“This isn’t going to go the way you think.” This line from Luke Skywalker is a pretty good summary of the film (sadly I have no will and read most of the spoilers beforehand). If The Force Awakens was like a bowl of comforting warm porridge sprinkled with cinnamon and nostalgia, The Last Jedi is proving to be more of a divisive dish. Since I’m on a silly food metaphor track, for me it was a bit like a bowl of salad; some ingredients are tastier than others and occasionally you bite on a piece of raw onion (I can’t stand onion), but it’s overall delicious and there’s an excellent dressing binding it all.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi picks up where its predecessor left, and is splintered into three separate storylines. First one follows the decimated remains of the Resistance commanded by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher in a poignant swansong performance) as they flee the relentless First Order. Meanwhile in Ireland… I mean, the mystical island of Anch-To, our heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries to coax Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) out of his depressed retirement. Finn (John Boyega), the renegade stormtrooper, finds himself on a mission with Rose Tico (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance mechanic. While Han and Leia’s wayward son, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, once again the MVP), is in disfavour with the Supreme Leader Snoke after his humiliating defeat at the hands of Rey.
The core storyline following Luke, Rey and Kylo is where the film truly sings, with some of the best scenes, performances and character interactions in the entire series. Speaking as someone who’s always been rather lukewarm on Luke, I was blown away with how much I adored his character here and how much I loved Mark Hamill’s performance as older, disillusioned, sarcastic Luke who is most certainly not the legend Rey was anticipating. While Rey and Kylo Ren only shared a few scenes in The Force Awakens, in a movie filled with nostalgia and nods their dynamic stood out to me as something truly intriguing that didn’t seem to refer to anything the franchise had before. Without saying too much, after The Last Jedi I’m certain that once the dust settles, their relationship will be remembered as the most iconic new thing about this trilogy. The Luke/Rey/Kylo triangle epitomises everything that draws me to this series.
The drawback of the force plot is that it inevitably makes the other storylines pale somewhat in comparison. The Resistance plot centres mostly on the tension between Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and the newcomer Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern with fabulous pink hair), who doesn’t approve of his derring-do flyboy rashness. While it’s not the best part of the film it does manage to hold interest thanks to the highly watchable actors and imaginatively shot action sequences. Rose and Finn’s mission to the casino planet of Canto Bight is more of a filler material. I understand the thematic intent and rich-vs-poor social commentary, but sorry, intent ends where execution begins, and this entire subplot could be cut or at least trimmed to tighten up the movie’s lengthy running time.
The change of the writer/director is definitely felt, with both positives and negatives. Johnson doesn’t quite match the kinetic energy and screwball charm that J.J. Abrams brings to his movies, which I mostly felt in the interactions between Finn and Rose – they simply don’t have the zing I loved about The Force Awakens. The pacing is another issue: the film doesn’t always juggle its multiple storylines successfully, and repeatedly cutting away from the crucial scenes at times undermines the drama.
On the bright side, Johnson is a far more singular and ambitious director than Abrams, and The Last Jedi is artistic, infinitely more interesting and has a lot to say on the themes of failure, elitism, legacy and letting go of the past. The movie has a unique look with the strong red/white/black colour palette, and the new critters, including the cutesy-creepy Porgs, are all delightful (go on and enjoy that Kentucky Fried Porg Chewie and don’t put up with the shaming!) He also brings the kind of artsy eccentric touches that you rarely see in a mainstream blockbuster. I doubt that any big release this year approached the sheer weirdness of Luke milking the boob of a giant plucked chicken monster before guzzling down the green milk in a clear attempt to gross out that annoying Rey girl. Not every stab at eccentricity works, as in the scene I could only describe as Superman Leia, but at least Johnson is trying.
The dreaded Marvel-style humour is not as obnoxious as I feared, with only a few instances where the jokes landed with a thud or felt inappropriate. The few original character cameos and references blend seamlessly into the story and never feel like “remember this??” fan service. The returning villains like Snoke and General Hux fare much better this time around. While he was nothing but a generic big villain in The Force Awakens, here Snoke is truly creepy and malicious, and has shades of Hugh Hefner of all things. Domhnall Gleeson throws all caution to the wind and gleefully hams it up as Hux, to the very entertaining effect.
While The Last Jedi is not perfect by any means, there’s plenty to love about it and I couldn’t be more excited about the final installment of the trilogy.
Some very spoilery additional thoughts and impressions:
You’ve been warned!
– I had a suspicion that Disney playing coy about Rey’s heritage was a somewhat cynical ploy to keep the internet speculating for two years in between the films, when in fact her parents’ identities had no narrative value whatsoever in The Force Awakens on close inspection. So I was never invested in the mystery and for me Rey Random works fine thematically, unless they get a dumb idea to revise that in the final film.
– Who is Snoke? Who the heck cares.
– I get what they were aiming for with the last shot of the little kid, but seeing kids in Star Wars gives me the bad prequel PTSD flashbacks. No cute kids thanks.
– While I was certain that Ben Solo had a tragic backstory explaining his fall, I really didn’t think they’d have the balls to partially pin it on a beloved original trilogy character, so kudos to the creative team for taking that risk. Luke’s mistake is a classic heartbreaking self-fulfilling prophecy.
– Luke’s final moments as he looks on the dying sun are so perfectly executed and left me with a lump in my throat.
– Couldn’t be more thrilled to hear Luke rip the Jedi Order a new one, because I loathed the cold smug Jedi and their cold soulless creepy cult in the prequels. Bury the Jedi Order for good and pour salt over its grave!
– Speaking of the prequels, somewhere in the parallel universe, Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley play Anakin and a very different Padme in a well-written, well-directed version of Darth Vader’s backstory. Then we’d have some amazing chemistry.
– I’ve written about Kylo Ren’s redemption before, and though his story took a turn I didn’t anticipate in million years I think that the redemption train is still chugging along, simply with more raised stakes and obstacles. I genuinely didn’t expect the series to do away with what looked like its main villain in the second film, but Supreme Leader Kylo Ren is a very exciting perspective for the character.
What this film and The Force Awakens make clear is that these series are the coming-of-age stories for its hero and its villain, who Rian Johnson tellingly describes as two halves of a protagonist. In this context, Snoke’s death makes perfect sense because by the end of the film, both Rey and Kylo are left standing on their own two feet after defying their respective authority figures. While I’m not completely sure where Rey’s coming-of-age ultimately leads to, with Kylo they seem to explore the dark side as a metaphor for the dark aspects of adolescence, chief of which is monstrous selfishness. Selfishness, in my opinion, is what makes the crucial difference between the climatic throne room sequence here and the climatic throne room scene in Return of the Jedi that The Last Jedi knowingly riffs on. When Vader saves his son, he does it without thinking about the consequences for himself and his act is purely selfless. On paper, Kylo does save Rey’s life, but he wants something from her at the end of it, and when she rejects his tone-deaf backhanded proposal he throws a childish mega-tantrum and swears to destroy her.
So then the logical progression for a character in a coming-of-age story who starts off as entitled and selfish is for them to grow past it, and learn selflessness and putting another person’s needs above their own. Which I think Kylo will ultimately do and basically give up the galaxy and everything for Rey, because love.
BTW I thought it was a very, very smart move to dismiss any notion that this might be a “good girl redeems the bad boy” type of story, because this stuff doesn’t fly these days and will attract a thousand angry thinkpieces about sending harmful messages to the young women. No one can do the growing up for you and it’s Kylo’s job to pull himself out of the dark side, not anyone else’s.
I got a distinct impression that what the film seems to imply is that Kylo’s common-as-muck Solo side is the source of all that’s good in him (Snoke makes a direct reference to his father’s heart), whereas his elite Skywalker heritage is the toxic burden that screwed up his life. So I could also see him reject that Skywalker side in the final film in some dramatic fashion.
(I write about Kylo Ren a lot, but he really is Snape of Star Wars, as in, his characterisation is on a different level to everyone else in terms of richness and nuance.)
– Finn’s stormtrooper background is the only truly interesting and individual aspect of his character, so it’s beyond me why the movie doesn’t explore it in the least beyond the superficial stuff like another clash with Phasma. Finn and Rose could make a cute couple, but their kiss at the end is pretty much the definition of a perfunctory blockbuster kiss that gives the romance a bad name. Especially compared to the compelling Jane Austen in Space drama happening elsewhere.
– The Last Jedi is getting much praise for showing female characters as strong, capable and noble, but as a female viewer, it irks the shit out of me that women must be relegated to strong and noble while male characters get all the interesting meaty character development. Rey comes closest to having an arc even if the movie mostly recycles her parents issues from The Force Awakens, at least here it gets some genuine emotion out of it rather than whatever muddled story J.J. Abrams was telling. It still drops the ball with Rey though when, after the throne scene that represents Rey’s lowest point emotionally, she disappears from the movie for a good chunk of time and comes back on the Falcon all upbeat and cheerful. It’s a strange and jarring transition that robs Rey of internalising everything that just happened, and the missing connective tissue leaves her character frustratingly opaque just like she was at the end of The Force Awakens.