"This is not going to go the way you think!"
With the Rebellion crumbling, Rey (Daisy Ridley) travels to a remote planet to train with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last of the Jedi Knights. Meanwhile, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and the dwindling members of the resistance find themselves chased across the galaxy by the ruthless First Order.
The Force Awakens was always going to be a hard act to follow. Apart from being one of the biggest box-office draws in cinema history, it helped restore the Star Wars franchise to its fun origins. It was an interesting move by producer Kathleen Kennedy to bring in writer/director Rian Johnson to helm the much anticipated second instalment in this new trilogy. It was a gamble, and one that seems to have paid off in interesting ways.
I am an unabashed fan of Johnson’s work. Brick is one of the most audacious and triumphant debut features in recent history, The Brothers Bloom is an underrated masterpiece and Looper is just plain awesome. The fear of Johnson being shoehorned into creating an Abrams-like sequel was very real, although he’s managed to infuse much of his distinct style and visual flair into The Last Jedi, making it stand out as a truly unique film amongst the continually growing saga.
What exactly do I mean by stand out? Well, the Star Wars films have always been predominantly action/adventure films. Although they’re filled with rich character exploration this (for the most part) was always there in service of the adventure. With The Last Jedi it feels like Johnson has taken a different approach, putting his characters and their emotional journeys at the forefront, forgoing the traditional adventure narrative we’ve all come to expect. The Force Awakens (much like A New Hope and ROTJ) ended with an epic assault on an enemy base while, without going into spoilers, the action in The Last Jedi primarily consists of a slow-moving chase. Johnson takes his chance at a big budget epic to explore and invert Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, attempting to bring depth and growth to the new cast of characters we’ve been introduced to before sending them off to meet their fate in Episode Nine. It’s a ballsy move, and one that deserves respect.
That being said, what really matters is if it works as a film. The problem with the approach Johnson has taken is that he has to give each of his characters something to do, and after The Force Awakens, that’s a lot of new characters. As a result, the majority of our heroes spend the film separated. There’s nothing wrong with doing this, it’s a great way to let the characters grow as well as giving us a chance to explore the universe. It’s the execution of it though that causes The Last Jedi some trouble. Hitchcock had an old saying about the essence of storytelling in film; meanwhile, back at the ranch. It pertains to films juggling multiple storylines. You follow one story until it reaches a peak and then you pick up the other… meanwhile, back at the ranch. It’s something that Kirshner and Kasdan perfected in The Empire Strikes Back and unfortunately Johnson has muddled. There was a plethora of new characters introduced in Episode Seven and The Last Jedi attempts to service them all, giving them each a moment in the spotlight. Unfortunately this leads to a somewhat muddled narrative that continually jumps around from story to story in a rather ineffective manner. The film tries its best to manage all of these concurrent stories but seems to falls flat. A little less time on Finn and Rose with more of a focus on Rey and Kylo or Poe’s tenacious nature would have served for a tighter, more engaging film.
Narrative and structural complaints aside, the cast all do a phenomenal job with the material. Daisy Ridely and Adam Driver seem to have settled into their roles nicely, with interesting exploration of their motivations and connection driving much of the second act. It’s veterans Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher however who steal the show. Hamill brings a gruffness to Luke that we’ve never seen before. He’s a man lost, dealing with his failures in isolation, drawing similarities to the young man we saw in Empire. It’s a measured performance that Hamill nails. Carrie Fisher provides grace and dignity in her final performance, portraying her beloved princess as a true leader and the general the rebellion needs. Laura Dern and Benecio Del Toro show up in minor roles that leave you wanting more, with both of their characters seeming a little underserved (there’s a special place in hell for those who underuse Laura Dern’s amazing talents).
The visuals are fantastic, with Johnson paying homage to Japanese cinema much like Lucas did with the original trilogy. While Lucas used early Kurosawa as his muse for A New Hope, Johnson has chosen to infuse his film with later period influences, in particular Kurosawa’s colour films, utilising vivid reds and blues like the ones you’d seen in Kagemusha or Ran. Also bringing his own, more modern, sensibility to the visuals, there are a few distinct anime/manga references, one in particular drawing directly from Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira.
The Last Jedi is a truly unique and original film in the Star Wars saga. It strives to cut its own path, separating itself from what has come before. This is something that’s sure to divide audiences. While it should be applauded to trying something different, it’s somewhat muddled execution leaves you with a slightly unsatisfied feeling. It’s a film that demands multiple viewings and, with any luck, it’ll grow to be appreciated the more it’s seen.
It’s not a perfect film and it doesn’t reach the heights the series has reached in the past, however it does provide something different for Star Wars. Rian Johnson has approached the material from a new angle, and while it’s a gamble that may not pay off for all viewers, it’s a move that should be admired. Definitely not without its flaws, The Last Jedi is still a fun experience that builds on the characters, setting them up for a (hopefully) satisfying final chapter.
7 out of 10.
Reviewed by Chris Swan.