The Last Jedi Second Look: Derivative sequel fails to ignite new trilogy
Director: Rian Johnson Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Oscar Isaac, Kelly Marie Tran, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson Running Time: 152 minutes
Hope, hope, hope, hope, hope….that’s the buzzword in Disney’s latest blockbusting checkbox. A word that too often crops up in The Last Jedi evoking the enduring legacy of the first Star Wars, later retitled A New Hope. As creative choices go it struck me as shallow and lazy but for this new chapter in Disney’s ongoing mission to monopolise blockbuster cinema for the next century it’s understandable.
Continuing the tried and tested success of its predecessors formula (a defining word moving forward in any new Star Wars feature) Rian Johnson’s debut in this particular cinematic universe is a well oiled machine, confidently regurgitating key scenes, settings and dialogue from the series’ past highlights. As the fourth consecutive Star Wars adventure to inherit the now redundant ‘best since The Empire Strikes Back‘ mantle The Last Jedi has few new tricks up its sleeve.
Doubling down on the blueprint established by The Force Awakens Jedi all but slows things to a halt plot wise, inexplicably resetting the series with a mighty imperial force chasing a haggard band of rebels. This despite all plot to the contrary set out in both previous chronological episodes. Didn’t the Empire and First Order both suffer calamitous back to back defeats?
No matter, the story such as it is kicks off immediately after the events of The Force Awakens. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is still standing on Skellig Michael, hopefully clutching a lightsaber while a disgruntled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, with dialogue this time) watches on. The Resistance is in the middle of an evacuation before The First Order fleet (gamely led by an appropriately hammy Domhnall Gleasson) arrives to obliterate them once and for all. Hotshot, trigger happy, dangerous, maverick pilot Poe Dameron (played by Oscar Isaac who like Hamill has a bit more to do this time around) is trying to engineer some kind of wild, top gun-esque assualt on the latest big flying First Order weapon while Carrie Fisher solemnly watches on as General Leia.
Meanwhile Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver) is still mulling over this whole Dark Side business. It seems dispatching his father last time out didn’t cement his position as new big baddie so much as generate even more uncertainty in the Sith Lord to be. He has to do more to impress a not very pleased Supreme Leader Snoke (performed once again via motion capture by Andy Serkis, magnificent in this year’s rather more courageous big franchise entry War for the Planet of the Apes). A stylish cape and nifty looking mask will only get you so far in Sith academy.
Finally John Boyega’s Finn and new-comer Rose (Kelly Marie Tan) as a resistance member are part of a plot to save the fleet which will involve the help of a duplicitous code breaker (played by a big name actor who should be in more of this).
That’s the meat of it and after first viewing I was left with the overall sensation of a very expensive holding pattern, cobbled together from various parts of this saga. Writer-director Johnson, who made the enjoyable 2012 thriller Looper as well as Brick dutifully arranges all the pieces on a familiar looking board. Characters and arcs progress routinely to places we’ve come to expect. What surprises and disappoints is how deliberately these stories have fallen so comfortably into self-cannibalism.
Without spoiling key plot moments there is hardly a big reveal or revelation that doesn’t appear to overtly hark back to iconic events of Star Wars past. Characters negotiate using repurposed lines from the original trilogy (or stock motivational speech), often in an environment that will consciously evoke terrain we’ve seen before. Some highlights include another speeder versus AT-AT face off on a snow planet, a Dagobah-like swamp scene for a journey of self discovery, a Monte Carlo styled alien casino that likes the Mos Eisley band music and a throne room encounter suspiciously reminiscent of Return of the Jedi. There’s also characters dressed in enemy garb sneaking around another Death Star/Star Destroyer environment to locate a generator that needs to be blown up. Oh and X-Wings. Check, check, check and check. For a movie that regularly raises the notion of destroying the old and ushering in the new this all feels very familiar. I fear contempt has started to creep in.
In terms of what Johnson does craft plot wise following a bigger Imperial cruiser ship pursuing a marginally faster beleaguered Rebel vessel is an interesting idea but somewhat inert onscreen. It should be a tense standoff as one vessel is running on fumes and faces annihilation. Now the series has reached a point where irrespective of the events of past films we arrive back at square one why should anyone care what happens to this resistance flag ship? Won’t another rebel vessel simply take its place? There’s no sense of stakes involved and while there’s some appealing actors here I can only salute anyone who is getting teary eyed over whether the most prominent X-Wing pilot since Dennis Lawson goes out in a blaze of glory along with Laura Dern. There’s no one on this ship that anyone has taken the time to get the audience to invest in beyond the accepted wisdom that they’re our heroes, we’re told to like them and care that they might die (excluding the contractual certainty that most of the cast will appear in the next sequel two years later….of course). Poe also dresses a bit like Han Solo in the other movies so there’s that too.
Devoid of any meaningful tension this neutralises about half the movie. As for what should be key scenes in two major characters respective journeys, Rey’s interactions with Luke are underwhelming despite potentially rich material. Luke is a legend turned jaded figure living in exile and ready to see the end of his order which he makes a compelling argument has been specialising in failure since the events of the prequel trilogy. Rey conversely needs a mentor figure both to help her make sense of her extraordinary talents, put them to good use and give her a sense of her place in this universe. Then there’s the sub-plot revealing what really happened between the old Jedi master and Kylo Ren. Yet for all this potential the resulting emotional wallop doesn’t amount to much more than filling in the plot blanks.
Kylo’s own journey is initially appealing but by the time we arrive to the latter stages it all feels like we’ve moved very modestly from the character strokes set up by J.J. Abrams two years ago. Rounding off the main players Finn and Rose’s detour feels a little perfunctory with a rather unconvinced and forced pay off. As a senior Resistance figure Laura Dern has a few scenes where she bickers with Poe to muted effect.
In the plus column there’s some pleasing dramatic scraps to be had in scenes between Driver and Ridley. One of the notable character friendly touches The Last Jedi has is establishing a telepathic link between the two. This allows for some teasing back and forth with both trying to convince the other to change sides. It helps that they’re both isolated and without family or friends who can relate to them and their unusual power. Throw in the slightest hint of sexual tension and their scenes have a dramatic energy that’s considerably lacking in the rest of the production.
As per last year’s Rogue One the word hope is parachuted in as often as possible. Maybe the market research indicated fans really liked part of the title A New Hope. In any case buckle up for healthy portions of the word hope and ‘may the force be with you’. Again and again and again. These overused refrains, alongside the familiar hardware, character design and setting provide little in the way of earned emotional effect or originality. Next to this the marvel series is a bold, ruthlessly adaptable, auteur driven cinematic landscape.
Maybe one day I’ll finally realise that the creative key to this now never ending behemoth is a level of plot, character and aesthetic cannibalism I just haven’t come to appreciate yet. Maybe like certain poetry it’s meant to rhyme. Yet even the Marvel factory line, under Disney’s corporate umbrella, manage to plug in idiosyncratic film-makers like Jon Favreau, Joss Whedon, Shane Black and Taika Waititi and allow them to add enough of their own flavour to help their perpetual string of money makers. The reality that the same self-regeneration (never mind the alien notion of a fresh idea) can’t be applied to Star Wars is a disappointment.(2 / 5)