The most pressing question raised by 2015’s Star Wars episode, The Force Awakens, was this: could Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) possibly be worth all that trouble? He was the film’s Ark of the Covenant, its Maltese Falcon, the McGuffin that everyone was searching for, so we had to take it for granted that he could sway the fate of the galaxy one way or the other. But it was difficult to see how he could justify the colossal amounts of death and destruction that the searching entailed. All we knew about Luke was that the noble young champion from the first Star Wars trilogy had fallen out with his nephew and then gone off in a huff to a distant planet resembling an island off the coast of Kerry in Ireland. What did it say about the Resistance and the First Order that they were so obsessed by him? How could a beardy old hermit be so important?
It’s the most intelligent film in the franchise by several light years
The clever thing about Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is that it takes these questions seriously, and it has a lot of tongue-in-cheek fun with them, too. In an early scene, Luke himself asks why anyone would assume that a man with a laser sword could turn the tide against a fascist army, and the film, written and directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) keeps prodding and pulling at its own mythos with the same irreverent spirit and enquiring mind. All the monolithic concepts that have been the foundation stones of the Star Wars saga are chipped away. The Force, the Jedi, good, evil, destiny, family, self-sacrifice, war itself ... are any of them what they’re cracked up to be? The most intelligent film in the franchise by several light years, The Last Jedi can be seen as the space-opera equivalent of Clint Eastwood’s revisionist western, Unforgiven, in that it pours scorn on its hero’s legendary reputation - but it eventually gives us the satisfaction of seeing why he acquired that legendary reputation in the first place.
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By Star Wars standards, then, Johnson’s demystifying exercise is radical and subversive. Its use of flashbacks, voiceovers and montages counts as a leap into the avant-garde when set against the series’ usual Saturday-matinee classicism. But let’s not get carried away. Just as The Force Awakens was so structurally similar to the first Star Wars instalment that it was as much a remake as a sequel, you could easily fill a bingo card headed ‘Stuff That Was In The Empire Strikes Back’ while watching The Last Jedi. Morally slippery new ally for the heroes? Tick. Shocking revelation about the hero’s parentage? Tick. And you can start playing this game as soon as the film begins.
Echoing The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi opens with the baddies’ heavy artillery turning a rebel base into a firework display. A zippy dogfight follows, and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is established as an insubordinate hothead who is frowned upon by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and her purple-haired right-hand woman Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). The plot then splits into two strands, exactly as the plot of The Empire Strikes Back did. In one strand, a would-be Jedi meets a reclusive Jedi Master on a remote world, only this time, instead of Luke meeting Yoda, it’s Rey (Daisy Ridley) meeting Luke. In the other strand, the heroes are on the run from their enemies, only this time the enemies are the First Order rather than the Empire. Neither strand is quite as riveting as it was in The Empire Strikes Back in 1980.
It’s a pleasure, of course, to see Luke pottering around his island getaway. In The Force Awakens he had to make do with a climactic scowl, so if Johnson wants to show him hiking, fishing and chatting to his alien pals, then who are we to object? But it isn’t very dramatic. Meanwhile, the space-race plot strand appears to have been lifted from Ronald D Moore’s rebooted Battlestar Galactica TV series. It’s also weirdly lacking in urgency, despite having a literal ticking clock. Various British character actors keep turning from their monitors to inform us that the rebels’ starships have only three hours - two hours - 15 minutes - 10 seconds - until they’re obliterated by the mega-starship commanded by the First Order’s odious twerp-in-chief, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). But the heroes seem happy enough to stop and admire the view instead of getting on with their missions.
One problem is that Johnson doesn’t have Abrams’ knack for staging kinetic action sequences. Another is that some of the best parts of The Force Awakens involved screwball banter between Finn (John Boyega) and Poe, and then Finn and Rey, and then Finn and Han Solo. If he’d been a better linguist, they might have involved screwball banter between Finn and Chewbacca, too. In The Last Jedi, Finn has a new scene partner, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), and they’re very sweet together, but the screwball banter is missing.
By the time it gets to its closing dedication to Carrie Fisher it is clear that it is something special
Still, as 23 different characters say during the course of the film: don’t give up hope. Like last year’s interstitial Star Wars adventure, Rogue One, The Last Jedi is redeemed by its crowdpleasing final third. It’s at this late stage that Johnson delivers the epic spectacle and the balletic fight scenes we have been waiting for, as well as the most whiplashing twists of any Star Wars film. Soulfully acted by Adam Driver, arch-emo Kylo Ren confirms that he is more interesting and unpredictable than any other character in the new trilogy, if not the whole trilogy-of-trilogies. And Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) - seen here in the computer-generated flesh, and not just as a hologram - proves himself to be a deliciously loathsome villain, even if, with a name like ‘Snoke’, he should probably have been the floppy-snouted alien comic relief. Most impressively of all, The Last Jedi becomes a thoughtful and touching examination of what the Star Wars phenomenon means to its fans. By the time it gets to its closing dedication to Carrie Fisher, who died while the film was in post-production, it is clear that it is something special.
If only it had got there sooner. The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi both give you the impression that their respective directors, Abrams and Johnson, knew that they had only one shot at making a Star Wars episode, and so were determined to fill it with every single Skywalker-and-Stormtrooper-related image that had buzzed around their heads since they were children. It’s an understandable impulse but a damaging one. The Last Jedi is a whopping two-and-a-half hours, and it would have been much improved if an editor had taken a lightsaber to its less crucial sections.
The difference between the two directors, though, is that while Abrams was content to pay homage to the ideas introduced by George Lucas in 1977’s Star Wars, Johnson has some ideas of his own. His film works both as a continuation of Abrams’ and a detailed critique of it. To cut a long story short (and I wish Johnson had cut his own long story short): if you’re getting bored halfway through The Last Jedi, hang on in there. Just when you think it’s about to end, it really gets going. And just when I thought the entire Star Wars series was running on fumes, it seems to be getting going, too.
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