Review: The Last Jedi

Image credit: Star Wars via YouTube

When I watched The Last Jedi for the first time, I went in not knowing how much it had already polarised fans of the franchise, and in hindsight, I’m glad that I didn’t. It’s difficult enough already writing an honest review of such a constitutional pillar of popular culture - and with a film like TLJ, which dares to take more risks than any other episode before it, it’s no surprise that its originality doesn’t sit well with everyone.

It sits well with me, though - for the most part. I acknowledge that The Last Jedi has a lot of issues (I’m not even going to get into the biggest one, which was THAT Leia-uses-the-Force scene - you know the one). For one, viewers excited to see big names like Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro will have been disappointed by their lack of influence on the main story, even if they are given some stellar moments as the film progresses - my favourite being Del Toro’s impeccably slick introduction as creepy thief DJ, who is given one of the coolest entrances of any new Star Wars character that I can remember, and who has a speech impediment unsettling enough to rival Hannibal Lecter. The issue is that these moments take a lot of getting to, often with little payoff - as best put by one comment online, “Often things happened too quickly to make moments feel like they mattered.”

But the same could be said for any kind of superhero or fantasy movie nowadays. Franchises such as Star Wars or Marvel now have to compete with even newer reboots like Star Trek or Fantastic Beasts, which only adds to the pressure of pulling something original and shocking out of the bag. But the result of this panicked filmmaking is often less compelling and more haphazard, a fate which The Last Jedi does suffer from in many ways - but it’s more a symptom of the state of the industry as a whole, rather than any failing of the film itself. 

Besides, there was a lot that amazed me in amongst the film’s clamour. Rian Johnson has created a Star Wars film that actually feels unprecedented and daring, straddling originality and nods to the core of the franchise in a way that JJ Abrams never achieved with The Force Awakens, which felt more like a strained echo of its predecessors than anything fresh. Johnson owes a lot of this to his use of the original characters. I know a lot of people weren’t happy with Luke’s portrayal as a grumpy and selfish ex-master trying to escape the Force, but to me, it felt like the only believable route for a character who started out in A New Hope as a scrawny, whiny teenager, annoyed that his uncle wouldn’t let him go pick up those damn power converters at Tosche station. It’s a much more interesting characterisation than an Obi-Wan 2.0, and it reminds us that these supposedly unbeatable characters are still flawed humans grappling with a Force they can’t understand.

Elsewhere, Johnson continues to excel in deviating from the anticipated by killing Snoke. Every fantasy movie needs a great villain, and in the 1970s, Darth Vader was it. Cold, ruthless and domineering, he was a one-note evil that still managed to command fear. But that was back when Star Wars was still a revolutionary concept, and people weren’t used to cardboard cutout bad guys appearing in every single Hollywood movie. Nowadays, cinema is so saturated with token villains with unexplained motives that they become forgettable and, frankly, boring. In contrast, Snoke’s death lets us know that Johnson is aware of the one truly compelling dynamic in The Last Jedi, and its potential for Episode IX: Kylo and Rey. Kylo is everything that Snoke wasn’t: complex; volatile; struggling to fulfil expectations, and his popularity as the Internet’s adoptive emo poster boy only seems to confirm his relevance in today’s world. Likewise, Johnson took an even more calculated risk in busting the mystery of Rey’s parenthood, opting to focus on the much more interesting facets of her struggle with her identity (displayed beautifully in the mirror sequence on Ahch-To), rather than any answers. I have watched too much soap TV and teen mystery dramas in the past five years to ever be surprised again that a character has hidden lineage (a secret twin! They’re adopted!) - a trend that Star Wars itself first perpetuated - so I was thankful that Johnson seems to realise this would serve little other purpose to the story than to pander to fantasising fans.

It’s no surprise, then, that The Last Jedi finds its best scene in joining these two engaging characters in what I have come to call Snoke’s Red Room. Watching Kylo and Rey decimate a legion of armed guards felt like an homage to all things Lynchian or even Kubrickian, with the visually jarring blocks of red and the exhilarating choreography, and made me actually excited to see where their relationship will go in future. And it’s in other sequences like this that the film really shines (Holdo slicing through an enemy battleship in complete silence, or the poignancy of Luke’s death, to name a few), delivering emotional impact away from the convoluted plot lines that populate its other areas. 

Overall, The Last Jedi felt like a Star Wars film. It combines the campy brashness of the originals’ space mythology with visually slick filmmaking, and an idea that Rian Johnson is actually dedicated to taking this new trilogy somewhere different. Where that will be, no one quite knows yet, and not everyone will be satisfied with the outcome. But I’m glad we were given an episode that wasn’t scared to take us there anyway, no matter what people will say.

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