Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (USA 2017) Dir: Rian Johnson
Watching this latest instalment of the Star Wars series was a rollercoaster experience; I went through alternate feelings of both loving and loathing it, punctuated by the occasional threat of boredom. And boredom is a feeling that should be anathema when watching an adventure set in a galaxy far far away.
Is this a bad movie? No. Is it a great movie? Again, no. It’s an okay Star Wars movie. Faint praise, but unfortunately the movie’s good points are more than offset by the numerous flaws carried over from its predecessor, The Force Awakens. The questions raised by that instalment are not answered here. Questions like; how exactly have the remnants of the Imperial forces once again risen to galaxy spanning dominance only 30 odd years since their Stalingrad like defeat? Why, despite their all encompassing victory at the Battle of Endor, have the rebels been reduced to an even more hunted, rag-tag shower than they were in the original trilogy? These narrative holes leave both films lacking any sense of narrative follow on from Return of the Jedi, which they are supposed to be direct sequels to. While much better than the execrable prequels and the terminally leaden and characterless Rogue One, both this movie and The Force Awakens feel like a superfluous coda to the saga of the Skywalker clan. One wonders why the House of Mouse didn’t just have the cojones to start afresh with a new cast of characters and story arc. Alas Hollywood risk aversion won out and we are presented with The Last Jedi.
Taking up exactly where The Force Awakens left off, the Resistance led by General Leia Organa are forced to evacuate from their secret base when the First Order fleet rumbles the location and suddenly appears in system. So far so good. Even minus the traditional Fox fanfare I felt the hairs on my arms rise as the first boom of John Williams’ iconic score reverberated through the auditorium followed by the yellow crawl of the intro.
Tragically this bubble is almost immediately burst by some truly awful and incongruous humour between hotshot rebel pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac)and First Order Commander Hux (Domnhall Gleeson,one of the worst actors to grace the series, and there is some stiff competition.) At this point of the screenplay, you would have hoped the director would have taken the crayons off the scriptwriter, and we are thankfully saved from the film descending into a Spaceballs territory by a fantastic set piece space battle as the rebels attempt to break through the First Order blockade. With this sequence, Johnson more than proves a flair for directing action, which is cemented later on by the lightsaber fight between Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Kylo Ren (a scenery chewing Adam Driver, looking like he is enjoying himself immensely), and the climactic battle sequence on the salt moon.
Meanwhile, Rey is stuck at the arse end of the galaxy with a curmudgeonly Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who is doing what all Jedi do after having a pupil turn dark and joining a rapacious space tyranny – living in a hut being terminally dour. Hamill does well here, slipping back into the character like someone donning a rumpled but comfortable old raincoat. Daisy Ridley is engaging enough, refusing to let her character be subsumed by the competing screen time of a bloated cast.
The film’s midsection is where most of the faults lie. Some leaden exposition about the First Order being able to track the rebel’s through hyperspace sees ex stormtrooper Finn (a wasted John Boyega, easily the cast member with the most presence) along with rebel pilot Rose (couldn’t the writers have thought up a more Star Warsy name than this?) despatched to a generic looking casino planet devoid of any visual references to the SW universe in order to track down some famous code breaker (a criminally wasted Benicio Del Toro doing his mumbling schtick) who can ensure the rebel fleets escape. Or something. To be honest I lost it a bit here as boredom threatened to set in listening to the characters tell each other the plot.
Doubling down, the writers then treat the audience to some sledgehammer moralising about animal rights and wealth inequality (rich people in the Star Wars universe seem to be all gun running poker demons), that skirts perilously close to trite Hollywood liberalism. There is a place for this, but if I want to watch cheap moralising and characters signalling impotent virtue, then I’ll watch something directed by George Clooney. Not in Star Wars thanks.
An attack on the rebel flagship sees the bridge destroyed and Leia blown into space, resulting in possibly the worst, most ill conceived scene in the entire series, I mean, we are talking midichlorian level awfulness here. Flung into vacuum, Leia somehow uses her undeveloped Jedi powers to envelop herself in some kind of ‘force bubble’ and navigates her way back to the ship. Yes, it is as ridiculous as it sounds, no explosive decompression, no visible physical trauma (from a direct hit in the bridge and exposure to vacuum!) Not exactly Event Horizon, and yes I know it’s a Star Wars film and foremost aimed at kids, but really? Why have this scene in the first place? It serves no purpose plot wise, and looks and feels like its been tacked on from a Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Dreadful.
A hilariously miscast Laura Dern then assumes the mantle of command, sporting a purple crimp hairdo (what is it with Star Wars and bad hair?), and radiating incompetence. The audience is meant to buy into this character being some kind of military genius having scored an impressive victory over the First Order in a previous battle. None of that strategic nous is displayed in the actual movie though, as the rebels continue to be picked off, resulting in a Poe led mutiny and Dern’s heroic self sacrifice in an admittedly awesome sequence of mega destruction. Perhaps if the rebellion was being led by its version of Nelson or Nimitz, rather than being run by the intergalactic equivalent of a Home Counties sewing circle, they might do a bit better.
Escaping to a nearby mineral rich moon, the rebel forces confront the First Order in the climactic battle, which, as with the opening sequence delivers the Star Wars goods in full, and is almost enough to make you forget the patience baiting elements in the previous hour and a bit.
We get a bit more hopey changey waffle, but predictably it proves useless against the First Order’s miniaturised Death Star tech, and the rebel’s once again are forced to hot foot it out of there. I don’t think the audience is supposed to cheer for Kylo Ren, but it’s hard not to appreciate his results focused pragmatism when measured against the rebels empty virtue.
To summarise, my main gripes with the movie are it being overlong, the incongruous humour, the bizarre Leia in space sequence, the dull and laboured casino planet interlude and a stilted overall narrative. Big pluses include the superb battle sequences, which show fellow Disney property Marvel how it’s done, and showcases Johnson’s flair for space operatics. And John Boyega – get that boy an X-Wing.
There is a great Star Wars film wanting to get out here, but the movie is burdened with a story that simply doesn’t flow very well, and a portentous tone that ends up going nowhere. Maybe it’s an age thing and I’m simply too jaded by constant exposure to the dream factory’s product, but this modern crop of Star Wars movies just fail to engage me on a visceral level. Instead they feel like just another visual effects fest in what has become a crowded field. My expectations of future films have now been officially lowered. Surprise me Disney.