Star Wars Episode 8: The Last Jedi (2017)

Much has been said about how much darker The Last Jedi is compared to The Force Awakens’s satisfying nostalgia-fest.  Much has also been said about gaping plot holes, cringeworthy comedy and some ridiculous moments.  Nonetheless, episode eight of the Star Wars saga is a hugely enjoyable popcorn movie.

The story concerns the remaining few members of the Rebel Alliance who are trying to flee the evil First Order.  With each encounter, the Rebellion become ever more feeble and hopeless as their numbers are eroded by the all-powerful, crushing force of the enemy.  What’s more, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – the titular last Jedi – turns out to be a taciturn hermit with little interest in helping out.  A New Hope this is not.

As in Rogue One – the standalone Star Wars story that preceeded this film – this is a tale about fighting against the odds.  In an early scene, daredevil pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) is leading the assault to neutralise the enemy’s defenses for just long enough to allow the rebellion to escape.  When a last-minute opportunity arises to destroy a Dreadnought, the headstrong Poe ignores Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) orders to retreat and takes a gamble.  They succeed in destroying the enemy ship, but at the cost of several Rebel vessels and lives; lives that the Alliance can barely afford to lose.

The dilemma of risk-taking is a major theme of the film: whether to take risks to win small victories against the First Order or to play it safe and preserve the lives of the few remaining Rebels.  There’s much at stake and this sets up conflicts, anxieties and insurrections amongst our heroes.  The youthful idealists in the Rebellion clash with their cautious and wary elders. It’s surprisingly effective.

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General Organa is not amused with Poe

The second narrative thread concerns the Force and a tug-of-war between Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley).  Kylo Ren is the main villain in The Last Jedi and he’s a weak and conflicted character, prone to tantrums and angst. Rey is determined and idealistic, but she’s just beginning her training and is still finding her way.  Both are strong in The Force (although the reason for Rey’s abilities remains unexplained).  However, both are open to suggestion and manipulation.

Kylo Ren and Rey are able to converse with each other telepathically from opposite ends of the galaxy, by means of a sort of Force Skype.  Each believes that they can convince the other to side with them.  After some disembodied confidences, they conspire to sneak out without asking permission from their mentors (Snoke and Luke Skywalker respectively) and meet secretly.  Needless to say, this illicit encounter leads to near calamity.

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Rey and Kylo Ren – he’s behind you!

This darkness is offset by some lighter elements, which are generally less successful.  There are some pretty terrible comedy moments that fell flat at my screening.  The unfortunate tone is first set by an early sequence when hero Poe and the First Order’s General Hux (essentially a pantomime villain) engage in a farcical phone conversation where Poe pretends to put Hux on hold.

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Chewie’s picked up a new air freshener for the Millenium Falcon

Skellig Michael (a.k.a. Ahch-To, Luke’s hideaway island), seemed an impressive location at the finale of The Force Awakens but now we learn that it is a silly place.  Amidst the hermit caves and a forbidding yet understocked Jedi-library, we find it populated by cutesy furry tribble-like creatures, which Chewbacca at first seems determined to eat but then decides to adopt a few instead.  It also has ‘caretakers’, who resemble oversized toads costumed by Jane Austin.  Probably the worst is when Luke takes a short cut via the longest pole-vault in history to visit a herd of space giraffe/cow creatures with bulging udders from which he draws blue-tinged milk to quench his thirst.  All this shatters any sense of mystique from the home of the first Jedi temple, and it’s little wonder that Rey is keen to flee from this Disneyworld.

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Rey and Luke – who will blink first?

The plotting and tone is all over the place, and sometimes entire sequences seem to be invented just to give otherwise underused characters something to do.  A lengthy and pointless sequence involves a raid to a casino planet that could have been easily cut entirely, complete with its dodgy CGI racing dinosaurs and tedious slapstick chases.  What’s more, although the protagonists are purportedly there to find the best codebreaker in the galaxy, they instead return with a petty criminal and nobody seems put out.

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The casino city of Canto Bight, shot in Dubrovnik, which is also a favourite location for Game of Thrones’s Kings Landing

The Force Awakens strongly resembled the original Star Wars (A New Hope); the plot arc and incidents clearly mirrored the 1977 original.  And perhaps that shouldn’t have been too surprising: it’s primarily feeding on the nostagia of grown-up kids, myself included.

The Last Jedi retains some echoes of The Empire Strikes Back, but these are generally less explicit than in The Force Awakens.  Nonetheless, there are some teasingly familiar elements, including the question of the identity of Rey’s parents, a mystical Jedi experience of self-knowledge inside a hollowed tree, the rigours and discipline of Jedi training with Yoda’s reappearance, and a large-scale desperate battle on a white planet complete with AT-ATs, although this time Planet Crait (filmed in Bolivia) has salt planes in contrast to icy Hoth.

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AT-ATs on the horizon

When I saw the first film (also at the IMAX), there was a big cheer when Han Solo and Chewie appeared, and the audience reaction was similarly warm when other favourite characters made their entrance, including Leia, Luke, Artoo, and Threepio.  These are characters that many of us have loved from childhood, and it’s a thrill to see them on the screen again.

In The Last Jedi, all are present and correct with the obvious exception of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who suffered a Gandalf-like fate near the end of the previous film at the hands of his son Kylo Ren.  Chewie, Threepio, Artoo and Yoda, as well as secondary original characters Nien Numb and Admiral Ackbar, have relatively minor roles to make way for the youngsters.  However, Leia and Luke are more central to the narrative and unfortunately they have been promoted to the status of Superheroes in The Force.

This deification is a little awkward.  Luke is a grumpy old man, the reluctant Jedi master, who eventually agrees to save the day.  Exhibiting frankly ridiculous superpowers, he is subjected a mass bombardment by every weapon Kylo Ren can throw at him and yet he remains standing by a sleight-of-hand that threatens to destroy all credibility.

Leia’s special powers are even more ludicrous: after a missile destroys the bridge of the lead Rebel vessel, expelling everyone to their deaths in the cold vacuum of space, Leia recovers consciousness and flies through space without a suit or the need to breathe.  I know this is a Disney film but I didn’t expect Mary Poppins.

At the conclusion, Luke appears to fade away from this world and of course – due to her untimely and sad death – this is Carrie Fisher’s last film.  However, for the Star Wars saga, perhaps this is a good thing as there doesn’t seem anywhere credible that these characters could now be taken.

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Luke is strong in the Force

The presence of all the old favourites makes it difficult for the new, younger characters to define themselves in their own right, but they succeed admirably.  Although Snoke (Andy Serkis) was merely a copy of The Emperor and Kylo Ren was not much more than a tortured emo Darth Vader, the new films introduce characters that we quickly warm to.  Finn (John Boyega) and Rey are particularly appealing, and Poe’s character is stronger in the second film, albeit still annoyingly petulant.  Daisy Ridley’s acting is greatly improved in the new film.  She’s blessed with a very expressive face and she has a likable persona. She was the ideal actress for the role of Rey in The Force Awakens, at least until she opened her mouth. Too often her spoken lines would come across like amateur dramatics night at a Home Counties private girls’ school.  Thankfully, she’s much better in The Last Jedi and manages to sail through some surprisingly clunkily scripted lines.

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Rose and Finn – an engaging duo in the casino sequence

The Last Jedi adds the winning Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a member of the Resistance who works in maintenance and who appears to be set up as a love interest for Finn and perhaps a rival for Rey.  We are also introduced to the slippery ‘DJ’ played with relish by Benicio del Toro (The Usual Suspects, 21 Grams, Guardians of the Galaxy).  The mystical Maz Kanata makes a brief reappearance, although I suspect this is just so we keep her in mind and she is destined to have a more significant role in the final chapter.  And a surprise appearance by Laura Dern playing Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, leading the ever-diminishing ranks of the Rebel Alliance.  She is authoritative and safe, an adult amongst the idealistic and reckless younger heroes.  Dern has enjoyed something of a comeback in 2017 notching up a subtle nuanced performance in Kelly Reichardt’s beautiful Certain Women and the astringent hostility of Diane in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return as well as appearing in the latest Star Wars.

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Laura Dern as Admiral Holdo, sporting a fetching purple rinse

The film is full of cameos.  Supermodel Lily Cole and Take That singer Gary Barlow take part, and Buckingham Palace has neither confirmed nor denied whether Princes William and Harry play stormtroopers in the final cut. Ade Edmondson plays a lieutenant in the First Order near the start of the film.  Rogue One‘s director Gareth Edwards also has a cameo appearance on Crait, returning the favour when The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson appeared in that earlier film. Peter Mayhew played Chewie in the originals but was too frail for The Last Jedi; he’s sweetly credited as ‘Chewbacca consultant’.  R2D2 is ‘played’ by Jimmy Vee as the original actor Kenny Baker sadly died in 2016.  And of course, it is Carrie Fisher’s last movie appearance.

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Planet Crait’s salt planes

Despite its many faults – and I gather the Star Wars fanatics are up in arms about details that I’d never pick up on – The Last Jedi is entertaining and spectacular. Director Rian Johnson, who also wrote the screenplay, takes us on an exciting, perilous adventure. It’s a long film, almost 150 minutes, but it races by.  The characters are engaging, and the film has a strong momentum, so you don’t ponder too long on the sillier elements.

I saw it in 3D at the BFI IMAX (the largest screen in Britain) and it looks spectacular.  The cinematography and editing is very good, aspects that are often exposed on such a big screen, although a few sequences have some clunky editing and framing.  The battle sequences are mostly very well designed, including an exciting light sabre battle at Snoke’s house.  The scenes near the end at Planet Crait look stunning, making full use of the white salt plains and blood-red earth.

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Snoke has a great interior designer

I gather that JJ Abrams is signed up to direct the final film of the trilogy, and he will have a challenge to mop up some of the inconsistencies in this film but The Last Jedi is by no means a failure.  We won’t see that until 20th December 2019, but before then we have Solo: A Star Wars Story to look forward to on 25th May 2018.

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