy of note in that regard, as welcome as it is brief and cut short.
Positioned halfway between the bombastic overture of The Force Awakens and the more ‘ballad for the unsung heroes’ that was Rogue One, there’s certainly the obligatory action but more nuance within than one might expect. Those entering the cinema expecting a black and white, light-side vs dark-side battle will find that the more personal scenes that punctuate the film are shades of grey. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren may start the film as little more than a cosmic emoji, bargain-bin Darth Vader wannabee, but by the end we can understand his reasonings better, even if we don’t agree with them. Ren wants to be rid of ALL the baggage of the past and to rebuild without the long-standingconflicts and there’s certainly something meta about the cinematic franchise’s equally conflicted stance as it emerges from the daunting shadow of its own legacy. On the flipside, the newer big-bad CGI’d Snoke was more ‘uncanny valley’ than intimidating, a character built-up to be the major menace but disposed of without much subsequent development.
Early opinion on The Last Jedi has been mixed. Despite the more extreme voices on each side of that debate, the truth is that it’s neither a flawless galactic masterpiece nor a cosmic disappointment and which side of the fence you fall on will likely say a lot about your age and expectations. As an entertaining slice of a bigger fantasy epic (with more than a few disparate nods to its previous chapters and Lord of the Rings, Battlestar Galactica, James Bond etc) it’s arguably badly-paced and massively padded out, but can hold its head high as mainstream fun… though that’s fairweather praise in a year that’s been incredibly disappointing in that regard. It’s easy to forget just how generic mainstream cinema has become and when Jedi gets its right, it does so well, when it misses the mark it encourages a shrug rather than venom.
Without spoiling it, the most heart-warming scene in the film, the one that encompasses what Star Wars is and should always be about – the one that tellingly stands alone without pixels, quips or decades of constrained baggage – comes in the very closing seconds. And in that sense, while what has preceded it is open to ebb and flow of opinions, director Rian Johnson at least nails that perfectly.
What happens next, with the torch returning to J J Abrams, will be another matter.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is out now…