No series has to factor with a greater weight of expectations than Star Wars. It shows.
Having to reckon with its predecessors’ legacy to deliver, like its forbears, something both original and dependently familiar here emerges as The Last Jedi’s greatest strength and too its most blatant weakness. A good instalment no doubt, and a great one in many respects, Episode VIII, if thrilling, is too a very flawed and at times disappointing film that dually suffers and excels from the treatment of its own past.
Picking up the Skywalker saga in a manner as abruptly discordant with the tone set by The Force Awakens as could be managed, Director Rian Johnson immediately signals that he plans to put his own very distinctive stamp on Episode VIII. This is not a problem in and of itself, indeed some of the best aspects of The Last Jedi and the series as a whole have emerged when its champions have taken the types of bold leaps that abound here, except for it being apparent that Johnson has gone to the extent of relegating crucial elements of Episode VII to dramatic irrelevance.
As if unsure how to resolve some of The Force Awakens’ cliffhangers, former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) is almost instantly revived after his apparent slumber, bringing into question the dramatic expediency of rendering him such in the first place. When Han Solo was frozen at least a sequence, one of the best of the series, was staged to explain how he became unthawed – no such luck here.
Poe (Oscar Isaac) fumbles between missions, including an admittedly awe-inspiring opening sequence though ultimately, together with Finn, pursues plot strands that advance proceedings little if at all and would otherwise attract the more severe attention of their superiors had due attention been paid by either the Resistance high command or the screenwriters. One sequence featuring what could generously be described as a Casablanca-style haven and the hastily introduced Lando-lite DJ (Benicio Del Toro) could just as well have been excised from the film.
This segment does deserve credit, however, for giving some context to the galaxy outside of the traditional backdrop of rag-tag rebels and their aggressors, reminding us that there are a lot more interesting stories to be mined out there over the ensuing decades.
Carrie Fisher’s return, inevitably powerful, heralds both some of the most emotive moments in this entry and too it’s stand-out weakest scene that persists both in defiance of due explanation and the type of casual indifference to the lore of the Star Wars universe that one would have hoped had expired with the prequels. This segment too has the effect of ridding the instalment of the no-prisoners approach to even central characters evinced so well in the likes of A New Hope that has best served the series, undermining the levels of suspense that could have laden the travails of a similarly important character in a roundly epic, later sequence had the precariousness of their situation been more believable. When variations to our understanding of the force are otherwise introduced they are comparatively better managed, proffering some of the more morally ambiguous and fascinating elements of this latest instalment.
Not so well realised is the depiction of General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) this time around. One of the best actors in the entire saga and a memorably terrifying aspect of Episode VII, here Hux is largely confined to being heaved and tossed about rooms. The newly-arrived Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) is, in comparison, one of the shining lights of Episode VIII’s varied characterisations, while the surprise emergence of one particular figure is handled with much greater reverence than they have in the past been accorded.
Two other significant characters, well established mere years ago and since emerging as favourite subjects of fan introspection, meet two of the least satisfying arcs of the entire saga, as if their presence meant little more than a few fumbling AT-ATs. One of them is blithely dispatched in a manner regrettably reminiscent of an ill-staged penultimate scene in the final Hunger Games instalment; the key sequence of the other figure paying off little of the tension previously so well built up. Neither were ever compulsorily due anything remotely akin to the fan theories that abounded in recent years nor even necessarily merited a storyline similar to that of their evident counterparts in the original trilogy, which nevertheless in those instalments otherwise (mostly) depicted their established mainstays as more than a passing afterthought.
The scant reverence paid to other interesting characters is too evident in the introduction of Laura Dern’s much-anticipated Vice Admiral Holdo, a character whose limited screen-time permits only fleeting interest in the nevertheless engaging figure. Their most memorable sequence however, among the dazzling top-shelf special effects escapades rendered throughout, rates as one of the more stunning ever committed to film, and when combined with shrewd sound design even given all else that transpires emerges as one of Episode VIII’s most potent takeaways.
Chewbacca circles around the goings-on for good measure and alongside the audience has to suffer the needless presence of the internet-friendly Porgs, possessing all the illogicity of the saga’s most merchandise-ready additions though none of their charm.
Thankfully, Rey (a superb Daisy Ridley) provides much-needed grounding and the conduit for this film’s most fascinating strand, teaming up with a grizzled Mark Hamill who has finally reprised his role as Luke and too facing off against a newly-resolved Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Together, the three defy moralistic stratification in some of the entry’s most welcome and now necessary story and character innovations, emerging in more ways than one from the shadows of its predecessors in a manner that, in the very best of Star Wars tradition and the continued appeal of the series, confounds expectations and refuses to play it safe.
Fast establishing himself as the most compulsive aspect of the trilogy, Driver’s Ren bears all the intrigue of his darkly labyrinthine grandfather though is pleasingly so unfamiliar an entity as to be similarly involving. His interactions with Rey from afar, utilising one of the elements of the force with which we are less familiar and rendered through straightforward, classic cinematic techniques, are among the highlights of the film, as is a jaw-dropping fight sequence involving the pair which is near-worth the price of admission alone.
It is at this point that The Last Jedi both acquits itself of its roots, channelling both The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (though mercifully in a manner wholly less palpable than The Force Awakens that renders this Episode duly distinct from its inspirations) and too departing in a less familiar direction that would otherwise necessarily involve an ill-fated rehash of its predecessors.
Here recognising the weight of fan expectation and shrewdly adopting it to the film’s advantage, the key revelation about Rey, if it is to be believed, not only plays well into the fundamental ethos of the series that first saw the orphaned Luke propelled into interstellar centrality but is a twist that in the context of a penultimate or even concluding entry is genuinely surprising and works wonders. This sequence too ties in well with the film’s final scene, one of the classiest of the whole saga and a pleasant foreshadowing of adventures to come that, together with so much of this film and it’s previous instalment will no doubt thrillingly engender a rage of fan speculation that has long been the lifeblood of the series.
Posing as many compelling new treatises on the light and dark sides of the force as there are inescapable plot holes, disappointing character arcs and awe-inspiring moments, The Last Jedi cannot be straightforwardly allotted a thumbs up or down nor codified to either the revelatory quality of the original trilogy or its comparatively lacklustre prequels. A crucial part of the saga, The Last Jedi, as frustrating as it is occasionally brilliant, is a good film, even if that word doesn’t have quite the same cache when it comes to Star Wars.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in cinemas now