Director: Rian Johnson
Stars: Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver
J.J. Abrams may take his expected executive producer credit on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but he never could have made it. This despite the movie opening with one of his trademark lens flares. No, this is Rian Johnson’s film through and through. It’s wantonly idiosyncratic, it displays a sense of humour not seen before in the series, yet it’s also moody, grumpy, and defiantly odd. Abrams wouldn’t think like this about Star Wars. After the sprightly fun and safety of his The Force Awakens (as understandable a hedged bet as one could’ve expected following the prequels), Johnson here shakes things up and dares to place his own imprint on the saga. The result is the weirdest Star Wars movie yet, for better and for worse.
Let’s talk about the worse for a moment seeing as all plot conversations are obviously off-the-table. There are things here that clunk and clunk loudly. For instance, porgs. Fuck porgs. Just fuck ’em, okay? You’ll miss the Ewoks. You may even miss Jar Jar. That’s how much fuck porgs. Doe-eyed little owlets, they exist here to offset the grim tendencies of Johnson’s tone. They’re emblematic of an attempt to sprinkle The Last Jedi with a sense of reprieve; and it is here that Johnson frequently fails most openly.
It’s not that a dose of humour isn’t welcome, but the majority of what he’s attempting to do so thoroughly resists the injection of zany or self-referential comedy. The best things about The Last Jedi aren’t built from levity. As such the levity provided feels conspicuous and strange. Johnson veers close to breaking the fourth wall. It’s jarring to say the least.
And, surprisingly given the awesome collaborative studios behind this franchise, there’s some occasionally duff CG work here. Weightless rocks (intentional and otherwise), conspicuous green screening, general back or foreground litter. The appearance sometimes suggests that Johnson and his teams were working on this one right up until the end, and perhaps could’ve used another month or two. Such is the problem in the era of making films to a release schedule.
Thirdly, and perhaps most trying of all, there’s the pacing. For reasons that may become clearer further down, there’s a decidedly plodding hour that follows Johnson’s (barnstorming) opening action salvo. I think it’s safe to acknowledge that Rey (Daisy Ridley) ended The Force Awakens in the presence of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). And the trailers have confirmed what seemed patently obvious; there’s going to be some Jedi training on that loneliest of islands. But The Last Jedi doesn’t half dawdle there, while the resistance’s B-story sputters along with a riff pinched from the Battlestar: Galactica reboot, one that makes one question what it is Johnson’s got in mind here.
But that’s where things turn around. And perhaps this lull is necessary. It engenders a false sense of security so that, when Johnson starts pulling the rug out from under narrative assumptions, his film suddenly comes alive and changes shape. The Last Jedi feels damned strange because it plays against the comfort of your typical Star Wars structure. Suddenly the McGuffin doesn’t matter anymore and we’re left free-falling into unknown territory. This sense of feeling wrong-footed creates unease. The Last Jedi might even leave some feeling dissatisfied without clear reason, but it’s because Johnson is changing the shape of the game. It isn’t entertainment in the classic sense that Star Wars is known for, but it’s daring and interesting, making Johnson’s film the most cerebral entry in the series if nothing else.
The other masterstroke here, now that we’re talking about the good, is the way in which character is prioritised. Johnson explores these people; their motives; their preconceptions; their weaknesses. He handles them like a biologist, prodding here, palpating there. He investigates them. This is incredibly beneficial for the newer characters among the cast. Chiefly Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) feel the most rewarded by this focused attention. It does mean that there’s a rather large gulf between the more traditional set-pieces, but it also means that the later set pieces arrive with genuine weight.
This is a welcome holdover from Gareth Edwards’ (superb) Rogue One, which felt like the first Star Wars to actually confront the idea of war. The Last Jedi has a similar sense of scale and consequence. Where Abrams was content to annihilate an entire solar system in a single blast from his Starkiller Base, both Edwards and now Johnson are more interested in examining the toll of war up close, how it affects the individual or the community. The personal stakes. Abrams didn’t glamourise war, but he made it part of the fun of his rollercoaster ride. For Johnson it’s a shattering pestilence that tarnishes the good in anything it touches; a compromising agent.
There are some incredulous moments (one which proves likely to divide fans involves the dear departed Carrie Fisher and a sequence reminiscent of, ironically, Guardians Of The Galaxy), and, as established, all of those porgs can go to hell, but the net result is that the further through The Last Jedi you get, the more respect in garners. Johnson throws conundrums at his characters as he throws conundrums to his audience. Who can be trusted? What’s the right thing to do in a no-win situation? What would you do?
For the action lovers Johnson holds his own. The opening dogfight has a strong sense of narrative and purpose and has the same urgent flavour as Edward’s command over the scenes at Scarif in Rogue One, while the back-end of the movie riffs (unintentionally?) on the middle chapter of another notable fantasy trilogy. In between, Johnson makes superb use of a bunch of supremely threatening red knights, staged in the kind of room that could only really exist in this Star Wars picture.
From the weird medical suit spewing liquid that Finn (John Boyega) first appears wearing to the things Rey sees at the bottom of a deep dark well, there’s the sense of an altogether different auteur playing in the Star Wars sandbox.
There’s an awful lot of thematic meat to chew on, too. The aforementioned personal realities of war. Hope and how it is nurtured. And, more simply, what its like to grow up. Rey, Finn, Po (Oscar Isaac) and, yes, Kylo too; they were the new kids on the block in The Force Awakens. Emphasis on ‘kids’. The Last Jedi by necessity is the film in which they all have to face adulthood, maturity and the complexity of the universe outside of themselves. This is a film of growing pains. The results are appropriately strained, strange and imperfect.
Middle chapters are usually difficult, but here’s one that basically reshapes the narrative of the story being told. Thrillingly, I have no idea what to expect in Episode IX.