When Star Wars came back in 2015 with The Force Awakens, it was to a market that had not had a Star Wars for a decade, and arguably had not had a good Star Wars for three decades. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi exists in a market where not only has the turnaround between numbered entries shifted from three years to two, but every other year has a side entry like Rogue One. Two superlative Star Wars films have lead to The Last Jedi, which has a lot to measure up to, and it mostly does. How it goes for the individual audience member depends on their tolerance for flaws.
Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) seeks Jedi training from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Brigsby Bear), who no longer has an interest in the Force. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, TV’s Catastrophe) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, Suburbicon) try desperately to keep the Resistance forces ahead of the First Order. Ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega, Detroit) and mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) run interference for the Resistance on their own front, while Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Logan Lucky) and General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson, Goodbye Christopher Robin) vie for the attentions of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, War for the Planet of the Apes).
The Last Jedi is a movie that is part classic Star Wars, part cinematographic spectacle, part oddball, and, quite unfortunately, part prequel trilogy. There is a lot of material that works here, and when it does work, this is a legitimately breathtaking piece of cinema. However, from the beginning there’s a discordant sense of humour that’s somewhat counter to the series’ ethos to date: rather than funny situations rising organically in the script, many of the characters openly seem to be making jokes. It’s how we introduce Poe this go-round, and it feels slightly off.
More than that, Finn’s entire storyline could be cut and the film would be better off. As Finn was one of the driving-force leads of The Force Awakens and also a charming character, this is a disappointing development. His adventure is such a low point that it would not seem out of place in one of George Lucas’ efforts from between 1999 and 2005, and it serves little purpose to the film’s overall plot.
It must be said that The Last Jedi occupies the same spot in its own trilogy as The Empire Strikes Back, which is viewed as one of the most well-made films of all time (at least from people who accept that “genre” films are legitimate cinema). The Last Jedi does not come close to touching Empire, and that’s okay. It’s also a bridge movie that does not yet have its connection revealed, and so it’s difficult to say how it fares on that front — The Last Jedi’s truest value may only be revealed through the benefit of hindsight.
The most important elements of the film are the best handled. The dynamic explored between Rey and Kylo Ren is truly fascinating, and it introduces an ambiguity that should form a firm foundation for Episode IX. Hamill plays Luke as he’s never done before, and the Force triangle provides much to be considered — albeit only for people invested in the franchise. This is certainly not a good point to enter the series.
Writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) has crafted a film that looks exactly like Star Wars, but more visually interesting than ever before. With cinematographer Steve Yedlin (San Andreas) and a veritable army of production designers onside, Johnson uses new techniques: closer cutting of competing shots and scenes, parallel Force conversations, match cuts and vibrant colours. Snoke’s throne room is imposing and reminiscent of Palpatine’s office without being a mere recreation — and what happens in there is among the most exciting material in the film. A late-stage sequence on a planet’s surface makes fresh use of the film’s white and red motif; certainly, The Last Jedi is never dull to look at — except, sadly, when Finn is in town.
It’s also difficult to view The Last Jedi without taking into consideration the passing of Carrie Fisher; this is the only film in the series to have a credit acknowledging the memory of one of its cast. Each time Leia says goodbye to a character, there’s an unintended poignancy. Fisher has a larger role than in The Force Awakens, and she uses it well. Elsewhere, Driver brings layers to a character that is at once at war with himself but also simply a petulant child, and special mention should be made of Serkis’ affinity for motion capture; Snoke is more than a shadowy science fiction villain under his tutelage.
The Last Jedi is not a completely satisfactory film, Star Wars or otherwise. There is much to recommend it, but more counterweights than one might normally be comfortable with accepting from hundred-million-dollar-plus franchises. The true value of The Last Jedi lies in its fundamental core, through which the Force flows. If you can accept the excess, the weird humour, the entirely inessential subplot, and the fact that it could stand to end a scene earlier, then the series will continue to thrive in a galaxy far, far away.
Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi opened in Australian cinemas on December 14, 2017.
Directed by: Rian Johnson.
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Kelly Marie Tran, Benicio Del Toro and Laura Dern.