Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review
Strangely familiar but often unexpected
Star Wars: The Last Jedi shuns playing it safe and adds a few surprising revelations but cheap laughs and inconsistent pacing spoil the fun. This review is spoiler free.Although it was acclaimed by critics and audiences alike, once the dust had settled and the $2billion box office had been counted, people began to realise that The Force Awakens had played things a bit too safe. You can’t really blame J.J. Abrams for deliberately re-making much of the original Star Wars, after all there was a lot riding on the success of the first film to be released after Disney’s multi-billion dollar purchase of Lucasfilm. However the over-familiarity in the plot and the characters often made The Force Awakens feel like a Star Wars greatest hits package. That’s not to say it was a bad film, Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan managed to introduce a likeable group of new heroes and some decent villains, re-introduce the original heroes and include some highly amusing banter. The film also rattled along at a break-neck pace, barely catching it’s breath before arriving at its cliffhanger ending.
After an exciting opening space battle, The Last Jedi literally picks up where The Force Awakens left off, with Rey handing Luke Skywalker the lightsabre he lost, along with his hand, on Bespin in The Empire Strikes Back. You have to love the irony of an ending where, paradoxically, the new generation literally hand the torch back to the old one. Thankfully for those who were disappointed by Luke’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-him cameo in the last thirty seconds of The Force Awakens, he has a larger role this time around. In fact, in much the way as the previous film revolved around Han Solo, so the new one centres on Luke, addressing the mystery of what really happened with Kylo Ren and why he’s hiding out on the edge of the galaxy. It’s a beautifully written role, full of surprises and quite a bit of humour, that Mark Hamill embraces completely, delivering the best performance of his career in the process.
Those expecting Luke to simply fit into the usual Obi-wan/Yoda mentor role are definitely in for a surprise as writer/director Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Looper) upsets expectations almost immediately. Luke's first scene sets the tone for a very different Star Wars film and Johnson's intentions from the beginning are clearly to differentiate The Last Jedi from its predecessor. Of course Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams are very different filmmakers, with the latter being more populist whilst the former could be considered more cerebral. This is both a good and a bad thing but the result is Star Wars that is almost arthouse cinema at times, making The Last Jedi easily the most intelligent entry in the franchise. It also has a more adult tone, which is closer to Rogue One than The Force Awakens.
Despite Johnson’s efforts to differentiate his film from The Force Awakens, that doesn’t mean The Last Jedi isn’t sometimes strangely familiar. If you go looking for it there are numerous similarities to The Empire Strikes Back, whether it’s an AT-AT attack on a white planet, scenes of Jedi training, a shifty new character whose loyalties are uncertain, two separate but parallel storylines or a shocking revelation towards the end. However Johnson is clever enough to take these similarities and give them a new spin, thus usurping expectations and managing to constantly surprise the audience. Whilst not every mystery is solved in The Last Jedi, it at least goes some way towards answering the questions that were left infuriatingly unanswered at the end of The Force Awakens – although you may not like those answers.
Rian Johnson has done a great job of both continuing the story that began in The Force Awakens whilst simultaneously expanding the Star Wars universe in new and exciting ways. He also delivers some truly beautiful images and spectacular battle scenes but never loses sight of the personal struggles at the heart of the story. However it’s the Jedi storyline that is the most rewarding and if the film has one major flaw it’s that the parallel Rebellion/First Order storyline is guilty of being a bit boring. It's essentially a rather long and slow chase that ultimately goes nowhere.
The film also suffers from that common modern problem of being too long and you’ll find the middle section begins to drag during the 153 minute running time. The entire mission to Canto Bight seems like an unnecessary diversion and the planet itself has an aesthetic that is more in keeping with the prequels. In fact apart from the nail-biting opening, the overall pacing often feels slow, especially compared to The Force Awakens, but thankfully the film rallies for a truly exciting final act that, much like Rogue One, is well worth the wait.
The Last Jedi feels like the arthouse version of Star Wars but it's the most intelligent entry in the series so far
The returning cast are uniformly excellent, with Daisy Ridley really growing into the role of Rey, whilst both John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron both get a chance to deliver muscular action roles in the film’s military subplot. However it is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren that stands out and he delivers a wonderfully nuanced and multi-layered performance that is light years away from the temper tantrums and daddy issues of the previous film. We finally get to see Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) in the flesh, so to speak, whilst Captain Phasma (Gwedoline Christie) gets a bit more to do this time around but Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux has been reduced to the comic relief. Whilst Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker dominates much of the film, it’s pleasing to see Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia getting more screen time as well and the film is, quite rightly, dedicated to her.
The additions to the cast are also great with Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico being the stand-out new character. In a strangely charismatic performance she plays a young Resistance mechanic drawn into the larger conflict, essentially replacing the absent Rey in a double act with Finn and their scenes together are some of the best. However the film is missing much of the witty banter that made The Force Awakens so enjoyable and the combination of Finn and Rose doesn't quite match Finn's sparing with Poe, Rey and Han in the previous film. In terms of other new characters there's also Laura Dern who plays the weirdly attired Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo and Benicio Del Toro as the shifty 'DJ', a character who helps explain that this galaxy-spanning conflict isn't quite as black and white as it might seem.
Aside from the uneven pacing the other criticism that can be levelled at Rian Johnson's writing is that he has a tendency to be a little too arch in his dialogue. Whilst he is a self-confessed Star Wars fanatic, he's also aware of the inherent silliness of it all and can't help but comment on that within the story. The result is a film that, at times, not only feels a little too knowing for its own good but also suffers from a number of lapses in logic. There is humour in the film and some laugh out loud moments but there's also a dependency on slapstick and quite a few cheap jokes that diminish what has gone before.
In terms of the production itself, Rian Johnson is ably assisted by his collaborators and the film's cinematography, design and special effects are all first class. Johnson also benefits from another superb score from John Williams, whose work on the entire saga must rank as the greatest collection of film music ever written. Incredibly, eight films in, Williams still manages to find new and interesting cues and a rousing new march to accompany the highly emotional conclusion.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an enjoyable film that manages to be exciting, challenging, familiar and unexpected, all in equal measure. It's far from a perfect film but at least it has the courage to be different and it's certainly a worthy addition to the Star Wars saga.
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