WORDS: Patrick Kolan | @patchkolan
It’s too long by a good 30 minutes, feels like two films mashed together, has about five endings and it seems to be taking cues from the George R. R. Martin school of right-angled plot twists. Yet, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is an embarrassment of riches – overstuffed with good bits, fan-service, stories and twists.
However, at the risk of throwing stones at the cinematic Starkiller Base that is the Star Wars franchise, it is at once the most original Star Wars episode and also the most frivolous.
This film works hard to please you, but will leave you exhausted – and, in the classic sense, prove that you can always have too much of a good thing.
As the middle-film of the new trilogy, Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) had the difficult task of developing a bridging narrative that also serves to stand on its own. What he deftly delivered was practically a grandiose story arc all its own; one that ties up loose ends, answers a few big questions and poses many others.
The Last Jedi strives to reach an emotional, empathic depth that was missing from the much more straightforward Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Knowing it would be immediately compared, certainly tonally, with Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Johnson also uses this instalment to plunge to darker places, taking his time to pull junior-cadet-Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) in two directions.
This is a film of dichotomies: superficially Rey struggles with the Light and Dark sides of The Force – but also the dualities of war – in that there are no winners when push comes to shove. One person’s Rebel assault is another’s terrorist insurgency – and it’s the arms dealer and machines of war that benefit the most. We see the darkest sides of characters we love – and moments approaching tenderness from unexpected places. Even the barren landscapes of the final act explode with secret colours.
We’re led to feel sympathy for the enemy: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the emotionally stunted offspring of Han Solo and Leia Skywalker and his estranged uncle Luke, harbours intense family burden that puts him at odds with his ballbuster boss, Emperor Snoke, a wrinkled CG scrotum of a Sith. Ren isn’t dark enough to walk the crooked path of the Dark side of The Force – but won’t relent to the marshmallowy, sunshiny Light side either.
Caught between worlds, he and Rey find a certain kinship here as both struggle to find their true callings.
If this story is the central thread of The Last Jedi, there are at least two other braided tales that weave in between: the path of First Order defector Finn (John Boyega), and the heroic-to-a-fault Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). Adding in Skywalker siblings, side characters, sub-villains, world hopping, parallel timelines and more than a handful of callbacks, and you can see how Rian Johnson has his hands very full.
This is also where The Last Jedi struggles most. Like Disney’s other major character franchise, The Avengers, there’s a distinct messiness that comes from juggling this many characters and motivations. The Last Jedi isn’t sloppy (unlike, say, The Avengers: Age of Ultron), but it is convoluted and doesn’t linger for long in any one place.
A setting with this much scene jumping really makes you wonder if there were two films here, merged into one behemoth with a lot of ground to cover between them. According to Johnson, the original cut weighed in at more than three hours—which lends some credibility to this. It makes me wonder if the final act might not have been better served as the fiery opening act of Episode IX.
Seeing as more than 30 minutes have been trimmed, it also begs the question why the space casino sequence, arguably the least relevant to the core story, wasn’t dramatically trimmed back. Aside from a throwaway final shot, this section of the film is the weakest – designed to depict profiteering space-capitalism run rampant (ironically, also depicting a stable of space-horses also running rampant).
The setting was also a huge missed opportunity to introduce Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian – and again, one that I suspect was its original purpose.
Then again, there are so many deftly handled references and callbacks in The Last Jedi that perhaps Lando was a bridge too far. This is an extremely entertaining film – and for the rough edges, there is a heart of gold here. There’s integrity that I’d wager even The Force Awakens doesn’t quite match. Where J.J. Abrams sought to give this new trilogy a firm but predictable foundation to build upon, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is a risk-taker. This is to be applauded absolutely.
The Last Jedi is strikingly original – for a Star Wars film. In fact, it has as much in common with the inter-generational politics and syndicate dealings of something like The Godfather Part II as it does a conventional Star Wars film. It’s been said before, but this is a saga of families; The Last Jedi proves the point.
Johnston is also a filmmaker that knows how to play with silence, stillness, to great effect. There are iconic moments in here – those postcard-ready stills – that will catch the air in your chest.
There are applause-sign sequences, ones that will make you want to stand up and beat your chest, and moments that will poke at all but the most hardened hearts. The poignancy is a tad over-the-top, but in true epic saga-style, those conclusive scenes are the ones that reward fans the most and elicit the biggest responses. This film gives you moments to remember.
If Star Wars is your thing, The Last Jedi will overdose you on the good stuff. This will be the entry that perhaps defines this trilogy—like Empire, it carries the darkest hours on its shoulders, but does so between bursts of twisted humour (porgs!) and graceful, top-class action. It goes too far here and there –and I can see why it will divide fans (Kylo is the best-worst villain), but this is a generous, dark and enthralling entry that nearly serves to close out many of the major plot points all by itself.
All that’s left to see now is the epilogue episode – the overtime on the scoreboard of Star Wars. Prediction? The Last Jedi is the one we’ll point to as the best entry when the Star dust has settled in 2019.