It’s Star Wars, but it’s inconsistent Star Wars.
(This review will be specifically spoiler-free: a spoiler section is included below the trailer video, but only read this AFTER you’ve seen the film).
Star Wars is a cinematic event. As one of the “main episodes”, with a two year wait, “The Last Jedi” is especially highly anticipated. After the inconsistent reception of “The Force Awakens” (which I greatly enjoyed) would this penultimate episode be any good?
The answer is a very qualified “Yes”. Directed by Rian Johnson (who directed 2012’s novel and sometimes brutal Sci-Fi epic “Looper”), “The Last Jedi” picks up just before where “The Force Awakens” finished with a dramatic and action-packed recreation of a WW2 bombing mission, featuring Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, “Ex Machina“, “Inside Llewyn Davis“) in fighter-pilot mode. With perhaps the exception of “Rogue One“‘s finale, never has the heroism and loss of the plucky rebel band been better portrayed.
We then flip to that rocky (definitely not Irish!) island to see what happens when Rey (Daisy Ridley) gives the light sabre to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The answer may surprise you. Rey, haunted by her quest to understand her powers and her parental lineage, is there to persuade the hermit-like Skywalker to reclaim his hero-status and return to fight for the rebellion. But that help had better come soon, since the evil supreme leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his henchman Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are tracking and pursuing a rapidly dwindling number of rebel fighters, led by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), in what could be the rebellion’s last stand.
First and foremost, there’s a lot of good things to like in this film.
For a genre that’s often eschewed strong female roles, here is a film where women use light sabres to smash through the Sci-Fi glass ceiling. Rey is an enormously strong role-model for young girls: intelligent, plucky and resourceful as well as being athletic, emotional and gorgeous. In the words of Whitney Houston, she IS every woman. But the XX chromosomes don’t stop there, with a new heroine in the form of the low-tech Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) breathing some fresh air into the younger-hero dynamic with Finn (John Boyega).
And notably, the key leaders of the rebel alliance – Leia and newcomer Vice Admimal Holdo (Jurassic Park’s Laura Dern) are, as older women, both strong and unquestioned leaders of men.
All the acting is above par, with Hamill in particular having enormous fun with his role and Serkis as Snoke oozing evil even through his Mo-Cap CGI. Benicio del Toro (“Sicario”) is also great value as a mercenary “darker Han Solo” character.
And acting is required, for there is some significant dramatic content delivered through the story. The conflict and animosity between the connected Rey and Ren – a sort of telepathic Facetime – has to be worked through and, with Carrie Fisher’s untimely death, you might possibly predict that there will be at least one high-profile exit from this episode. There are some very funny one-liners and sight gags that enliven the action significantly without (I felt) ever going over the top into “Kingsman” territory: a brush of dirt off the shoulder by Hamill is a high-point to watch out for.
Technically, the film excels. John Williams again delivers a rousing score, and at times has so many themes to play with from the eight main films that he hardly knows what to do with them all in the bars available! The film also delivers (from special effects coordinators Chris Corbould and Branko Repalust) some eye-widening CGI, with scenes set on “bloody salt flats” (there’s no other way to describe them) being particularly impressive. There are moments of sheer cinematic joy, with a dramatic and devestating jump to light speed being visually and aurally one of the most gasp-inducing bits of cinema I will see this year.
Rather disappointingly though there seems to be little novelty shown in the editing department. Star Wars was always known for its clever scene transitions, but here we jump from location to location in a notably choppy and clunky manner.
Where the wheels come off though is with the story, also by Rian Johnson. More on this in the spoiler section (since it’s difficult to make spoiler-free comments), but enough to say at this point that the film is (unnecessarily) over-long, has a very inconsistent pace, and (with retrospect) some key aspects of the story just don’t logically stand up to scrutiny. This leads to a bizarre situation where the film has (at the time of writing) an IMDB rating of 8.2 but a swathe of 1* reviews from “Star Wars fans” with comments filled with absolute bile sitting at the top of the “best” comments list.
So, did I enjoy this film? Yes I did. But did it fully meet my (high) expectations? No it didn’t. And curiously, the more I have dwelt on the plot, the less satisfied I have become with it. Whereas I left the theatre with a FFFF rating, with reflection this has dropped to…
Fad Rating: FFFf.
Spoiler Section (you have been warned!)
Let’s pick at this story shall we? It really makes very little sense in retrospect. The whole middle reel of the film sees the mighty imperial fleet edging ever closer to Leia’s fleeing rebel ship with its dwindling shields. Excuse me? This is space… there is no “Maginot Line”! Just why exactly couldn’t one or two of the Star Destroyers nip into light speed then nip back again to just IN FRONT OF the ship??? “No, let’s not do that. Let’s just pour ourselves another cup of coffee, put our feet up, get the cards out…. we can wait it out, no problem”. Nonsense.
It’s also extremely irritating to me that great swathes of the trilogy’s story line are blasted to oblivian without much rationale.
- Who were Rey’s mother and father that she has such great powers…. Luke? Han/Leia? Snoke? This was one of the long-running mysteries built up through the last film. In the end (unless there is an Episode IX twist) the answer is ‘drifter nobodys’. (“Oh”).
- Snoke, built up to be the new “Emporor” for the trilogy for surely a mighty dual-like ending at the end of Episode IX is dispatched a little too easily (albeit memorably) in mid-film. What was his back-story? We will never now know. (“Oh”).
- After Episode VII gave the character of the shiny Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) little screen time, the makers said “Don’t worry, you’ll see a LOT more of her character in Episode VIII. (“Oh”).
- Why exactly did we need Poe’s elaborate sub-plot about finding the code-breaker to hack into the light-speed tracker? Holdo had a perfectly good plan already (that Poe ultimately buggers up!) and if she had comforted Poe that a plan exists a whole third of the film would have been excised!
- And why exactly is Luke so much of a recluse. There is a well understood (and overly repetitive…. “OK, we get it”) back story of his relationship with Ren, but why exactly would he turn his back so forcibly on the rebellian (led by his sister remember) that he once was happy to die for?
I’d better stop there, else I might need to revisit my rating again!
What’s irritating is that there is a really good film in here that could be edited down to. The whole of the “Gambling planet” sequence – ultimately just a good excuse to re-shoot the Episode IV Mos Eisley Cantina but with more money – could have been lost without making one iota of difference to the plot (and avoiding unfavourable comparisons to Episode I pod-racing in the process).
What I did think was well done was the finale with Luke and Ren, although Skywalker’s demise following that felt unnecessary and forced. Now the franchise will ultimately proceed into the final installment with NONE of the older protagonists, which feels like a waste and a snub to older viewers like me who saw the original films on release. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is that Leia stays to the end: how on earth are they going to square that circle in the next film? I mean it’s not as if they didn’t have enough footage in the can to re-edit a suitable scene!
In retrospect, its a very mixed bag indeed.