Picking up from the closing minute of The Force Awakens, director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars debut takes immediate joy in subverting expectations. When new hero Rey (Daisy Ridley) meets Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), it’s not quite the profound experience she’s expecting.
Sure enough, there’s a delightful sense of irreverence running through The Last Jedi. Johnson is unafraid to poke fun at the franchise’s most revered icons or even take a few digs at the perceived shortcomings of the previous instalment. In short, this is the funniest Star Wars yet. A scene involving Chewbacca, a roasting spit and ridiculously cute new aliens Porgs (a cross between puffins and hamsters) might just be one of the funniest scenes put to celluloid this year.
Some might find the humour a bit too meta – it does verge on the sort of self-referential irony that Joss Whedon introduced to geek culture – but it (and the Porgs) are obviously there to balance the darkness of the drama.
Johnson appears keen to press beneath the jolly surface thrills of the first instalment. Like Rogue One, this is a bleak war film at heart, but crackling with an energy that po-faced prequel lacked. The Resistance spend most of the two-and-a-half hours on the verge of extinction, pursued by a relentless star destroyer. It’s spoiling nothing to say that very few of them survive.
At the same time, Rey is confronting her would-be Jedi master, who has turned his back on the Force. More interesting are her confrontations with new baddie Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is attempting to lure her to the Dark Side, while she hopes to bring him back into the light. The furious, almost flirtatious dynamic between them – even when they’re not actually in the same room – gives the film serious emotional ballast.
Other characters are less well served. Finn, the other standout star from Episode VII, is cut off from Rey and largely kept on the sideline. Robbed of his sparring partner and defining role as comic relief (there was a sense in the last film that Finn was being set up as the new Han Solo), Finn’s space in the story has been filled by Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron. Isaacs is always great to watch, but his character is as one dimensional as wisecracking fly boys come.
I particularly missed Gwendoline Christie as chrome-domed Stormtrooper Captain Phasma. The last film set her up as a more menacing old school villain than Kylo, here she’s basically left to do the sweeping up.
Much will (rightfully) be made of Carrie Fisher’s dignified final turn as Princess Leia, but even her role is little more than a cameo. There’s one scene that will have fanboys wetting themselves (in horror or delight), but she spends much of the story unconscious. It seems a great injustice that we won’t see her take centre stage in the third film (as was planned).
Returning as Luke, Mark Hamill has a gravitas that will surprise those tempted to dismiss him as the least magnetic of the original cast (maybe that was just me). His grizzled old warrior is pleasingly enigmatic, but he truly shines in the moments when the gruff exterior cracks and we glimpse the vulnerability and innocence we (and Luke) feared lost.
Of the new characters, Laura Dern is most notable for her purple ’do, her twinkly chemistry with Oscar Isaacs and her light touch with some truly clunky dialogue. Technician Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) fares better, but not much. By the film’s end she’s still a sketch of a character, but hopefully we’ll see her access her potential next time around. Did I mention the Porgs? Love the Porgs.
While it’s admirable that Johnson is broadening the scale and the cast list, it does mean The Last Jedi lacks the focus and simplicity of The Force Awakens and the original trilogy. What makes those early films work is they tell the story of an entire galaxy while keeping the lens tight on three or four main characters. In reaching for a bigger picture, Johnson at times leaves us uncertain where to look.
It also means the film is a good half hour longer than it needs to be. Instead of having a lot happening, we have very little happening in a lot of different places. At times, it feels more like a tapestry of moments and incidents (each entertaining enough on their own merits) than a coherent story.
At other times, it seems that Johnson is so busy subverting expectations and tinkering with the format that he undercuts the power of the tale he’s telling. The climax arrives unexpectedly — and quite thrillingly — early, meaning even a final all-out battle struggles to raise the stakes thereafter.
Ultimately, The Last Jedi heaves under the weight of its own ambitions. It aims to tell an epic tale on an epic scale, but its vast cast did leave me wanting a bit more one-on-one time with my favourite characters. It’s a mess, although an admirable one. Even when the story sags, Johnson infuses each set up with such energy that it remains terrific fun. But this kind of energy can be a little fatiguing to witness, particularly when the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Whereas I left The Force Awakens hungry for more, I left this feast feeling I had seriously over-eaten.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
- Opens December 14
- Rated M, 152 minutes