STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
Review by James Murphy
Director/Writer: Rian Johnson
Stars: Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, John Boyega, Benicio Del Toro, Chewie and the Porgs
Genre: Fantasy /Action-Adventure in space (nb NOT ‘science fiction!)
12 A / PG-13. Disney /LucasFilm. 150 mins approx.
Sequel to 2015’s The Force Awakens. The First Order have developed a new tech that makes it impossible for the Resistance’s ships to escape undetected in their wake. General Leia therefore tries to keep her forces together, whilst facing almost certain defeat. Finn takes it on himself to locate a way into the First Order defence systems. Meanwhile, Rey seeks out Jedi Master Knight, Luke Skywalker, in a bid to train her in the ways of the Force and thereby restore hope to a Galaxy that must confront the rise of the evil Snoke, First Order and Kylo Ren..
The Light. The Dark. There must be balance. Or so the Star Wars mythos experts will tell you. And so it is with this review. I CANNOT, by ANY stretch of objectivity, rubbish the movie’s merits. But neither can I stand by and say this is ‘great fun’, because it truly isn’t.
This is a painful piece of film to endure. It leaves one feeling numb and robbed and drained, forgetting that even the so called ‘dark’ Empire Strikes Back, in its time, left one (and indeed STILL leaves one) feeling energised, curious and buoyant. Space is a vacuum, of course.
But Star Wars should never feel like a charisma vacuum. Sadly, THE LAST JEDI is exactly that: devoid of JOY, lacking in ENERGY and thereby feeling somewhat redundant, both as a Star Wars film and as general holiday entertainment.
And that’s the bad bits done for now. Because yes, this is, conversely, a GOOD film. Seriously. The script and visuals are genuinely innovative, managing to both play to and subvert lifelong fanboy expectation.
This FEELS like an organic and credible continuation of the previous movies’ lore, rather than simply existing to replay old beats or dramatise fan fiction. The landscapes are the KIND of thing you fantasized about playing in as kids, reminding one of that 1980s fantasy aesthetic, whilst genuinely bringing you to new places BEYOND your imagination.
Rian Johnson gets to the very heart of what elements must be in Star Wars. He manages to incorporate and apply all components. You get: a space based take on WW2 plane dogfights; some callbacks to Flash Gordon, tributes to sword and sorcerer legends, real world political parallels, takes on the hero/heroine’s journey and a simple, earnest, quasi-religious moral message. Amidst that? there are brave and brilliant philosophical motifs, worthy of an Oxford undergraduate doing Prelims (trust me..I was a Jedi once.. ;))
The plot is quite clear, logical and linear. Whilst there is some navel (and arguably, space -naval?) gazing, most of that is implicit and projected from the events of the story and the characters who make the events happen.
There are big themes and ideas discussed. But at no stage does the film sink into the danger of so many counterparts these days, whereby a hero brooding on their own about loss or some such nonsense, becomes a plot substitute.
Yes, a hero DOES brood here, about loss and consequence but ALONGSIDE some epic and important EVENTS that KEEP DRIVING the pervasive and core PLOT points. That, frankly, is a masterclass in writing, acting, visual storytelling and pretty much every department of film-making.
So..how can I possibly have started my review with just that hint of dark side negativity? Well: it’s all about the journey. There is no real JOY here? Zero pace or energy. It is as though the key components were so studied and crafted that the team just forgot to have any FUN? Consequently, the excellence is undermined, because its very rationale for existing is at odds with that quality.
Make no mistake: STAR WARS as a brand / franchise etc has many dimensions. Of course it does: role play games, simulations, theme parks, books, comics etc. It is quasi-religious in its philosophical message. All good! But each individual film? Is SUPPOSED to be an energising and escapist experience.
Yes. I said it: these are NOT movies for grown ups. These are MEANT to be family friendly, uplifting tone poems. That is why the prequels, mostly, are so loathed: they lack pace and purpose and they embrace and wallow in darkness beyond their brief.
By contrast: the original trilogy and then Force Awakens, somehow, managed to touch on dark events and more grown up themes, whilst retaining a sense of upbeat buccaneer in space hokum pantomime FUN.
What was key to the best Star Wars films and their moments? That human factor. The ability to project a genuine sense of romantic attraction, of heart, of humour. Charisma. And, whilst I do accept that Harrison Ford is possibly getting a bit old now, and that Han Solo’s story arc was done, his absence is palpable in The Last Jedi. They make the mistake of calling that out by referring to him. Just makes you miss him more.
Did Harrison’s Han have a successor? YES! It was JOHN BOYEGA, clearly, in Force Awakens. John is charming, charismatic, funny and competent in action. Sadly, he is underused in a film that KEEPS trying to create a kind of Han Solo magic around the WRONG characters.
Mark Hamill returns as Luke Skywalker. And he is good, no question. But Mark excels as an ACTOR: stage, voice etc. He is not nor ever was a ‘movie star’ and by choice as much as by chance. It follows that, whilst we are pleased to see Luke back onscreen, he simply cannot create the same buzz as a returning Harrison Ford as Han Solo in the preceding film.
And in any event, whilst this is a versatile and brilliant performance, we simply do not get to see enough of Mark in peak Jedi action. Yes: characters change /evolve and have setbacks. But come on: this is LUKE SKYWALKER! A character DEFINED by his DRIVE, DETERMINATION and OPTIMISM! Surely ONE character COULD have retained SOMETHING of that?
Luke could and should have been a more joyful old man mentor. And no, that’s NOT a spoiler! Safe to say that the adorable Rey (Daisy Ridley: lovely as ever) does not have the easiest of times in bonding with Master Luke on an island that is all but uninhabitable yet visually compelling.
In turn, the whole house of cards topples, because the younger counterparts are shown up as lacking quite the direction, focus or interaction they require to match their original trilogy counterparts. They desperately TRY and get us excited for Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron. Why?
Isaac is a consummate actor. But he’s also, like Hamill, simply NOT a big movie star! He cannot carry this, nor was he meant to, initially. Now, had they SWAPPED him with Adam Driver and made Oscar the big villain? THAT would have worked better. Not that either is ‘bad’ in their roles, just miscast, by a notch, and misplaced in terms of HOW they are used and with whom they are paired?
Benicio Del Toro turns up in the film and as always, lights up the screen. Met him once in a club in Cannes. Charming, wonderful man. He was not a sci-fi fan back then (I, for some reason, introduced the poor man to the concept of Doctor Who: ‘Doctor Que?’, he said..and he’s been doing sci-fi films ever since ;)).
But, like Boyega and so many others in The Last Jedi: underused, misused, miscast, squandered. Sorry. SUCH a great opportunity and entertaining while there but missed. I did like Laura Dern in her role though: she is a beauty of truly fantastical proportions and it’s a studied, subtle and satisfying performance amidst the other losses.
So: you can and will be impressed by THE LAST JEDI. It is visually stunning, tugs at heartstrings, fuses nostalgia to surprise and familiarity to innovation. There is a beautifully rousing use of and tribute to Carrie Fisher (RIP) as Princess Leia.
You get some shock inverting of old motifs, stunning sound and visual effects. A solid score from John Williams, as always. Great attention to detail in every branch of the production. Some fascinating and provocative spins on darkness, death and embracing life and change.
There are a few twists and answers to questions from preceding films but NOT the ones you expected! And it is, oddly, for all its lags in pace and tone, the funniest of the 8 film saga in a way. But the movie simply does not gel together with any kind of purposeful propulsion, mostly due to a chronic failure to deploy the new generation of actors in the right roles.
In turn? One feels the whole enterprise to be a kind of hollow, pretentious exercise in philosophical experimentation and /or commercial exploitation. And that makes it hard to enjoy ANY of the experience both during and after the event. So whilst this is NOT a ‘bad’ film: it is overlong, over-earnest, over-hyped and already over-praised.
I still believe in the franchise and indeed, I respect Rian Johnson as writer /director. But I am grateful that the Star Wars offering for 2018 will be a relatively self contained and hopefully FUN film about ..HAN SOLO! The galaxy needs that old school humour, heroism and caddish charm. Because you simply will not find it in THE LAST JEDI and its format, genre, good-will and brand recognition simply do not warrant such sombre sobriety and borderline boredom.
Grade: C++ for Progress, with A# for Effort. The Force is strong with this film..but it is not a fun, fast or charming film and fails to set up adequate cliffhanger serial style antics to justify its being a ‘darker middle chapter’.