Have you ever had a dream that was essentially your favourite film, but different in ways only a dream can be, some of it making sense and other exciting bits didn’t seem to gel? Star Wars: Episode XIII – The Last Jedi is like that, only it doesn’t have the excuse of being a legitimate stream of consciousness, but rather another instalment of an iconic science fiction franchise.
Eighties band Duran Duran (so good they named them twice) would cram what sounded like three different songs into their chart-busting singles. The Last Jedi does something similar. I would have willingly watched a whole film about an elderly, disgruntled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) reluctantly teaching optimistic new Jedi trainee Rey (Daisy Ridley) in the ways of the Force. But in Jedi there’s also a tale of a resistance group fleeing from an oppressive Empire aboard a massive spaceship on their tail, as they balance being under attack with real life and survival – and there’s a tale of two young rebels visiting a space casino, searching for a tech expert to take down a villainous tracking system, like a space James Bond set in a galaxy far, far away. All these plot threads are squeezed together and although they are very well told, they really deserve more time on each, and all together the combination overcrowds what is traditionally a space opera western mashup that somehow worked back in 1977.
But does it work? Being close to perfection is more annoying than being a really bad movie. When you have a Star Wars instalment that surprises and confuses, entertains and makes you gasp and giggle, the bad bits don’t overshadow the greatness of the wow scenes… but it does lessen them.
Straight after the traditional Star Wars crawl, The Last Jedi goes into a big CGI battle as Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) disobeys General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and instead does his best maverick pilot schtick, upstaged by a female pilot’s ultimate sacrifice, echoing Rogue One‘s do or die portrayal of ‘our heroes’. I would have preferred to follow on directly from The Force Awakens with Rey and Luke rather than this plot-related firework display; during the first ten minutes, the spectacle is the only thing that will keep you interested.
Once we settle down, and an older and grim Luke Skywalker shows his true colours by literally throwing away a chance to train a new Jedi, we hit this film’s first major problem. There’s an opportunity to deepen what it is to be trained as a Jedi, beyond the cutesy kid padawans of the Prequels. Aside from showing us Luke’s enforced feral lifestyle and a few good jokes – some of which have a new-found “meta-ness” that Star Wars has not approached before, such as Luke mocking Rey’s innocent belief in the Force which, though funny, displays the change in the character’s attitude – we don’t actually learn how Jedis learn to be Jedis. However, that said, this section also gives us the truth behind Kylo Ren’s emergence from Ben Solo, one of the most truly shocking moments of the franchise; eight episodes in and we get – both visually and through character-action – the harsh reality of the responsibility of being a mentor.
Unlike The Force Awakens, which is often accused of just being a clone of A New Hope, The Last Jedi is no beat-for-beat rehash of The Empire Strikes Back. Its clear intent of being deliberately different to any Star Wars before it makes it a good film, if not one with a clear consistent tone, with some plot elements feeling superfluous – such as Finn and Rose’s side mission, which very much feels like an afterthought, added to make the movie more of an adventure serial – while others end surprisingly abruptly, such as the fate of the head of the evil First Order, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).
Whereas Rogue One was accused of being a essentially fan film with a bigger budget, The Last Jedi is absolutely superb in places, particularly where Rian Johnson’s visual style and new ideas of telling a Star Wars story shine through. To say it looks amazing is an understatement; the various new worlds are very well realised – only the resistance ship’s interiors lack a natural design – and they work well up against the iconic interior of the Millennium Falcon, and the First Order decks, which homage Empire‘s classic design. Every creature design – from the Ice Dogs of Crait (a Prog rock band?) to the adorable Porgs – blend perfectly with their environment and provide an escape plan, comic relief and pathos throughout.
Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill very much steal the film, not only with their seasoned acting, but with properly sustained arcs and superb set pieces, albeit some being a tad shark-jumping in my opinion, but still very entertaining nonetheless. Meanwhile, relative Star Wars newcomers Domhnall Gleeson and Andy Serkis ham it up well as General Hux and Supreme Leader Snoke, and together with the lighter moments from C3PO and R2D2, keep the film from being over-balanced with all the emotional agonising.
Diversity in the Star Wars cast has always been a discussion point, but the previous lack of strong females is more than made up for, with the majority of the cast being women moving away from Princess Leia being the only girl in a galaxy far, far away. There are also many ethnic minorities in roles taking the centre stage, including Resistance fighter Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose and Benedico Del Toro’s tech hacker DJ, both bringing new energy and feel to the Star Wars universe. However, John Boyega’s Finn is still the Lando in this new trilogy, there being no other black characters on screen. Marvel has managed to have more than one black character be heroic – including Black Panther, War Machine, Nick Fury and Falcon – but Star Wars is still very white, and needs to show black lives matter in space fantasy too.
The Last Jedi has tremendous performances, and good discussions of the shades of grey in war, but unfortunately where it struggles is balancing the fun space-romps with the darkness of Rey and Kylo Ren’s choices in life. Indeed, the ambiguity of Kylo Ren’s journey to and from his destiny is the far strongest narrative, with a mysterious connection with Rey enabling tense yet revealing conversations between them, even though they are separated by both space and beliefs.
There’s a clear statement being made in this episode: out with the old, in with the new. Maybe for Episode IX, Disney will be brave enough to let the past go and finally try to release a Star Wars film with no call backs, cameos or tributes. Where the Prequels brought us iconic moments that made us cringe, The Last Jedi has so many iconic sequences and ‘I can’t believe they did that’ scenes (in a good way) that – though no way as important as The Empire Strikes Back – the Force is strong with this one.