Star Wars: The Last Jedi - a review with spoilers!
Here be spoilers!!!
Just in case you missed my subtle pointer....
Ok, you've been warned! Oh, and this blog is long, maybe overly long, like the film itself.
For the first time in writing film reviews, I'm going to write two reviews for the eighth Star Wars film, The Last Jedi. This is the spoiler-free version. What you have on your screen now if full of spoilers and opinions and commentary and some more opinions.
Rian Johnson has brought us an exciting, adventurous, surprising film. He has taken our characters, old and new, in exciting new directions. Some of these directions are welcome but some characters have suffered, with poor writing and changes in their characters. But first, where are we in the saga? The opening crawl brings us up to date:
"The FIRST ORDER reigns. Having decimated the peaceful Republic, Supreme Leader Snoke now deploys his merciless legions to seize military control of the galaxy.
Only General Leia Organa’s band of RESISTANCE fighters stand against the rising tyranny, certain that Jedi Master Luke Skywalker will return and restore a spark of hope to the fight.
But the Resistance has been exposed. As the First Order speeds toward the rebel base, the brave heroes mount a desperate escape...."
The film starts exactly where The Force Awakens ended with Rey (Daisy Ridley), arm outstretched offering the lightsaber to Luke (Mark Hamill). This in itself is unusual for a Star Wars film. In previous films, some time has always passed between episodes. So from the first frame, we know we are in uncharted waters with Rian Johnson. Incidentally, JJ Abrams is back for the next film, Episode IX. Following that, Rian Johnson gets to helm the next three Star Wars films. Disney have a lot of faith in Johnson.
For this film the faith is rewarded. This film will please most audiences. It has the longest running time of any Star Wars film to date. For me, I could have easily cut 22 minutes from the running time by eliminating the whole casino story. I have a few problems with the trip to Canto Bight, the pointless story arc that Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (played by newcomer Kelly Marie Tran) embarked on, the introduction of Benecio Del Toro's character (wasted) and the "free Willy" sequence just don't work.
So what is my problem specifically? This sequence did not move the character's developmental arcs in any way. It was, as it turned out, a fruitless attempt to find a code-breaker to break into a system on a First Order ship. Finn and Rose first meet when Finn tries to steal an escape pod and she accuses him of being a coward. So Finn is exactly where we left him. He has not developed. He has not found a home within the Rebel family. So it feels as though the writers needed to give him something to do and this sequence was created. It also ticks the box that every Star Wars film has to visit a bar filled with exotic creatures. We get it, you can do amazing things these days with prosthetics - move on!
Which brings me to Benecio Del Toro's character. He is a fast-talking, scoundrel, scruffy-looking nerf-herder type. Remind you of anyone? For an actor of Del Toro's stature and ability, it is a wasted role. I would love to have seen more of him and his role developed into something more than just a self-serving con-man. Even Han had some redeeming qualities.
Star Wars films have always had a sense of humour. There have always been light moments, usually provided by Han Solo in a droll fashion. Here the humour is a little more slapstick in places and, for me, it grated. I felt for some it was out of character. Yes I laughed out loud but part of me was cringing. Let's talk about some of these cringe-inducing moments.
When Rey hands his father's lightsaber to Luke, he tosses it over his shoulder into the ocean in a flippant fashion. In the screening I attended there were one or two laughs. The thing I noticed most were the exclamations of "WTF!" in my screening. Let's think about this; it's your father's lightsaber, the one you lost when your Dad chopped off your hand in Cloud City. It must have some emotional value. We know it carries the memories of its users as we found out in The Force Awakens when Rey touched it. For Luke to toss it away like that was out of character.
Which brings me to Luke's character. It's as if he is now the grumpy Yoda on Dagobah, reluctant to train any more potential Jedi. What happened to the young, optimistic, almost foolhardy Luke we knew and loved. Yes, he has had trauma and despair in his life but this version of Luke is barely recognisable. For me the only glimpse of the old Luke was when he winked at C3PO. I loved the the warmth of that moment. Even R2D2 tries to bring back the old Luke by replaying the "Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi" message from A New Hope. Luke dismisses it as a cheap shot. I'm not sure I like this Luke.
The Last Jedi also suffers from the same echoes that The Force Awakens suffered from. It had too many beats similar to A New Hope. The Last Jedi has the same echoes and parallels: think Luke on Dagobah when Rey goes to Ach To. You will be reminded of Luke's visit to the "dark place" on Dagobah when Rey does the exact same on Ach To. Luke's battle with Vader while the Rebel fleet is engaged in battle from Return of the Jedi is paralleled is repeated here.....it goes on. I suppose I should be more forgiving, it's hard to have nine films and not see some similarities across them. For me, it seemed like they were following these plot beats, at best to give the audiences a sense of familiarity and at worst, it is lazy writing.
However, it is great to see Luke Skywalker in action again. There is no denying that. He does more than turn and remove his hood in this film. I'd have like to have seen more of him and Rey on Ach-To. I thought that aspect of Act 1 worked really well. I was glad to see Poe Dameron's role expanded. Oscar Isaac is a great actor and he gets a chance to sink his teeth into a better role here. His arc is particularly satisfying as he moves from hot-head to leader.
My current favourite baddie, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is back and I don't mind introducing a spoiler here because it made me so happy. They got rid of the silly helmet! Ren is one of the only other characters who gets a good story arc which feels real and defines his character and clarifies his motivations. Andy Serkis is back as Snoke. We get to see him in person and not just as a hologram. Domhnall Gleeson returns as the spittle-producing General Hux. I thought Hux was better written in The Force Awakens. In this he's made to look less like a military professional and more like a buffoon. It's another problem I have with the writing.
Speaking of which, Snoke meets his comeuppance at the hands of Kylo Ren. In The Force Awakens, Snoke was set up as this all-powerful Emperor-like character. In the end he was not and was surprisingly and brilliantly dispatched by Ren. All the fan theories of Snoke being Darth Sideous were wrong.
Speaking of fan theories, countless articles were written on the lineage of Rey. Was she a Skywalker or was she a Kenobi? In her trip to the dark "hole" on Ach To, she asks who her parents were. The answer showed her multiple reflections of herself, confusing her and the audience. Kylo Ren informs Rey that he know who her parents are. He uses this to lure her to meet him. In the end he informs her that her parents were "nobodies", buried in a pauper's grave on Jakku. Is Ren correct or is he manipulating Rey? Only time will tell. No doubt we will be subject to the old "from a certain point of view" excuse some time in the future.
I want to go back to Finn's character for a moment. I thought his attempted suicide to save the Rebels was a brilliant idea. It would have provided the character with an arc that moved him from coward to hero. Sadly the writers chickened-out. THe moment would have had real emotion and impact, similar to Han's capture by Boba Fett in Empire Strikes Back. I wish the writing had been braver.
Let's talk about Leia (Carrie Fisher). She has a more expanded role in this film which is good. Plus for the first time we get to see her use the Force. When the bridge of her ship is destroyed, she is flung into the cold vacuum of space where ice crystals start to form on her skin. Then a hand twitches and she pulls herself back to the ship, alive but seriously injured. Was this a conscious use of the Force or an instinctive reaction for self-preservation? It is good to see the daughter of Anakin Skywalker utilising the abilities we all knew she had from Return of The Jedi. I half-thought that when she was blown into space that it was a fitting end and tribute to Carrie Fisher with her character defending the Rebels to the very end. Instead, she is alive and well and on the Millennium Falcon with Rey. I'm not sure where her story goes from here.
It was a pure delight to see Yoda, and puppet-Yoda making an appearance. Voiced as always by Frank Oz, Yoda has not changed. He is witty and takes the proverbial out of Luke at every opportunity. "Page turners they are not" is a great line. Having Yoda appear brought, not only echoes of previous films, but a grounding that Luke needed.
Finally, let's talk about Luke. His death at the end felt empty. Did he pass away naturally as Yoda did? Did he offer himself up to the Force as Obi Wan did? We certainly saw Luke using Force power we never knew existed when he projected himself to see Leia and face Kylo Ren. The reveal that he was a projection was given away early as his footsteps did not kick up any of that red dust we say was easily disturbed. It was a brilliant tactic to engage Ren and allow the Rebels time to escape. The only thing I did not understand was Luke's handing of the lucky charm from the Falcon to Leia. How did he do that?
If I'm honest, I was nearly glad to see Luke die. He has turned out to be a pain in the ass and not the new hope we had come to see him as. Parts of me wish they would end the sga there but we have one more film to go, Episode IX (December 2019) to conclude the Skywalker saga. Then Rian Johnson gets to direct the next three films and start a new saga. I have mixed feelings about this. It certainly keeps Johnson in employment with Episode X in 2021, XI in 2023 and XII in 2025.
I don't want you to think I hated The Last Jedi, I did not. There are surprises and delights aplenty in this outing in a galaxy far, far away. The balance of light and dark is good. The developmental arcs that some of the characters undertake are really good.All things considered it's my fourth favourite Star Wars film. For the curious among you, this is how I rate all the films:
Empire Strikes Back
Return of the Jedi (Ewoks George, why the Ewoks?!!)
The Force Awakens
The Last Jedi
Revenge of the Sith
A New Hope
Attack of the Clones
The Phantom Menace