Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Kelly Marie Tran, Domhnall Gleeson, Laura Dern, Andy Serkis, Benicio Del Toro, Gwendoline Christie
When The Force Awakens was released in 2015 to relaunch the Star Wars saga it had three specific functions: nostalgia, preparation, and reassurance. It had to remind audiences why they loved Star Wars, it had to establish the new generation of characters who were going to take on the franchise from our old favourites moving forward, and, after the prequel trilogy, it had to leave us confident that they weren’t going to screw this up. The result was a film that was a lot of fun, but was fairly criticised for playing it a bit safe. It set a platform and Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the storied saga, has built on that platform. Nowhere near as dependent on nostalgia as The Force Awakens or even Rogue One, The Last Jedi is liberated to be more adventurous with its narrative.
The First Order has bounced back well from having their Death Star, sorry, their Star Killer Base destroyed, and now have the dwindling Resistance on the run. Having found a way to track the Resistance fleet through hyperspace, they can simply trail behind General Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) fleet and pick off their ships as they slowly but surely run out of fuel. Not content with the leadership’s plan, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hatches a scheme with Finn (John Boyega) and a rebel maintenance worker named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to sneak aboard the First Order destroyer and disable their tracker. Meanwhile, having tracked down Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Rey finds him unwilling to go with her and rejoin the Resistance or even to train her in the ways of the Force. Traumatised by something that happened in the past between he and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Luke has exiled himself to this island to die and to let the Jedi order die with him.
At one point, as Rey continues to badger Luke about rejoining the fight, he turns and warns her, “This is not going to go the way you think!” The line is a warning as much for the audience as for the character. The Last Jedi makes some brave narrative choices, including twists and variations on what you expect. Johnson’s screenplay gives us a different take on heroism. This is a film about failure in which we see various characters dealing with plans that have not worked out. The central narrative is about a retreat rather than an offensive. The only attack we witness from the Resistance, at the very beginning of the film, sees “trigger-happy flyboy” Poe reprimanded and demoted for the losses they sustained despite the seeming success of the mission. As Rose later reinforces to Finn, ultimate victory for the Resistance will come “not [from] destroying what you hate, but protecting what you love.”
This challenging of expectations is likely connected to the sense that there is a more powerful authorial presence here. While it would be naive to suggest that a film of this size doesn’t have a degree of ‘by committee’ to it, it is notable that Rian Johnson is the only person not named George Lucas to have received sole writing and directing credits on a Star Wars movie. With Lucasfilm developing a reputation for chewing up and spitting out filmmakers, Johnson seems to have earned their trust (as indicated by their recent signing of him to helm an upcoming trilogy set in the Star Wars universe). He takes ownership of the film, bringing not only new narrative ideas, some of which challenge established canonical themes, but also a new aesthetic with The Last Jedi featuring some of the most striking visuals that we’ve seen in a Star Wars movie. Johnson also expands the saga’s political agenda beyond its standard anti-fascist metaphor, providing strong commentary on the military industrial complex through a subplot concerning arms dealers who have made themselves supremely wealthy by selling weapons to both the First Order and the Resistance.
Probably the boldest aspect of The Last Jedi is the way it approaches the central mythology of the Star Wars universe. Luke has entered the ‘post-Jedi’ period of his faith (he does actually refer to Jedi as a religion here). He knows of the Force, believes in its power, but sees it as arrogance for Jedi to claim any sort of ownership of it, seeing the hubris of the Jedi as being responsible for bringing them and the universe undone. On the other side, Kylo Ren, in defiance of the aims of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), shows a similar disdain for the traditions of the Sith. While the same struggle between the light and the dark continues, the labels of Jedi and Sith do not hold the relevance they once did as The Last Jedi moves to separate the faith from its institutions.
The Last Jedi continues to develop the new characters while adequately servicing the old. As Rey grows more and more powerful with the Force we learn the answer to mystery of her lineage. She also finds herself feeling a connectedness with Kylo Ren and is determined that there is good in him and hope of turning him back to the light. With his insecurity, conflictedness and uncontrollable rage, Kylo Ren continues to be the franchise’s most interesting villain (a potentially controversial statement, but as iconic as Darth Vader looks and sounds, as a character he is pretty thin). Poe, who was underserved in The Force Awakens, is given more to do this time around and better fleshed out as a character, forced to learn the difference between being a leader and being a hero. Finn, in contrast, is relatively sidelined. While he still has plenty to do in the narrative, his parts are less interesting and his character does not develop to the same extent that Rey and Poe do. Luke is used in a far less nostalgic way than Han in The Force Awakens with his characterisation actively challenging our understanding of who he was before. There are also some great moments for Princess Leia, which obviously take on greater significance as we know this is the last time we’ll see Carrie Fisher on screen.
For all its positives, The Last Jedi is not a perfect movie. It’s 152min run time makes it the longest film in the franchise, and with the middle third feeling a bit flabby it could easily afford to lose 15-20 minutes of that. There are a few moments which are a bit on the nose – including a major one with Leia – and the effort to up the humour, while sometimes effective, still proves jarring at times. There is a self-deprecating quality to the film, intentionally wearing the responsibility of making a new Star Wars film lightly, but the very contemporary style of humour being dropped into what is effectively a period film can clash.
While there is the temptation to try and understand The Last Jedi as this new trilogy’s Empire Strikes Back – both because that film established the trope of the dark second instalment and because of the closeness with which The Force Awakens aped A New Hope – such an interpretation would be simplistic and misleading. The Last Jedi is its own film, breathing new life into the franchise and showing, forty years on from our first trip to a time long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, that Star Wars still has legs.
Review by Duncan McLean
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