Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Dir: Rian Johnson
I was never a ‘Star Wars’ fan and had no enthusiasm for the films until I saw ‘The Force Awakens‘. I’m amazed at how well the revived movie franchise has worked for me, so I went into this with enthusiasm and optimism and left having really enjoyed it. Many lifelong fans of the Star Wars universe have been a lot less enthusiastic.
Rey (Daisy Ridley) asks to be trained in the ways of the force by Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) while the rest of the Rebel Alliance, under the command of General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) are pursued by the First Order.
Because I’m not as invested in these films as die-hard fans are, I just go in to them hoping for an enjoyable film that works by itself, I don’t hugely care about how it ties in with the wide canon of books and TV shows, ideally just that it follows on nicely from the last one. This does follow on, though there’s passionate debate about how well it does so.
Director Rian Johnson has done some great work in the past, I particularly like ‘Brick’ and ‘Looper‘ was nicely twisty though I didn’t like it as much. This is such a different type of film to those standalones, it’s a franchise film that needs to work within the larger context of the other films and the Star Wars universe. Many fans who know the franchise well feel that it doesn’t do that, whereas from my point of view Johnson has just pushed the boundaries of what others have done with the universe so far, taking some elements in a different direction than perhaps what was expected.
This film offers us something new, shockingly it’s the first film in the series that hasn’t featured a Deathstar. Beyond that it develops characters in ways that have maybe been hinted before but never shown. The varied abilities and viewpoints of those with the force are showcased, with the ongoing wider conflict and personal character development all brought to bear on the narrative. It actively addresses many questions raised by ‘The Force Awakens’ though the answers may not always be what was expected or hoped for and develops the legacy characters far more fully than the brief appearances in the last episode.
Lots happens in this movie, it’s never boring, there are multiple story arcs and locations developing at the same time, cutting between up to four main sets of characters in different places for most of the film. The film has a fantastic opening, starting things off in the midst of an intense space battle that gets things going at full speed and puts the ‘war’ in ‘Star Wars’. Then the over the next two and a half hours it moves the episodic story on a huge amount from ‘The Force Awakens’, developing almost all the recurring characters significantly. Though it’s obviously setting up some things for the third of the new episodes it doesn’t feel overly cautious about reserving things for J. J. Abrams. Rian Johnson touches on almost everything established in ‘The Force Awakens’ and starts a few balls rolling for the third, rarely leaving frustrating dangling threads that are just to entice audiences back for the sequel. Though this film does so much, I’m not worried that it’s taking all the steam from the next, I’m sure there will be more than enough to work with for that to be a great movie but hopefully it’ll be a deeper exploration of some ideas that have so far only been briefly raised or tackled.
The biggest point of contention for some fans seems to be what this film does with Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. I don’t hate it. Controversially, I don’t think he was a very good actor in the original films, though he has greatly improved over time. The change in his character’s attitude for this film is stark and maybe a little shocking for those who feel they know the character very well, but as a version of the role for Hamill to portray, it gives him so much of substance to work with that it brings out one of his very best screen performances and arguably the most interesting appearance of Luke Skywalker.
Some new characters are also extensively developed, possibly to the detriment of other established characters. Everyone does get an arc but there are a lot of them, which is part of why the film is so long. I really liked some of the character arcs, especially in the way the film gives Leia a full and strong role, with a few surprises along the way. Admiral Holdo played by Laura Dern is also an interesting one, she seemingly comes from nowhere so some characters and the audience are unsure how to take her, then by the end of the film her role feels satisfying. Sadly, Phasma is almost the opposite. A climactic scene in the film that features her feels a little badly edited, possibly it was recut, so she’s not just underused throughout but it ruins her final scenes of the movie because it feels like something is missing and we are left a little uncertain how characters got to where they were, physically not just narratively.
Also, is it just me or are none of the main characters (except droids) non-humanoid. There are so many species wandering around on casino planet Canto Bight but the film doesn’t make any similarly interesting species a full lead character despite there being plenty of new characters introduced. Maz Kanata makes a cameo appearance but it’s terrible, shoehorned in via video-phone and it does nothing for her character, so while the details she gives are important to a part of the story, just sending a text would have sufficed.
Canto Bight is featured in the middle of the film, an interesting concept for a Las Vegas-esque place that brings up personal and moral topics. For me it felt overly complicated and that section of the film felt a little out of place, like it should have been a seperate story on TV or as a short film, in the middle of this movie it dragged and didn’t work very well at all. It was clearly a nice idea and allows for lots of good concepts and easter eggs of creatures and cameos, but serves very little purpose otherwise, the key elements could have been far easier conveyed in a simplified form.
One of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on screen for a while is the in the last third (and shown in the trailers so it’s not a spoiler to mention) where there’s a planet with red dirt under a crust of white. This works with the colour scheme of the entire movie and looks so incredibly striking as vehicles break the surface and kick up blood red dust. In essence, it’s a simple idea that pays dividends visually, when the film got to that part I remembered the brief glimpse from the trailer and how I’d liked that moment in it, so it got me fired back up for the rest of the film.
I liked the new fun creatures Porgs, though there might be a little too much of them as the film already has a lot of other comedic moments. Some of the Porg and Ahch-To island related humour is played just for laughs and it comes close to being too silly for a film that’s otherwise weighty. I can see that some of the comedic moments are clearly aimed to cut the tension right after serious scenes and moments, so they’re serving a purpose to keep the tone lighter and support an overall feeling of enjoyment but I do think some tough moments should be allowed a little more time to sink in and have their full impact.
I know some big ‘Star Wars’ fans, one is a close friend who I discuss movies at length with. He is one of those people who was not happy with this film at all, and to his credit he’s now seen it multiple times to be sure. His main reason for not liking it is the portrayal of Luke Skywalker, something even Mark Hamill apparently found hard to get to grips with when he first read the script. Funnily, within the context of these newer films and to the mind of someone who doesn’t care as much about the wider canon, I see his point but disagree, it’s a strength of the film in my opinion and there are lots of other things that I disliked far more. Where it teeters on tone or humour, it makes up for with serious development of legacy characters, divisive though it may be. Especially when we consider the death of Carrie Fisher, this gives her most famous character a really substantial and fitting role that is apparently unchanged from how it was always written to be, giving her the chance to do what she considered to be her best work. If J. J. Abrams finds a good way of dealing with Fisher’s death for the next film, this could in hindsight be even more of a fitting final performance.
I’m very interested to see how well the film works for me on a second viewing now I know what to expect. Will the humour feel more at ease or will it actually become grating? I’m really not sure, only seeing it again will answer that, though I don’t think I’ll get the chance to do that until it comes out on home release.
‘The Last Jedi’ may have divided audiences a little but it’s great to have a ‘Star Wars’ film that really feels like it’s doing something new and exciting with the franchise and characters. It has been a huge box office success and will get a handful of award nominations in the next few weeks, mainly technical ones, though I wouldn’t rule out one or two surprises.