Don't go in expecting your typical Star Wars flick: The Last Jedi is dark, dramatic and deliberate, filled with thrilling action scenes and frequent touches of humour but lacking in the fun that typically bursts out from that galaxy far, far away.
I think it’s safe to say that Star Wars is a cinematic institution. You pay for your ticket and you know what you’re getting: fun, thrills, a smattering of romance and humour and perhaps some awkward dialogue, but you know you’re going to come out the other end smiling. Certainly, I went into Star Wars: The Last Jedi beaming from ear-to-ear – it’s hard not to when surrounded by cosplayers buzzing about the midnight showing – but when I came out deep in thought about what I had just watched, I knew something was off.
Don’t get me wrong: The Last Jedi is by no means a bad film. There are scenes and sequences that are exceptional and that should stand out in cinematic history, and I’ll dive into those later. But it’s not your typical Star Wars romp. Where The Force Awakens was fun, carefree and nostalgic, The Last Jedi looks to take this sequel trilogy to places not yet explored in the galaxy far, far away, and it does so with mixed results.
I want to avoid spoilers, but I have to give a basic premise for the plot to explain what I mean. Following immediately on from the events of The Force Awakens, the bulk of the First Order (who turned out not to be on Starkiller Base) show up to the Resitance stronghold to destroy it once and for all. Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on Ahch-To at the first Jedi temple trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join the Resistance and turn the tide of the battle. As far as what happens for the following 152 minutes, the plot is surprisingly sparse, especially for the first half of the film, and this is where we start to see The Last Jedi really diverge from its predecessors.
While previous entries in the franchise were focused on action, emotion and sheer thrills, director Rian Johnson decides to turn his attention towards developing and understanding Luke, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Rey, and the Force. After a thrilling opening battle, we are treated to an hour or so of character development that would be sumptuous in any other film but that drags when dropped into a franchise that prides itself on massive set-pieces. Yes, we want to understand our characters more – and certainly I feel I know ten times more about Luke, Kylo and Rey now than I did walking into the theatre – but it just feels a little too drawn-out and deliberately existential for a franchise such as this. Just as George Lucas’ focus on politics in the prequels felt out of place in the early ’00s, Johnson’s focus on what the Force really means feels somewhat out of place here. It’s not necessarily bad, but when you open a comic book to find an academic paper you’re somewhat taken aback.
But when the action really gets going, it gets going. After an hour or so of admittedly well-written but ultimately dragging conversation, we are treated to probably the best set-piece event in Star Wars to date, especially when looking from a choreography and cinematography perspective. Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) actually does something other than get thrown in a trash compactor. The most well-choreographed lightsaber duel to date is feasted to us on a plate like we’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet at the most bonkers restaurant in the universe. The premise sets up real stakes for us to feel truly invested in the on-screen action. And oh my god the sound: watch this in the cinema or with a proper hi-fi system, and you will not be disappointed. One particular moment made the entire theatre audibly gasp, and I wasn’t surprised. It’s truly heart-pounding stuff that will have you feeling like you’re on the edge of Niagara Falls for a solid 15 minutes, and it is incredible.
So it’s strange that The Last Jedi ultimately feels devoid of fun, and it is in my mind the first entry in the franchise to do so. There are certainly attempts at it – a tangent at a galactic casino seems intentionally designed to lighten the mood up a bit – but it all ends up just feeling strange. In fact the oddest thing about it is how The Last Jedi is actually the film I have laughed most with in the series, and yet I came out of it feeling like it was a droll, serious affair: it may be funny, but it isn’t fun. The fact that it is essentially one massive, extended battle sequence doesn’t help, nor do the incessant ramblings about the Force. But really any attempts at humour – as successful as they truly are – come almost entirely in one-liners, rather than whole scenes or even the whole film feeling jovial as certainly the prequels tried to be. (For all their shortcomings, the prequels were at least light-hearted). I suppose this isn’t surprising seeing as The Last Jedi came from the man who directed Looper and the Breaking Bad episode “Fly”, both of which were staunchly serious affairs focused heavily on big ideas and character development over fun and thrills. Well, add The Last Jedi to that list.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is neither disappointing in the way the prequels were, nor satisfying like The Force Awakens or Rogue One. It advances the plot of that galaxy far, far away in significant ways and through its hour or so of character focus we now understand far more about the characters we know and love, and the fictional world they inherit. The thrills and spills along the way are handled (mostly) to perfection with sublime choreography, cinematography, sound design and another superb soundtrack courtesy of the great John Williams. But it’s also a film lacking in that key Star Wars charm – that feeling of fun and adventure – and for that it certainly stands out from the rest of the franchise, and not in a good way. It has traded “scruffy-looking nerf herders” for Rey contemplating about the Force, and thrilling trench runs for white-knuckle supernovae of pure action. The Last Jedi is certainly unique in the Star Wars pantheon and deserves your attention, but although it is a fairly strong film overall, it is not the best Star Wars film to date.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), directed by Rian Johnson, is distributed in the UK by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Certificate 12A.