Director: Rian Johnson Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Issac Running time: 152 minutes Release:14/12/2017
After the enjoyable but familiar seventh instalment of the new STAR WARS trilogy, it was almost unanimous among fans that the next film in the unstoppable franchise would adapt the framework (or worse, entire plot) of the series’ masterpiece, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK – cementing Disney’s reluctance to try something new with the 40-year old franchise. Fortunately this was not the case, but STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI still manages to falter in new, unexpected ways.
Disney made an inspired choice in its director. Rian Johnson drifts away from the typical narrative pillars of STAR WARS and creates something that is relatively complex, but still makes a wondrous space opera extravaganza. Johnson demonstrates his visual flair, as well as his love for STAR WARS and cinema in general (with visual references ranging from Wellman’s WINGS to Verhoeven’s ROBOCOP). One cannot fault the music, effects, sound design, cinematography or Johnson’s direction. He cleverly subverts making an Empire clone, thus shedding expectations and maintaining our intrigue. It’s the film’s plot and structure that will unsettle a lot of people.
There are lots of subplots, lots of talking, lots of build-up and lots of crosscutting, peppered with several visions and flashbacks in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI. This is mostly unprecedented in STAR WARS, which initially worked so well because of its linear and traditional approach to storytelling, taking notes from westerns, film serials and the works of Kurosawa. TLJ is never convoluted, but Johnson does not give it that familiar streamlined feel, making it very off-kilter with Episodes IV through VII. It feels odd, but it isn’t necessarily bad. Indeed, if STAR WARS is to continue for multiple decades, then they simply cannot retread that generic path. In that sense, Disney and Johnson deserve props for giving STAR WARS a much-needed push forward.
But if Johnson succeeds as director, he stumbles as screenwriter. Truthfully, TLJ does disappoint. It’s weird and entertaining, but there are holes in the drama and some bizarre/frustrating twists that would be unfair to describe in a spoiler-free review. A void is definitely felt from the absence of cocky Han Solo and the franchise’s odd new preference for no romance, but this should not have prevented TLJ from being the emotional thrill ride that we expected.
The dramatic core of the movie only glimmers rather than shines. Luke Skywalker fulfils his duty to carry the baton of the original trilogy, but his motivations and actions are strangely sketchy for a main character. Mark Hamill plays him with a nice gruff attitude and an underlying weariness; it’s great to see him back, but he doesn’t have an arc that’s elaborated on enough, and consequently isn’t quite the emotional anchor that the film needed him to be.
He lacks proper bonding with Rey and their relationship feels too feels too vapid for a successful connection. Rey herself also falls short; her development leaves something to be desired, and Johnson lets Daisy Ridley down with some very on the nose dialogue.
It is actually the villains who stand out. Snoke and General Hux are delightfully merciless while Adam Driver as Kylo Ren outright steals the show. Ren’s ongoing inner-turmoil and growing relationship with Rey is a true highlight. Their interactions keep us high on suspense throughout as the plot throws us revelations and cliffhangers. Indeed, there is a pivotal moment between them that could have made a satisfactory conclusion to the entire trilogy, but it is quickly shot down by another surprise switcheroo.
Despite the mash of subplots, our main players in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI are never lost and are nicely balanced out, but this is somewhat in vein. Ultimately, there are just too many heroes. Finn, Poe and newbie Rose Tico have their own business in the story and are charismatic enough to enjoy, but unfortunately do not suffice as main characters. They lack the proper depth and interplay to warrant so much screen time, making their scenes feel like action filler. Imagine the Han and Leia sequences in Empire minus their love story; bar the Luke stuff, the film would just be weightless padding.
Additionally, favourites like Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO are now so far off in the sidelines that they’re officially useless. Even Leia gets a back seat in the story as Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo takes centre stage.
Reviewing STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is tough. It’s a chapter of a story that we haven’t yet seen the ending of; it’s impossible to tell if it will work better in hindsight. A lot of its problems may well be ironed out in Episode IX, so we should be willing to give it the benefit of the doubt (hence the additional half-star). It’s nevertheless a spectacle that is filled with imagination and free of modern cynicism. In this dark age of noisy, ugly and incomprehensible blockbusters, the STAR WARS series (flaws and all) remains an exciting beacon of light in the otherwise grim Hollywood landscape.