Ambitious and divisive, The Last Jedi teaches lessons in failure
Director: Rian Johnson Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Benicio Del Toro Running Time: 152 minutes
One thing that should probably be acknowledged about Star Wars before launching into a review of the latest entry to the series is that its cultural footprint is simply too big for anything approaching a consensus to form. Every Star Wars film since the original faced heavy backlash after their initial release. Some were also widely acclaimed at the same time. Some grew their reputation over the years. And some were the prequels. A film that aims to be seen by so many simply cannot please everyone all of the time, even if it tried, but despite the pressure of having to deliver to such a dedicated fanbase and such keenly invested taskmasters at Disney, director Rian Johnson boldly declares never to tell him the odds and instead has made The Last Jedi into the kind of film he knows will entertain one person for certain: himself. Make something for yourself and others usually follow, and those of a like-mind with Johnson will see in The Last Jedi an ambitious, electrifying and reflective blockbuster.
The Last Jedi picks up almost exactly from where The Force Awakens left off and continues to use the familiar presence and gravitas provided by the series former stars like Mark Hamill and the late Carrie Fischer to illuminate the journeys of the new characters played by Ridley, Boyega, Isaac et al. Having tracked down Luke Skywalker to his hermit-like existence on a remote planet on the far end of the galaxy, Rey looks to enlist the legendary Jedi’s help in defeating the First Order. Or more accurately, to help her to train and deal with the strong power of the Force that has awoken inside her, to help her “find (her) place in all this”. While Luke tries to make Rey understand why the ways of the Jedi should end, the First Order are ruthlessly hunting down her comrades in the Resistance, with General Hux and his fleet of scowling “Make the Dark Side Great Again” minions tracking the Rebels down through Hyperspace to pick off what’s left of them in what amounts to nearly a film-long chase scene. It’s a choice that provides a fitting thematic structure for the story The Last Jedi tells; the good guys are in constant retreat, barely keeping devastating defeat at bay and every time they think that they can breath easy, something explosive happens.
Simpatico in spirit but not in method with General Leia, rash fly-boy Poe Dameron finds himself clashing with the higher ups about how best to fend off the First Order. Both he and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) want to be the spark to light the fire of Rebellion, but Poe’s fire is more about burning enemies down than keeping allies warm. Revived from the injures he the end of the last film, Finn is still struggling to decide where he stands in this grand struggle. In trying to aid the Resistance, he and BB-8 team up with Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) for a mission to shut down the First Order’s tracking device. Like Finn, Rose is a window into the effect this ‘epic saga’ has on the little people of the Galaxy, though it drives her in a different way. Finally, Kylo Ren finds himself struggling to fulfill the expectations of his master, the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke. Lost, enraged, confused, Ren wants to resolve his conflict by letting the past die, in the most aggressive way possible. For reasons unbeknownst to either of them, Ren and Rey establish communication through a psychic link. With chemistry between the two high and an opportunity to understand each other arriving at the same time as mutual personal frustrations, efforts by the two to turn each other begin in earnest. The many characters of The Last Jedi are all propelled haphazardly towards what it is that they want, but none receive it in quite the way they they thought. More than just being one big tribute to Empire Strikes Back, the film is set up like a series of mini ESBs put together, a series of defeat, retreat and re-evaluations for each character.
Writing and directing, Rian Johnson repeatedly decides that where the story seems like it’s going isn’t actually where it needs to get to, an ambitious choice for helming the mid-point in a trilogy before JJ Abrams gets tagged back in. Without going into dreaded ‘spoilery’ details, this might be occasionally frustrating to those who were intrigued by the mysteries Abrams set up two years ago, but its a fitting follow up. The new leads in The Force Awakens were established very clearly as audience surrogates; excited and intrigued by the Star Wars they were finding themselves involved in, stanning for original trilogy characters and getting swept up in the mythology. Having built them up in such a way, the understandable and more interesting story choice is to knock them back down. Don’t meet your heroes, don’t fall for myths and don’t dwell on the past. In as much as he can within the most tightly-controlled of all the blockbuster franchises, Rian Johnson looks at the old in a different light and uses it to build something new. New audiences might prefer the way the films are going, those who see themselves in Star Wars in a way they never had before. The heart of the series is still there, but some of the repeated story beats and images and the ways that the series got set in are abandoned. Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.
With so much going on, it’s occasionally difficult to keep the story moving efficiently. After a breathless opening, the film sags in the second act. Finn and Rose go down something of a rabbit hole plotwise on a well-designed but shallow casino planet. To the film’s discredit, with so many characters to develop Finn seems to get slightly crowded out, missing a beat or two of character development, his humble everyman takes on the occasional unflattering shade of Ron Weasley bumble. And as often is the case with films of this size, there are difficulties getting the plot where it needs to be efficiently. But in the design, the sound and the visuals (always the most important aspects of Star Wars no matter how much backstory minutiae gets piled on), Johnson and his team are meticulous and confident, producing some of the most stunning scenes in the series. Decades ago, the explosion of the Death Star cemented Star Wars in the hearts and minds and millions. The Last Jedi has a comparable moment that’s even better, a literally breathtaking scene to carve out its own place in blockbuster history. From Snoke’s samurai-guarded All Red Everything guardroom to the variety of new critters, to the characters played by Dern or Benicio Del Toro that are intriguing but not overly explained, the additions to the universe here are enriching, helping the film bring new additions to the iconography. With more close ups than usual for Star Wars, those psychic conversations and some glances from the eyes of Rey’s mind, there’s a focus on the characters in the way that the film is shot, nothing here is just pretty for its own sake, the visuals are always emotionally evocative are illuminating about the characters.
The performances as well are enriching, the broad, archtypical characters shaded in by a talented and invested cast. Mark Hamill, out of the bland lead spotlight he occupied all those years ago, shows his skills, acting the grizzled veteran while maintaining shades of the same petulant farmboy underneath it all, making him equally believable as a myth and a man eager to demystify. Playing a character as operatic as Kylo Ren, Adam Driver makes so many interesting choices between the big, loud, angry moments. His long-horse face is sullen and wimpering, but when he speaks, it’s a lot more likely to tempt to the Dark Side than the grand gestures of a Darth Vader. Can’t you just try to see his side? Are you afraid of debate? Underneath the ridiculous helmet is a man, and that man is charismatic, but also just kind of shitty. He speaks to Daisy Ridley with the same entitled dismissal that he might direct at Lena Dunham, blurring the lines between a battle on a spaceship and a spat in a coffee shop. Ridley is more than a match for him, avoiding the frequent problem protagonists have of being the least compelling character and handling the pressure of being a new icon for female fans; personable and strong. In her final role, thankfully but poignantly, Carrie Fisher is given an opportunity to shine, dignified and formidable, shading in other characters simply by how they respond to her.
Like many modern blockbusters, the film is structured according to a particular template, and the constraints of that template are definitely felt. Yet unlike some recent superhero films, or other attempts to mine nostalgia and franchise potential like Ghostbusters, Jurassic World and many more, there is an actual story here, with a point, and one that is told very well. This is a story about failure, which should not be mistaken for a story that is a failure. What it means to fail and how we respond to it. Characters who one film ago were so eager to be part of their heroes story, now realising that the story is theirs, one that they need to step up and take ownership of, to shape in their image, because if they don’t, the other side will. That’s a lesson worth teaching. To some, Episode VIII will be ambitious to a point, or to others to a fault-how hard it is again to satisfy everybody. But even when dialing its ambitions back, through balancing sharp plot twists, bold and dramatic flair and an introspective approach to the franchise, The Last Jedi sets things up for a very intriguing future. Whether with apprehension or personally, anticipation, it is a sequel that prompts the question “where do we go from here?”(4.5 / 5)