Star Wars: The Last Jedi - Review: Strong With Ambition, Weaker With Execution
A long time ago on a VHS player far away, I first watched The Empire Strikes Back... and if I’m honest, I wasn’t blown away by it. I may have spent many hours running around my dad’s legs playing AT-ATs and speeders or talking like Yoda, but much of the film went over his little head. It didn’t have the simple, easy-to-follow story of the Star Wars or its rewarding happy ending. Neither did it have the cute fluffy animals of Return of the Jedi. It was only as when I became a Padawan watching back that worn home-recorded VHS cassette that I came to see what made the film so special among his favorite trilogy. It took time. It took the patience and understanding that his younger self could never master. It was this journey that the older, now “Master” (he wishes), was reminded of when walking out of The Last Jedi. While on the surface, there were mixed feelings of disappointment vs. expectations. Underneath, there were seeds of greater purpose and meaning to the film’s content. This is a Star Wars film that may take some time and understanding to be truly appreciated.... but still not without its flaws.
With The Republic’s destruction, The Resistance are on the run from the conquering First Order. Finn (John Boyega – Detroit) and Poe (Oscar Issac – Ex Machina) hatch a dangerous plan to save them. While Rey (Daisy Ridley – Murder on the Orient Express) hopes finding the legendary Luke Skywalker will spark a new hope.
In many ways, The Last Jedi feels like the Star Wars franchise looking at its own reflection for a deeper purpose. It opens with the typically closing, “we must destroy the big thing” set piece. While much of what follows revolves around showing that making a change and overcoming an all-powerful evil is about more than shooting torpedoes into a thermal exhaust port. There’s a greater emphasis on the cost of such heroism and the difference between being a hero and being a leader; largely through the eyes of Poe Dameron as the impulsive hot-headed learning to see the bigger picture. That The Resistance and not the rebellion.... they are the spark that will ignite a rebellion within everyone. It shows the story as more than just good guys vs. bad. It’s about the inspiration and belief that both can create. It’s the kind of hidden depth that helped make Rogue One feel so special. This is echoed well within Luke and Rey’s scenes as Luke attributes his failures to overconfidence in being labeled a hero and legend. Or a few touching little moments like new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) overwhelmed to meet Finn from reputation or some ordinary kids playing with homemade Star Wars toys. A worthy mention also to Laura Dern’s (Jurassic Park) Vice Admiral Holdo for embodying the teachings of composed leadership.
Where the film falters is not of intent but sadly from execution in filmmaking. The story quickly breaks off into multiple arcs in different locations that the script can’t seem to juggle smoothly. Particularly through the first half, the pacing is clunky and uneven. This isn’t helped by polarizing tones. Many parts of the film have a darker tone revolving around desperation and hopelessness. Yet against this, the film still tries to be the kind of fun and enjoyable adventure most would expect from a Star Wars film. Now in places, it absolutely nails this contrast, like the side mission of Finn and Rose to a lavish casino. It’s full of joyous mad-cap antics and great laughs but with the edgier undertone of all the wealth being derived from war profiteering over the Resistance/First Order conflict. For the rest of the film, there’s a reliance on unexpected humor injections that at many points feel terribly goofy. Case and point, Domhnall Gleeson's General Hux is reduced to slapstick comic relief, best likened to Starscream in the Transformers sequels. Director Rian Johnson clearly wants his movie to contain all the core strengths of the franchise but didn’t listen enough to his lessons about The Force. He doesn’t respect the balance. Then there are The Porgs. They’re adorable and funny yet never overstay their welcome on-screen which keeps their comedy effective. Compared to an early unfunny communication problems gag that goes on so long and so awkwardly you’ll wish George Lucas’s head would appear in space shouting, “Get on with it”. It creates a frustrating sense that the film is not aware of when it is succeeding or failing; that both appear to happen by chance.
Despite having less of an emphasis on bigger set pieces this is still a Star Wars film that delivers on its action and visuals. The aforementioned opening space battle not only has spectacle but fantastic variety as the fan-favorite A-Wings on hulking B-Wing style bombers join the mix. The human element to the bombers also likens the sequence to a WW2 piece like Memphis Belle. The film offers one of the most creative and stunning lightsaber battles since Maul sparked up his double on Naboo. There are some moments of genuine beauty. A final act set piece sees forces battle on salt planes of a white top layer and red beneath. Every explosion, every skim against the surface hurls up plumes and clouds of red against the vast white (like the color themes of the posters) for a truly breathtaking visual effect. Then there is quite literally the best 10 seconds ever. A ship collision sequence is shown like a samurai movie sword slice. You could have force-choked me while that was happening and I wouldn’t have noticed.
Finally, let’s pilot things back towards The Empire Strikes Back comparisons. The said 1980s offering is not just considered an incredible film, but many consider it one of the greatest sequels of all time. That is where The Last Jedi crucially differs. Some of its continuation from The Force Awakens is excellent. Everything about Mark Hamill’s performance and his relationship with Rey is a lovely continuation of that infamous silent ending. Similarly, the bond of opposites between Kylo and Rey develops well through their Sense8-like communicating and becomes very entertaining. On the flip side, much was hyped of Supreme Leader Snoke’s actual presence within this sequel and reveals about his identity. Instead, he’s not a character, he’s a lack of. He’s nothing more than a CG Voldermort devoid of personality; a Death Star-sized disappointment. Ultimately Kylo also falls short. He stood out last time for his fascinating complexity of aspiring towards being the next Darth Vader but fearful of never achieving it. This time, much of that feels abandoned for an overall sense of uncertainty over just what they are trying to do with his character other than being a villain presence of necessity.
There were moments in The Last Jedi that embraced me in full-blown Star Wars euphoria but more that pulled me out of the immersive escapism for their failings. I firmly believe that I will come to appreciate and enjoy The Last Jedi more in time but for now, I can’t look at with the level of positivity the youngling and Padawan inside me would like. It does give Carrie Fisher some good moments if this is to be her send-off. It is generally very well-acted from its talented cast. By no means is this a Phantom Menace or deserving of any such negative comparisons to the prequel trilogy. In the end, The Last Jedi is a good film where there should have been a great one.