Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Directed by Rian Johnson. With Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, Adma Driver, John Boyega, Carrie Fisher, Kelly Marie Tran, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis and Laura Dern.
Lucasfilm never envisaged their sequel to The Force Awakens would become the most divisive film in recent memory, but then in Rian Johnson, they hired a smart and progressive film-maker whose highest profile release to date had been the respected sci-fi thriller, Looper. Together with his long-time producer and collaborator, Ram Bergman, Johnson cultivates what is the most enterprising addition to Star Wars canon since The Empire Strikes Back.
After the goose-pimples of “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and the never-ending elation of John Williams, the film begins with space combat reminiscent of a World War II thriller, with Resistance bombers taking on a First Oder dreadnought (not a Death Star in sight). There’s bright early humour to re-establish Oscar Isaacs’s Poe Dameron as he toys with an increasingly hapless General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), whose sniveling character is firmly set in that mold by Johnson.
It doesn’t take long to sense a shift in tone from where J.J Abrams left us, as we finally get to see how that literal cliffhanger of an ending plays out. This is exactly the moment where Rian Johnson affirms that Luke Skywalker line in the trailer – “This is not going to go the way you think.” From thereon in, this isn’t the ‘Star Wars’ you grew up loving, but it’s the ‘Star Wars’ it needs to be. Think of it as your parents making you eat your greens. You didn’t agree with them at the time, but one day you’ll know they were right. If parts of The Empire Strikes Back were about growing up and making life-altering choices, The Last Jedi is about not knowing how to grow up and accepting failure. If you stop and think about that for a second, it’s a bold hand to play in a series as widely ingrained into the everyday consciousness as Star Wars, and despite the voices of discontent across the internet, it feels right.
For many fans, seeing Mark Hamill back as Luke Skywalker was always going to be emotional, but Johnson only allows his audience a fleeting glance of the Luke they know. Instead, we meet a 30-odd-years later Jedi, disillusioned and in self-imposed exile on Ahch-To – also home to Porgs, the most loveable creatures since a baby Ewok. Despite Hamill’s well-known misgivings about the direction of his character, he summons a gutsy performance as he resists Rey’s desperate pleas for him to join the fight.
Dark and grey as the writing is, the film still carries that beacon of naive humour that people sometimes forget is a central theme of George Lucas’s beloved original trilogy. For a saga that has always been so clear-cut in its distinctions between good and evil, there’s also a surprising subtext about the scepticism of war. A distinguished Benicio Del Toro spouts to John Boyega’s Finn – “It’s all a machine, partner. Live free, don’t join“. Its moments like this that Star Wars is playing for the grown-ups, but then, seconds later we see silliness as the ball droid BB-8 operates the laser cannons of an AT-ST (the chicken walker things from Return of the Jedi). We might groan a little, but then Star Wars has always been a series that aims to play to young and old.
As the conflicted Kylo Ren, Adam Driver provides another performance of moral complexity and depth. In terms of villains, it’d be easy for Star Wars to rest on its laurels, yet the events in Johnson’s script seem to mock convention, bypassing the internet theories with character arcs that are often surprising. Kylo Ren is a villain for our times; undermined, abandoned, misunderstood, confused and bursting with rage.
There is a ‘space casino’ middle-section that plays as a droopy detour away from what we’re interested in. The section is headed up by John Boyega’s Finn and newcomer Kelly Marie Tran as Rose and feels like an unusual return to the feel of the ‘prequels’. It’s ineffectiveness makes Finn much less a character than he was in The Force Awakens, while Rose is an affectionate attempt to make a character who is representative of us all, but despite one beautiful line, that doesn’t quite work either.
Then there’s our Princess, Carrie Fisher. The film was never supposed to be our goodbye to her, but sadly, it’s imbued with a sense of poignancy that was never supposed to be there. On top of everything else that happens, the contribution of this inherent sorrow is perhaps a reason why so many left the theatre feeling flattened. Fisher is Leia one last time and Johnson gives her much more to do than J.J did. When Luke kisses her head after saying “No one’s ever really gone”, don’t be surprised to find a lump in your throat.
The voices of discontent have been loud and clear, but the narrative of burying the past and forming a new future away from the established norms is not only a development in the plot, it’s Rian Johnson’s philosophy for the future of Star Wars. I’m with him all the way.
Wonderful insight as always Gareth, and timely since I just watched the blu-ray last night! Of course I enjoyed TLJ in IMAX but I found that given perspective and time to process some of the elements I felt were weaker I found the second viewing at home that touch more enjoyable. As you say this is the Star Wars that’s needed to progress and perhaps even refresh the saga…there’s only so far you can go with the basic good vs evil space opera.
The best approach to enjoying TLJ I find is to plunge head-in, expect the unexpected and be mindful of that apt quote from Hamill’s Skywalker about things not going the way that you’d think. I’m not so sure about all the numerous trilogies/spin-offs (as well as the ‘many’ tv series hinted at) Disney are announcing but I’m certainly looking forward to Solo and Episode IX.
Chris, thank you for reading. I’m always grateful to hear your opinion on any film, and that little bit more for film’s as precious to us both as Star Wars. It’s interesting that second viewings are calming over a lot of the annoyances that people had on first viewing. This was my second time and I it felt more cohesive to me. The first viewing is always a little dizzying, so it was good to get grounded and into Rian’s vision.
I can’t say I’m hyped about Solo, but I’m hopeful. There’s so much Harrison Ford in Han Solo, that I’ll find it a stretch to believe Alden in the role. But I’ll try. Not sure what Yoda would have to say about that last part… 😉
There is a line that Kylo Ren says in the film “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to,” I believe that is something that stayed with Johnson’s mind while making the film. He wanted the audience to get used to the idea that new ideas are coming, and some stuff from the past will no longer matter, which is a good thing because as a HUGE Star Wars fan, I feel the new movies are rehashing old things that have been done before. An example of this is TFA which is basically a copy and paste of ANH, but that is just my opinion.
You are right about this film being the most divisive Star Wars film to date. I am still debating with my friends about this film, but I believe that is a good thing because I love to hear their opinions about the film as well. As for me, I really enjoyed this film. I thought it was “okay” the first time I saw it, but after repeat viewings, I feel it gets better and better. It definitely has a story to tell, but I feel most people didn’t like it because their theories didn’t come to fruition, but I mention all of this in my own review.
Great review, man! I really enjoy reading your insights into the films you review. Looking forward to your next review.
Thank you for such an eloquent response. I’ve had the same experience in my life. I’m the oldest of five siblings. We all saw the movie together. Only one (our sister) enjoyed the film. The three bothers disliked it. It’s been a source of endless debate, going back and forth over things that worked and things that didn’t. You highlighted what I love about Johnson’s writing, in as much as he was trying to carve out a new feel for Star Wars, but while still retaining the things that identify it as belonging in that universe. A tough job that I felt he pulled off.
I know that Johnson has been given the job of creating his own trilogy of Star Wars films. An original one too. What a vote of confidence that is. I only hope that he can shrug off the negativity around The Last Jedi and come up with something equally progressive. Thank you once again for taking the time to write such an in-depth and thoughtful response.
Well written review Gareth but while I can understand where you are coming I am decidedly on the other side of the debate from you. I came out of the cinema not knowing what to think as I have rarely seen a film which had some good stuff juxtaposed with , what seems to me, terrible decision making. I don’t think I can ever forgive the insanity (to my mind) of Leia suddenly going all Christopher Reeve in deep space or the lack of intelligence which Johnson’s script gives Kylo Ren in the third act. The casino planet stuff badly drags down the mid section of the movie (it is apparent that Johnson either just didn’t like, or know how to utilise the character of Finn – he even teases giving him a meaningful moment only to snatch away from us what would have been a truly brave decision)) and while there is a lot of talk about how refreshing it felt to me it just played like a combination of elements of Empire and Return of the Jedi without approximating the thrills or heart of both. It is fine but it undoes so much of the good work from TFA – which is a real problem when there is no overarching narrative god like George Lucas to oversee a smooth story. Snoke, Rey’s parentage, the characterisation of Luke all create problems as they are given a huge build up only to be tossed aside as meaningless. Divisive is certainly the word as I have had the same debate with plenty of my friends post screening.
Great reply, David. I hear all your points and accept them. But I have little counters to most of them, which I will endeavour to not sound like one of those self-righteous fanboys on message boards. I liked the moment in the space with Leia. It felt a little magnificent, though I did laugh at your Christopher Reeve reference. I think of it this way – she’s Darth Vader’s daughter, she’s in zero gravity with no resistance, she’s force sensitive…out of all the feats Jedi and force users have pulled off throughout the various films, her using the force to survive like that doesn’t to me feel like a huge stretch, but then, that’s just my feeling on the matter and I appreciate it might not play that way for others. Plus, I found it a little emotional when the first strains of the Princess Leia theme from A New Hope stirred up.
I didn’t think Kylo was treated badly by the third act. He’s full of rage by that time, mainly because things aren’t going his way. He’s just killed his Snoke and Rey isn’t interested in joining him. He feels quite alone, I would image. Plus Luke makes him look like a rank amateur. I liked his rage in those scenes.
I agree with you about the Canto Bight stuff. It does bog the film down and damages Finn’s character. Like I said in my review, I think they were hoping to make Rose’s character a mirror of the audience, but I don’t think it worked. She didn’t leap off the screen as a character and that’s a problem for all that section.
I’m not sure refreshing would be the right word to describe what The Last Jedi does. I think it’s more that it reconfigures Star Wars to some degree. Maybe that reconfiguration came a little early for some. Maybe some would have liked to have seen a more triumphant return for Luke Skywalker (a part of me would have liked that). What’s sure is that Johnson has put us in a new universe. I do wonder how JJ will follow it. Huge job for him to do now.
I think that The Last Jedi, more than many a blockbuster, has so many moments which have that polarising ability to play as joyous or wondrous to some and as really dumb or poorly thought through to others. I can see how the Leia moment could be majestic and touching but it really set me back and took me out of the film when it happened. You certainly can’t knock Johnson’s bravery when it comes to making bold narrative choices even if those choices fall flat for you as an individual. He certainly doesn’t play it safe and that is bound to end up with some people loving it and others questioning those same decisions. I have no idea how Abrams ends it now and I suppose that is exciting to a degree. How they proceed with the Leia shaped hole where the heart of the next film was set to be may be the greatest single creative challenge the Star Wars universe has yet faced.
That’s astute of you David. To call the film polarising is fair. I wonder how the big bods at Lucasfilm really feel about that. It’d be fascinating to hear an honest interview with Kathleen Kennedy. I know she has nothing but love and respect for Rian, as they’ve given him free licence to create his own new Star Wars trilogy, but I would love to get a flavour of their feelings on the backlash against the film.
I also wonder how the film will age. I suppose that depends on the quality of what’s served up in the coming years. If Star Wars bottoms out and eventually becomes just another event movie (like Transformers) , then I can imagine this might get looked back on as a misunderstood classic. Only time will tell…
I think there is probably a little bit of disappointment. It is apparent that they really believed in Johnson’s vision but I am sure they expected it to do bigger numbers than TFA and I think the backlash from some loyal sections of the Star Wars fan-base will have hurt a little. However, they are obviously looking to the future – getting rid of the old and bringing in the new. To clarify, I didn’t detest the film – overall, I sort of enjoyed the experience but left the cinema feeling really confused. Since that viewing, the negative feelings I had are the ones that rise to the surface whenever I think about the film and the positives have kind of ebbed away. I would be interested to see how my thoughts clarify after a second viewing. I also can’t help thinking that, given the tragic death of Carrie, they are probably already wishing they had given Luke a different arc in TLJ.
Perhaps so. The next episode was intended to be Leia’s movie. From a few interviews I’ve read, it seems Mark Hamill isn’t too keen on returning, but that could change once J.J sits down and talks things through with him. What’s clear is that the era of the original trilogy is now over, and I think that feels a little premature for a lot of people, especially considering how elated people were to have Ford, Hamill and Fisher back for TFA. There’s a lot to sort and rearrange in the SW universe now.
Great review! I particularly enjoyed this blurb from your review: “This isn’t the ‘Star Wars’ you grew up loving, but it’s the ‘Star Wars’ it needs to be. Think of it as your parents making you eat your greens. You didn’t agree with them at the time, but one day you’ll know they were right.” I really do think this film will age well, and I appreciate that the director and Disney were willing to make some bold decisions.
This might sound a little weird, but I don’t think the film being divisive is necessarily a bad thing. I actually think it’s kind of exciting to have a Star Wars movie that inspired such strong reactions from fans and has led to a lot of interesting discussions. My biggest hope for Episode IX is that Disney won’t get cold feet and back down from some of the narrative choices that made TLJ so exciting and fresh (i.e. I think Snoke needs to stay dead, Rey’s parents need to be “nobodies,” etc.).
Again, great review!
Regarding the divisiveness, I agree with you. The last thing I want is for the Star Wars films to begin following a certain framework of being “a Star Wars film”. We see this with many of the Marvel film, as much as I enjoy them. I think Star Wars needs to keep pushing the boundaries of what it can be. Don’t just expand the characters in the universe, expand Star Wsr into different genres. Make a 90min film set entirely on the bridge of one of the Star Destroyers from the original trilogy. Make it like a submarine warfare movie, give it some interesting twists. Make a Star Wars horror movie. Make a Star Wars road movie. Do it all, but keep it varied and keep it fresh.
Agreed! I really love the MCU, but I want Star Wars to be different. I don’t want everybody to like every Disney Star Wars movie, because that means they’re taking chances and trying different styles. Not every film is going to appeal to every person, and that’s okay. Also, I really want to see that WWII submarine warfare style movie set on a Star Destroyer now!
Not everything in the movie worked, but its best parts are probably my favourite in the entire series, and the performances by Mark Hamill and Adam Driver are especially outstanding. I felt that this movie finally managed to make Luke a truly interesting character; he was fine as the protagonist in the original trilogy but I could name maybe five or six characters that outshined him. Cranky depressed Luke is the best Luke!
Space casino was a total misfire and Finn was terribly wasted, though I think that the issues with his character stem back to The Force Awakens, which frittered away the dramatic potential of a renegade stormtrooper in the first ten minutes or so. John Boyega’s charisma and charm did a lot to paper over those issues, not so much in The Last Jedi where he’s largely subdued and inert.
It seems that people unanimously agree about the space casino. There were some nice shots and great costume designs on show, but it took us away from our points of interest. I do wonder if Rose will continue in the next Episode. I like what Rian was trying to achieve with her character, but it didn’t come off as well as he’d hoped for. I can’t say I’d miss her, or Finn.
It’s interesting what you say about Luke. You know, you might have a good point there. He’s the hero of Star Wars and we love him for that, but he’s given a dimension in The Last Jedi that was never there before. I think what you say is some of my favourite comment on the the film so far. Films have to continue to surprise and challenge their audiences. Star Wars was a pioneering series in the 70’s and early 80’s, so it’s fitting that it should lead the way in terms of blockbuster that get smart and try something new. I think this conversation just made me appreciate the movie that little bit more. Thank you for that!
For the most part, I agree with you that the franchise needed someone to take the storyline in a new direction besides good vs. evil, giant spherical superweapons, young padawans with wise old masters, etc. I like how conflicted Hammil’s performance was on the new Luke, but also loved his character’s exit of essentially trolling the petulant Darth Vader fanboy, Kylo Ren (a stand-in for Star Wars fanboys?), stalling for the Resistance without having to be brutally murdered on-screen.
Then again, I’m torn over how, at the end of the day, TLJ *still* concludes with an evil man in black armor with a red lighsaber and a giant army fighting a smaller, scrappy guerrilla force. Again. I don’t see what is wholly groundbreaking, here. I really, really wanted Kylo to commit to the “let the past die” mantra and just burn the whole 1st Order down. Him killing Snoke just to usurp power for himself largely undercuts that Throne Room Twist, no? We’re back right where we started…
If we’re being honest about novel storylines in the SW universe, Solo (2018) was far riskier than TLJ.