There are few cinematic experiences that can recreate the feeling of being a kid. There is a rare thrill to be had when the Jurassic Park soundtrack for the first time in years, or when you hear the Indiana Jones theme swell (whatever the quality of the film…). One of the few film series able to summon both nostalgia and cultural currency is Star Wars. Once thought dead and buried under three prequels worth of George Lucas’ self indulgence, it has awoken thanks (whatever you may think of their influence) to Disney’s desire to build a new franchise.
Now this emotional connection is a huge part of the enjoyment of Star Wars; the ability to conjure childhood memories while showing you exciting new things, occurs almost nowhere else in popular culture. It is also a huge problem, for example when filmmakers have the audacity to try new things. George Lucas, who in fairness is free to do whatever the hell he wants with Star Wars, was guilty of introducing ‘midichlorians’, offering a physical explanation for the force. Swing and a miss in trying to demystify the mysterious. New is not always welcome when you’re messing with somebody’s childhood love.
JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens nailed everything you would want from a Star Wars film: the light tone, the overwhelming enemy and underdog resistance, dogfights and lightsabre battles, the hint at something grander and more mysterious at work. However, the main criticism levelled at the 2015 film (aside from pube-less misogynist keyboard warriors complaining about an all-powerful female character, and using their mother’s Wi-Fi to do so) was that it was, beat-for-beat, a cover version of A New Hope, even down to the tragic character death. It also managed a tricky feat, which remakes, reboots, and retcons (the recent Alien films, Indiana Jones 4, any remake of a Paul Verhoeven film) tend to get horribly wrong: adding engaging new characters that you actually cared about.
Filmmakers now find themselves in a bind, tightened by competing factions of nerds, whose complaints are directly contradictory: don’t change anything about the thing I love, but make each one different to what we’ve seen before. Rogue One, whose function was to plug a gap between episodes and not further the main story, is excused from criticism by virtue of being totally awesome.
And so we come to The Last Jedi. After a largely positive reaction to TFA, the anticipation levels were higher than Anakin’s midichlorian count. Speculation mounted that it would be ‘the dark middle film’ like Empire Strikes Back, that villain Snoke would be [insert ludicrous theory here], and that Rey’s family would definitely, without question, be powerful Jedi knights that we’d seen before (despite them all being dead and the 30-year time difference making no sense).
As done with the original trilogy, directorial duties had been handed off, this time to Rian Johnson; a man whose films tend not to feature much levity and have genre boundaries greyer than Skywalker’s beard. Surprisingly, Johnson has made a very light film: from the priceless moment where Poe Dameron throws some shade the way of General Hux by pretending to be on hold and not hear his monologue of threats, to General Leia’s “what are you looking at me for? Follow him!” there are just enough funny beats. This is important: if you don’t add levity like this, you run the risk of lengthy conversations about senates and trade embargoes. Films about telekinetic space monks, intergalactic war, and a yeti with a crossbow, which borrow heavily from Hamlet and Kurusawa need a dose of humour. Po-faced doesn’t gel with porgs, wookies, and a goblin with poor syntax, so the humorous tone is just what is needed. My favourite part: Chewie cooking a porg in front of horrified on looking porgs.
Plot-wise, this is a very different beast to what we’ve seen before. A thoroughly pissed-off First Order are closing in on the remnants of the Rebellion and despite an early victory, the rebels find themselves pursued by Snoke’s ship, with dwindling fuel and an against-the-orders scheme the only way for them to get away. It annoyed me that despite seeing several Rebel ships escape at the start of the film, we are told that there are only three remaining. This adds an element of peril but feels cheap. The Rebel escape plan is the film’s weakest part: John Boyega’s Finn finds himself on an opulent casino planet with an irritating sidekick, looking for a codebreaker who can facilitate the Rebel escape. This whose sequence suffers from an abundance of needless CGI animals and a class-war subtext which just doesn’t fit. Subsequent plot developments also render it pointless.
The film opens and closes really well but suffers from a huge lull in the middle, including the above casino planet sequence. Part of this lull is the anticipated Rey-and-Luke part, in which Luke refuses and then agrees to train Rey as a Jedi, and his recluse status is explained. An underrated actor – Luke had the biggest character arc of the original trilogy – Mark Hamill does his best work here as a traumatised, conflicted Luke. Following the path taken by both Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi, his failures and fears have driven him to seclusion and forced him to turn his back on The Force. With hints that Rey could follow Kylo Ren’s route to the Dark Side, and Luke’s fear of that exact thing, this makes for a fascinating deepening of Rey’s story but is very dialogue heavy. The rumoured attack by the Knights of Ren doesn’t happen but this part of the film desperately needed something like that. Luke’s nonchalant dismissal of his own lightsabre, however, is priceless.
As Rebel plans come to a head, we see a failed mutiny, a failed stealth mission, and a semi-failed escape, all of which add to the increasing sense of peril. The identity of Supreme Leader Snoke was the source of much rumour-mongering and those same nerds will be disappointed that he isn’t given more of a backstory. What he is given, however, is a huge amount of power and a strange vulnerability. His desire to recruit blank-slate Rey as his new apprentice leads to him shunning Kylo and ultimately his death. A sucker for a great villain, I would have liked to see more from him, but his death will lead to the conflicted Klyo’s ascension to Big Bad. His death leads to the coolest lightsabre battle seen in a good while but he feels kind of underused, in that Kylo doesn’t seem any more powerful for it.
Changes to Luke’s character have been one of the more complained-about subjects, however these make perfect sense when the full picture is revealed. Both Yoda and Kenobi ran and hid from their fears and failures. Luke and Kylo give slightly differing accounts of what happened (another Kurusawa reference, samurai fans), and Luke’s arc reaches a satisfying conclusion when he embraces his position and returns to the fray. His ruse makes for a wonderful moment where he faces down Kylo with faint echoes of Kenobi taking on Vader. Yes, Luke’s character is different and Johnson’s choices for him are iconoclastic, but that’s what makes it so good.
The best thing about The Last Jedi is its bravery in ignoring the expectations and doing new things with the characters. There are no set rules for what The Force can or cannot do, or where this universe can or cannot go, and Kudos for Johnson for making what feels like a complete film and not just filler material between episodes 7 and 9. The final episode can be approached with a blank slate and two opposing forces whose allegiances to Light and Dark are not 100% clear. What he doesn’t do so well is keep the pace for the duration. There is also the strange treatment of Carrie Fisher in what turned out to be her final role. The decision not to kill Leia when the chance was presented remains one of the film’s weakest moments: it’s silly, confusing, has very limited foregrounding in the previous films (although it’s hinted that Leia is force-sensitive), and given Fisher’s tragic passing, now impossible to follow up.
Like Skywalker himself, it isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough to sit alongside the greats, even if there are moments of madness. Where we go from here is, again, tantalisingly far, far away from being known.