Spoilers ahead: this is your first and only warning!
There’s no pleasing some fans.
You’ve probably heard that phrase a thousand times before, every time a movie comes out as part of an enormous franchise that receives anything less than universally adulatory reviews. And there’s some truth to it. Some fans, no matter how hard you try or how much passion your pour into a project, are going to stubbornly cross their arms and hate whatever you put in front of them, by virtue of the fact it’s not what came before.
But it’s also a phrase I see used to dismiss the criticism that comes from fans in good faith. Adam Wingard earlier this year hand-waved away many of the critics of his adaptation of Death Note as trolls, and all I saw there were dozens of people begging him to actually listen to the myriad issues with the film in the hopes that he could make a better movie the next time around, that he could do some justice to a property they were passionate about. Many fans who walk into releases with history (whether they’re adaptations like Death Note or franchises like Star Wars) go in wanting to be pleased. Why would they be there otherwise, if they hadn’t found anything to like in the previous outings and iterations of these stores?
Star Wars, in particular, holds a place in pop culture that few other franchises do: the almost aggressive goodwill that surrounds the series has buoyed it past the generally accepted faliure of the prequel trilogy and into a rebooted series. People are willing to forgive a lot in a Star Wars movie. Like, Jar-Jar Binks, a lot. Hayden Christensen, a lot.
I know that’s how I felt when I sat in the cinema at the midnight showing of The Last Jedi yesterday evening. The place was buzzing, a few hundred people all turned out in the middle of a freezing Scottish winter night to be here for the first public playings, and I would wager that not many people in there wasn’t sitting there with a pen poised over paper waiting to tear into every minute problem they found in the Rian-Johnson-helmed eighth entry into the Star Wars saga. I certainly wasn’t – I wanted to grab this movie with both hands and fill my greedy little pockets with it. I wanted to love it. I know most of us did. And it really shouldn’t be that hard to deliver a decent film when the vast majority of the audience are walking into the cinema with probable decades of goodwill towards the franchise and an active desire to be entertained and moved and swept away.
So bear all this in mind when I say that The Last Jedi is a bad movie. Yes, I am a film critic, and yes, I find it hard to approach movies with my critical faculties switched off, but I promise you I’m not sitting here sneering and snitting over the franchise as a whole, desperate to find any holes in the armour I can to pick the whole thing apart at the seams. As I wrote earlier this week, the Star Wars franchise feels like home to me, except this was more like that homecoming in A New Hope where Luke returns to the farm and finds his house burned and his aunt and uncle charred remains. I’m gutted that I don’t like this movie. But there’s no way around it.
With that extensively long introduction over, let’s get into the real problems with The Last Jedi. I think one of the most obvious and egregious issues with it is Finn’s plot, which introduces a new character, Rose, played by Kelly Marie Tran, a maintenance worker for the rebellion. Now, this plot is poorly defined from the off, with the remains of the rebellion attempting to flee the First Order after they discover that they can be tracked through a hyperspace jump. In a bogglingly expository scene, Finn and Rose figure out that the First Order are pulling this off thanks to a tracker aboard one of their ships and that they need to break on to the ship to disable this tracker to allow the rebellion to escape. With Poe’s support, they go to another planet to pick up a master codebreaker, fail to get hold of him, find Some Other Dude (Benicio del Toro as a quiff and a stutter), decide he’ll do, return, get aboard the First Order’s ship, are captured before they can get to the tracker, break free after an unrelated plot literally crashes through their one, and then flee to join the rest of the rebels, their plan failed, after the rebellion happens on an old base of theirs and decides to hide out there instead of continuing to run away.
Do you see the problem here? I’ll give you a clue: it’s that their plot has functionally no impact on the story of this movie. It’s a jaw-dropping waste of time. It feels like Rian Johnson, who also scripted The Last Jedi, had this carefully laid-out story in place for the rest of the characters and realized far too late that there was nothing important for Finn to do, so he gummed him quickly into this literally pointless plot, threw in a love interest for him, and hoped no-one would notice. It feels like a few episodes of The Clone Wars made it into the final cut by mistake, as Finn and Rose head off to a casino planet and wander around explaining stuff to each other so Johnson can make a point about the evils of the bourgeoisie. It’s a huge amount of screentime to hand over to a plot that literally means nothing to this movie; a final shot implies that it may have significance in later films, but for now, it’s a great big steaming pile of nothing at all and vastly underserves my favourite character from The Force Awakens.
And yes, in my description of that plot you may have noticed a whole hell of a lot of plot contrivances. The Last Jedi had them in spades. I don’t want to write every single one of them out here, but some of the more egregious ones stand out: when the rebels flee their cruiser for transport ships under the noses of the First Order, they manage to get away because the first order…aren’t looking for smaller ships? The above-mentioned climactic scenes with Finn leaves him and an unconcious Rose stranded in front of an enormous First Order army, led by Kylo Ren, who has been shown to have a personal vendetta against Finn, but they make it back to their base a good few hundred feet away with no cover without injury for…reasons? Vice Admiral Holdo, played by Laura Dern, nobly volunteers to remain on the rebel’s cruiser while the rest of the rebellion flee in transport ships and it’s never really explained why she would feel the need to remain, even though it becomes plot-relevant later. Benicio Del Toro’s character literally just happens to be in the same cell as Finn and Rose, just happens to be a master codebreaker, and then betrays them down the line. There’s too much convenience here to ignore.
But back to the task at hand: I think there was a way to fix Finn’s plot, or at least ameliorate it’s terribleness. In the third act, as the remains of the rebellion face off against the First Order, where Finn barrels his ship towards their main weapon in an attempt to destroy it, an act that would kill him in the process. Before he can get there, Rose knocks him off his trajectory and saves him. If the film had had the nerve to go through with this, to actually kill Finn off, I can’t imagine how impactful this would have been. It would have cemented his place as a hero of the rebellion, an issue touched on earlier in the film, and would have been a poetically appropriate way for him to die, given that he betrayed the First Order in The Force Awakens. It would have drawn a bittersweet end to the plot between him and Rey, as she bade him farewell at the end of the first movie with “I know we’ll meet again” and had yet to share screentime with him in this one. It would have been a big, bold power move, but the film bottles it at the last instant for a trite few lines about saving the things you love instead.
But aside from that story, I think the one that most people were really excited about was the continuation of the story between Rey and Luke, which is also where the meat of Kylo Ren’s plot lies, too. And yes, this is by far the best part of the film. There’s a lot to like here, almost enough to push TLJ into “passable” territory: Johnson displays some real directorial chops in the scenes Rey and Kylo share together, even if he does insist in stripping Ren down to his skivvies because I guess Adam Driver didn’t get that jacked not to show it off.
And there’s no arguing with the fact that this is Mark Hamill’s finest performance as Luke Skywalker, a tortured, curmudgeonly loner trying to flee from the horrors he witnessed and had part in. Adam Driver owns this plot and by extension The Last Jedi as a whole, with a brilliantly conflicted, engagingly tortured performance that marks Ren as by far the most consistently interesting villain of the whole franchise to date. Daisy Ridley is somewhat of a weak link acting-wise for me, at least sporadically, but she just about holds it together and her and Driver share crackling, palpable chemistry in their high-point scenes together. The climactic scene to this story, between Ren, Rey, and Snoke, makes a few bold choices at it renders both Snoke’s identity and Rey’s parenthood (heavily speculated over after TFA) pretty much secondary, which I actually quite like as it allows for a more dynamic focus on the characters we see in front of us as opposed to what they were or are destined to be.
But even this plot struggles, as the movie has to blast through Luke’s character beats so quickly they don’t feel like they’re given time to real land, and Rey’s training (much-touted in the trailers) is kept to maybe four or five minutes of actual screentime. The Rashomon-style recollection of the destruction of Luke’s Jedi academy were intriguing but also relatively poorly defined and left many questions unanswered by the end of the movie (namely, what actually did happen to the rest of his students?). And the CGI-ing in of Yoda’s puppet form was profoundly weird, one of many seriously questionable special effects choices made over the course of a film which could be at the forefront of these things.
And, speaking of the look of the thing, you know, one of the reasons I was so blindingly excited about TLJ was because Rian Johnson was directing it. I adore Johnson’s work, particularly the sci-fi insta-classic Looper, and I really thought he could bring some darkness and visual flair to the franchise after the glossy, swashbuckling fun of TFA. But aside from one or two sequences (I think it goes without saying that the shearing in half on the Star Destroyer was astoundingly gorgeous), this is a movie that’s pretty flat to look at. I wouldn’t go as far to say it’s badly-directed, but there’s a lot to be desired, especially when you’ve seen the exquisitely idiosyncratic work Johnson put in on movies like Brick and the aforementioned Looper.
Elsewhere in the movie still, Leia and Poe Dameron share the screen as they attempt to save what’s left of the rebellion. This plot lands somewhere in the middle of the two I described above: it’s functional, and it’s not bad, but it often feels workmanlike and much of the plot conveniences land in this story. The late, great Carrie Fisher shines as General Organa but something about the usually-excellent Oscar Isaac and his performance as Poe doesn’t sit right with me here; he’s bullheaded and stubborn to the point of being frustratingly stupid, and I found myself getting through his scenes with gritted teeth instead of finding the easy leading-man charm that he oozed in TFA.
This plot is also home to one of the weirdest sequences in the whole film, as the ship Leia is in is destroyed and she is thrown into space, but then she wakes up and uses her force powers to float herself, Poochie-style, back on to another spaceship. I mean, it’s nice to see Leia’s great powers acknowledged for a change, but they never come up again over the course of the film and the scene, which has a gargantuan feel in the moment, is rendered just kind of silly in retrospect.
And silliness, I think, might be my biggest problem with The Last Jedi. The issue can be summed up in a scene between Luke and Ren, where Luke confronts Kylo’s enormous army by himself and Kylo orders them to fire on him. They do, and Luke is temporarily obscured in a haze of smoke and fire. And then – get this – he steps out of the haze, unharmed. There was actually applause in our cinema when this happened. It’s a huge moment, enormous, Kylo unleashing his rage against his one-time mentor and perhaps his ultimate betrayer and Luke surviving it, a violent and shocking climax to the strongest story of the film. For that second, my breath was caught in my throat, and I really thought they’d stuck the landing on this one. And then, Luke dusts off his shoulders playfully and it all drops away as a joke.
The Last Jedi struggles with the courage of it’s convictions here. So many moments that should be powerful and striking are undercut by jokes, as though the movie wasn’t sure it actually sold the serious stuff to you and so hey, here’s a gag to show that we didn’t mean it so you can’t get mad at it not working, see! Star Wars is a space opera, and that means that it has to have the nerve to land it’s punches when it comes to it’s significant moments. If Kylo had run his father through in The Force Awakens and Han had squeezed in a pun before he dropped dead, it would have ruined the entire sequence. That’s more or less what TLJ does with every one of it’s powerful moments, which it had just about earned and that would just about have landed if they held their nerve – but they couldn’t. Crammed top-to-bottom with gags, many of which didn’t work or just straight undercut the biggest moments of the film, The Last Jedi was the first Star Wars movie to feel distinctly Disneyfied, made for an audience who wanted throwaway jokes over an expansion of the epic saga of the previous chapters.
This review is already getting unwieldy so I’m going to draw things to a close here, even though there’s a lot more to touch on: the underuse of Laura Dern and Gwendoline Christie, Domnhall Gleeson’s panto performance as General Hux, how very obviously the Porgs were only included to sell toys. But before I finish up, I want you to know that I really wanted to write a great review for The Last Jedi. I did. I wanted to be able to overlook all the problems I’ve listed above, but there are just too many and they are just too egregious to look beyond. I’m not going to say anything stupid, like The Last Jedi being the worst of the Star Wars franchise to date (not while Attack of the Clones – a film in which the Clones never attack – exists in this timeline), but it is a disappointment. Stuttering, tonally messy, and often straight-up lazy, The Last Jedi leaves a lot of work for episode nine to do to restore the power of the story that The Force Awakens set up. The goodwill isn’t gone – for Star Wars, it never will be – but The Last Jedi has seriously shaken my belief in this universe. Help me, episode nine: you’re my only hope.
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