Review: Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

I was pleasantly surprised by The Last Jedi – after the comfortable nostalgia of The Force Awakens, director and writer Rian Johnson makes brave choices that provide a very interesting future for the series and characters.

The resistance struggles to escape the weakened First Order, led by newly conflicted, unpredictable Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and devious Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) butts heads with General Leia (Carrie Fisher) as the resistance leg it, while former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) feels unsure about his place. And last but definitely not least, force-powered Rey (Daisy Ridley) doesn’t get the welcome she expected from the distanced, pained Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

Gifted with the opportunity to follow on from JJ Abrams’ stirring revival, Johnson takes the story to unpredictable ends, Star Wars favourites old and new thrown into plots unseen in the saga so far. There are pretty weighty themes at play I was shocked he was allowed to introduce and expand, but which bode well for the future (with Abrams returning for Episode XI).

This film is unique in its focus on failure, loss and reassessing mistakes and decisions – it could almost be said to have laid these at its male characters, while the female characters make principled, risky but sensible decisions that may swing the balance of the galaxy one way or another. There are remarkable twists and revelations, some helping to add that sense of mystery, and while some elements might be perceived as “downers”, I felt this film ended with more significant, relevant “hope” than others, simply because we’ve no idea where the Skywalker saga might go.

Increased characterisation and plot complexity are welcome alongside standard battles and fights given more weight by these changes. The film becomes more about the people the resistance are fighting for than the figureheads themselves, and as the longest in the series so far, time is given to conversations and explanations, excellently shot and edited so we’re not waiting for exposition, but understand machinations better before the next set piece.

The action is influenced directly by this approach, set pieces ending unexpectedly or confounding expectations, a particular highlight being the expected lightsaber conflict. Cinematographer Steve Yedlin and editor Bob Ducsay give the film a distinctive look and shape, with swift cuts between situations added to by a constant throughpoint of new, alien and very Star Wars-y locales.

Understandably, this film has made for divergent opinions, but there’s one element I’m inclined to agree with on a negative note. From the start, there’s a lot more “stupid” comedy than you might expect, to the point that it grates a little (I’ve seen a lot of people refer to it being Marvel-like, and they’re not wrong in some senses). There’s a lot of humour that works well, but other jokes and situations are jarring, particularly when sat alongside darker, impactful scenes full of intensity.

One particularly disappointing area was, surprisingly, John William’s score. The legendary composer hasn’t added much to his retinue of iconic themes, including his newer ones that were some of the strongest elements of Force Awakens. Here instead he provides almost remixed, downtrodden versions of newer motifs and the original big hits. Here’s hoping not only that he’s able to compose for IX, but that he gives us one last great Star Wars score.

Mark Hamill, having been shafted by a cameo in the last film, gives one of the best performances and his best Star Wars performance as the damaged, grizzled and reluctant Luke. It’s shocking to see where he’s got to and what he’s become, and Hamill imbues the previously positive and focused character with an air of furious cowardice as Luke is afraid to confront his mistakes and broken by his failures. Where he takes the character, and his interactions with Daisy Ridley’s Rey, are interesting and one of the film’s high points.

Ridley continues to be the heart of the new series. Rey’s childlike enthusiasm is replaced by stubbornness and uncertainty as she confronts Luke’s opposition and her own growing power. In some surprisingly intense scenes, the actress more than holds her own against stronger performers, and in giving her story some surprising deviations here, Episode IX promises to be a great capper for the character.

I felt sorry for John Boyega – Finn’s development in the first film was one of the more exciting and innovative character shifts, a large part of that Abram’s excellent handling of his sweet and fun friendship with Rey. Split from her this time around, Finn’s throughline concerns cowardice, regression and an awakening (no pun intended), and while Boyega still does great work (alternating intensity and foolishness adeptly), I hope that given where Finn ends up, he has a more fitting conclusion.

Going back to the film’s male characters being forced to confront mistakes, Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron gets a much expanded role embodying that theme. His hot headedness is time and again exposed, not for being risky and successful (a la Han Solo) but dangerous, unnecessary and foolhardy. Isaac highlights Poe’s haste and growing maturation throughout events, focusing us on his flaws in the context of war and in keeping comrades safe.

You can’t address this film without talking about Carrie Fisher’s passing. Her slightly extended role is great if limited, and she embodies the princess as a general sure of her decisions but unsure where they might lead, becoming a mentor and leader more successful than Solo or Skywalker.

Kylo Ren was a huge part of Force Awakens‘ appeal, a curious villain who was flawed, interesting and featuring shades of grey as well as being a petulant man-child. Adam Driver develops these attributes, a fair few of his scenes capitalising on “that scene” with Han Solo in the previous film to show Ren’s inner turmoil. His interactions with another character are surprising, exciting and some of the film’s best, the actor effortlessly generating unease and uncertainty with an undercurrent of fury.

Domnhall Gleeson’s General Hux is unfortunately now the butt of jokes compared to the radical, First Order zealot we saw before. His obsession with the order and his place in it was, for me, something to be mined to give the character a purpose, but instead the only thing slightly defining him is his antagonistic relationship with Ren. Likewise, Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma is nothing but a faceless henchwoman, featuring in fewer scenes and seeming more of a waste than an iconic villain.

Andy Serkis puts in a sinister appearance as the grotesque Snoke, though the less I say about his role the better. What I thought impressive was his effective and distinctive voice for the disgustingly and convincingly presented effects work, allowing Serkis to add some shades to the villain’s characterisation, such as a bitterly critical view of his apprentice.

A few smaller characters add new depth to the series: first, Kelly Marie Tran gives a perky, emotionally driven face to the resistance as engineer Rose, who tags along with Finn and shows him how smaller, less significant people we might disregard are the heart of their resistance. Laura Dern is excellent as resistance leader Amilyn Holdo, whose actions in a few short scenes subtly subvert expectations in an example of assumptions we make about Star Wars films.

Finally, Benicio Del Toro is predictably (and slightly distractingly) weird as hacker DJ, whose muddy motivations embody one of the film’s central themes – that rather than being good or bad, more and more people in the galaxy reside in that murky middle ground.

My view is that this is a brave new type of Star Wars film, and as such has issues. However, its different choices and increased focus on character I think make it an interesting new entry.

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