Movie Review | Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi
Summary: Rey develops her newly discovered abilities with the guidance of Luke Skywalker, who is unsettled by the strength of her powers. Meanwhile, the Resistance prepares to do battle with the First Order. (IMDb)
The latest Star Wars movie is a strange one, with themes and narratives that are definitely worth exploring in this setting, but may have been better off being set in a ‘Star Wars Story’ film like Rogue One or Solo rather than as an Episode of the main ‘Saga’ series.
Honestly, it doesn’t help that a lot of what The Last Jedi does has either been done better in other Star Wars films, related media, or other franchises. The influences are clear and Rian Johnson has done his best to adapt them into a single story, but it just doesn’t come together as well as I would’ve hoped.
Even the fact that this is comfortably the best-looking Star Wars film of all time doesn’t really save it, because it just makes the film and story feel all that more hollow. The fact that some scenes appear to have been designed to be visually interesting rather than maintaining story consistency – you can’t tell us that two of the characters are incredibly, mind-blowingly powerful individuals and then have them struggle to beat a group of skilled, but still unpowered, opponents just because it looks good.
Story-wise, it’s a continuation of what began in The Force Awakens with a new generation of protagonists led by women and people of colour fighting against a new wave of fascism. Relevant, right? Absolutely, but there’s nothing new here to add to what the previous film showed us, other than making both sides look incompetent as the villains prove inept and bicker constantly, yet still utterly dominate the good guys.
In The Last Jedi, though, there’s a thread about leaving the past behind (Kylo Ren flat out says “kill it if you have to”) and forging your own future, which serves as a meta-narrative about leaving what you know about Star Wars as a franchise in the past as well. Both of these ideas are deserving of attention, but the execution fails the ideas.
The central issue for this movie is what it does to the characters to try and force them to fit the story, rather than having the story shaped by the characters. The Last Jedi is a plot-heavy film more concerned with its message than anything else and almost none of the characters escape unscathed.
How else can you explain Poe Dameron’s (Oscar Isaac) regression at the start of this film? He was a cool, calm and collected person in The Force Awakens, yet starts this film as rebellious, trigger-happy hotshot whose character arc is to learn how to be more like he was in the previous movie? How does that make any sense? Did something happen in the apparently minuscule amount of time between the two films to make him like this? And if it did, why aren’t we shown it?
Let’s not even get started on how appallingly bad Finn’s subplot is: you could genuinely cut his entire character out of the entire film and it wouldn’t have any impact on the rest of the story. It’s pure filler and not good filler either. I feel bad for John Boyega who is such a good actor and deserves better material than what he was given here. If a better story couldn’t be found for him, they should have left his character unconscious until the end of the film.
On the other hand, Daisy Ridley is still enjoyable as Rey and she actually gets some more depth to her character this time out, although her relative inexperience as an actor is laid bare at times when compared to Mark Hamill and Adam Driver in the scenes they share. It doesn’t stop her being fun to watch though, and I still do not get the complaints of people calling her a Mary Sue – she really screws up in this film and makes things a lot worse for herself and the Resistance.
Regrettably, even Rey is caught up in the movie’s desire for characters to make choices that the plot requires rather than what their established personalities would have them do. There’s one particular scene in which she very quickly defaults to violence to make a point, which is not in character with how Rey has been portrayed and actually weakens the argument she’s trying to make.
Disappointing even more is that even Luke Skywalker seems to get caught up in this: I can understand why a lot of people will be upset with how Luke especially is portrayed here. I don’t want to repeat myself, but I have to say that again he’s written as making and having made choices that are necessary for The Last Jedi’s story to work rather than being consistent with the character from the original trilogy.
Some characters suffer so badly that they don’t ever get fully established, outright rejecting the build-up they were given in The Force Awakens and used as little more than plot devices or, in the case of one particular antagonist, a cool toy to sell. Again, I can understand why the film did what it did with them to get across points the story is trying to say or to give a character someone to fight against, but it does make you wonder why these characters were introduced in the first place.
Dissonance like this is really The Last Jedi’s greatest failing, with even the humour detracting from the quality rather than adding to it. That isn’t to say that the movie isn’t funny, but the humour is definitely much more modern in style and more self-aware than in previous films.
It can lead to some scenes coming across as a little odd when a character says something that can also be read as a meta-joke about the nature of Star Wars as a franchise, then the movie expects you to treat them as being completely sincere the next. A lot of the lines are very funny and got big laughs from the audience at my screening, but that knowing wink-to-the-audience style of humour also deflates the drama. You can’t tell an audience to not take something seriously one moment and then to take it seriously the next – if you want that style of humour, you need to leave some space before you try and make things feel serious again.
Disappointingly, all of this leads to the film never maintaining a consistent tone, with the constant change between light-hearted and dramatic meaning neither aspect really works. I really can’t see how some people are viewing this as a dark film, when both The Empire Strikes Back and even Revenge of the Sith go way darker than anything presented here. Yes, there are moments that play on sentiment and feelings for certain characters, but – again – that doesn’t come from the story being told, but pre-existing attachment.
It also means that a lot of the film has proven pretty forgettable, even though I’ve already seen it twice. As I acknowledged, this is the best-looking Star Wars film yet, and there are certain visuals that I remember well, but the emphasis on story over character means that there aren’t really any moments or sequences that resonated once the film was over.
The only real exception to that is the real-life subtext relating to Leia and the too-early passing of Carrie Fisher. Fisher is still as much a force of nature as ever, and her role is small enough for Leia to not be railroaded into making uncharacteristic choices, but there is an extra layer of emotion to all of her scenes that comes from reality and not the film.
But even then, Leia is caught up in a subplot with Poe that isn’t done all that well, having already been done to a far higher standard over a decade earlier on TV in one of the modern Battlestar Galactica’s earliest episodes. It should be noted that Rian Johnson acknowledged the modern BSG as an influence and it’s as clear as day, but so is the fact that the TV show presented almost the exact same scenario as nightmarishly tense and stressful to watch – something The Last Jedi fails to do.
Even worse is Luke’s time with Rey. I don’t want to spoilt the movie, but let’s just say there are discussions about the Force spread through the film that are very reminiscent of the second Knights of the Old Republic game, The Sith Lords. Again, like the BSG example above, the game did it better and went even further with the topic, going to far darker places than The Last Jedi and doing it over ten years ago!
These two examples are just part of why I may be slightly harsh on The Last Jedi. If I was to ignore them or hadn’t experienced them, I would probably have enjoyed this movie a lot more than I did. But I can’t change the fact that the film contains aspects that I have already seen done much better elsewhere, and - in the case of The Sith Lords – even in the same franchise.
That’s a lot of negativity for a film that genuinely isn’t bad at all – on a visual level, it’s simply staggering how good everything looks, and the score is standard John Williams magic even if it does still rely a little too heavily on themes from the original trilogy.
Even the acting can’t really be faulted as everyone does as good a job as you could hope for with the material they’re given. It’s just a shame that some get irrelevant story-lines or are simply made more unlikable to give them an arc for the film that doesn’t really fit with what has already been set up.
Repetition is yet another issue though, both on a textual and meta-textual level. Did we really need three or four different scenes of Rey telling Luke that Leia had sent her to find him? There are also sequences lifted straight from The Empire Strikes Back that are very noticeable and are, again, just not done as well as that film, which used those scenes to add depth to the characters rather than push forward the plot.
The Last Jedi is an extremely well-made film that leans a little too hard on the pre-existing goodwill for the cast of characters so it can bend them almost to breaking point in order to tell the story it wants. Unfortunately, it means that the story doesn’t really work as the characters are mishandled compared to what we already know about them and a lot of choices feel inauthentic as a result, in addition to certain plot threads having already been done to a higher standard elsewhere in similar settings. If you haven’t watched Battlestar Galactica or played Knights of the Old Republic II, you’ll almost certainly enjoy The Last Jedi a lot more than I did and the film will probably seem extremely brave to do what it does, but I can’t help feeling a little disappointed.
Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi is in cinemas now