A spoiler-free review (I’m 99% sure…) of Star Wars: The Last Jedi
No balls were dropped during the making of this movie.
The Force Awakens seemed an odd fit in an era of genre fandom obsessed with the badass and the dark. It shone, twinkled and joked its way through a story that leaned too heavily on J.J. Abrams’ trademark mystery box for its dramatic hooks, almost asking us to focus more on the secret of Snoke’s identity, or that of Rey’s parents, than on the incidents that took place on-screen.
Though punctuated with some momentous scenes (Han’s fate, for instance) it felt like a story about what lay behind the characters more than what occurred in front of them, and for that reason it felt incomplete to me. That’s the problem with mysteries that span multiple movies, of course; you have to wait for the next instalment to put your mind at rest.
But for all that, I had enjoyed it. There were some who found Rey’s force-grab of the lightsaber predictable, but this was Star Wars. They’ve always been, ultimately, predictable movies. You get the pay-off eventually, and that particular moment still, after several viewings, makes me grin. That’s the magic that these films have, and if you change that, you wreck the entire universe (I won’t say franchise. I grew up with these films. That word cheapens them).
Going into The Last Jedi, I had reservations. Will it have the same slightly hollow feel to it, as we are forced (sorry) to wait for the follow-up for our questions to be answered? Will Luke be mishandled, as we’ve seen Batman, Superman and the Transformers mishandled? Will it fail to give me that glow that Star Wars always gives me, even in the prequels? Will the worst of all scenarios occur, and I come out of the cinema having seen something that’s just, well, average?
I had prayers that I wanted answered. I didn’t want any more mystery boxes. I wanted the drama to come from the characters clashing, events unfolding, the cards being on the table, not hidden behind the back of the director. I wanted it to feel like a big deal, too, and to not waste these characters into which we had so much invested. It was all a big ask. So, as I sit here, 16 minutes after leaving the cinema, how did it measure up?
I’ll start with the negatives, because there are a couple. First – and I felt the same way when I saw The Force Awakens – I’m tired of the blaring orchestra and the yellow train of exposition that starts every Star Wars movie. It feels redundant to me. I would have been happy without any of it, especially since very little has changed between this movie and the finale of The Force Awakens. It’s a bit like an old friend who has a habit that was once endearing, but now just has to be endured if you want him to stick around (which you do, because he’s awesome, but damn that habit’s tired).
The other negative is that it contains a little bit of Disney Nonsense™. There are cute creatures, which are funny only if you fight against that sense of cynicism which separates grown-ups from their innocent child-selves, and maybe one or two bonkers sequences in which physics no longer seems to apply, one involving a sprinting, half-decapitated war-machine. Now these are precisely the sort of things that sunk* the prequel trilogy. So does it hurt The Last Jedi?
Categorically nope. The scant few moments that pushed the envelope too far in terms of space critter kawaii and theme-park ride/videogame cutscene craziness were completely forgivable because they come wrapped in several layers of lean storytelling and perfectly-executed action. The mysteries that made the first film sluggish are not quite jettisoned, but are instead touched upon with an almost ruthless desire to streamline the story in favour of what lies ahead, rather than behind the characters. New relationships are formed in the spinning wreckage of battle and the duels we all wanted to see are either provided, though cleverly subverted, or transform before our eyes into something superior to what we were hoping to witness, to the point where you find yourself hoping that what you’re seeing unfold isn’t some force-induced hallucination.
Most impressive was the pace of the film. It has it’s placid moments, most of them taking place on Luke’s island, but there’s a lovely pathos to these sequences as Luke ends up being less, yet also more, than we hoped. As a thrilling hunt begins to dominate the narrative, the audience is treated to a sequence of stunning set-pieces, each of which feels like a climactic battle, only to feed into another fracas, the palette cleansed by a costume-change of weapons, characters and location.
The sound isn’t quite as fierce as it was in The Force Awakens. Lightsabers don’t fizz and crackle with that distorted roar, and the ‘force moments’ lack the same, dominant thrumming bass that underpinned the mind-duel between Kylo Ren and Rey in the interrogation room, for example. But the sound is fine. It’s just less invasive.
In terms of visual grit, it follows the lead of Rogue One. Heavy laser blasts from swooping TIE fighters batter ground positions with double-bass drum potency and artillery chews up trench lines, tossing soldiers through the air. Despatched foes topple into generators and are shredded into confetti. Goodness knows how many fools are taken down with creative employment of lightsabers. Burgeoning fireballs consume countless minor characters (as well as some you could actually name). There’s an overwhelming amount of fighting and it’s all done with a grace that allows new characters to be introduced, enjoy a sweet arc and then perish without it feeling rushed, something we see less of in this age of workshopped-to-death screenplays produced in the heat of duels between studios and directors. Indeed, it’s partly the poor execution of other big-budget films that makes The Last Jedi seem more of a triumph, perhaps, than it is. But that’s hitting the wrong note; this isn’t a film that feels good because it doesn’t make as many mistakes as other big movies do. It’s a film that feels good because it is good. So good, that it takes you aback.
Is it the sci-fi film of the year? Well, I didn’t come out of it emotionally wrung out as I did when I emerged from Blade Runner 2049, a movie that dazzled me beyond words. But it’s very strong, well put together, leaner than its predecessor and full of hopeful messages we can all get behind, including a criticism of free-market capitalism which gels perfectly with the attitude of the Resistance and also makes the film feel politically relevant. C-3P0 gets plenty of metaphorical sand kicked in his face, Luke is wonderful, Hux is a properly-hissable space-fascist, Finn is brimming with agency, the ships are well-designed and the story of Rey and Kylo Ren takes centre-stage in thunderously engaging fashion.
Also, this isn’t as safe a film as I expected. Chances are taken in ways that we usually see in DC:EU movies with storyline twists that the safer (and more successful) Marvel universe tends to avoid in favour of playing it safe and getting the ball over the line. But here, the chances pay off. You hope they get Luke right, and they do. You hope something amazing happens in Snoke’s throne room, and it does. You hope to see the Falcon’s shadow carve across a landscape illuminated by the blaze of lasers, and you do. There’s even a nice nod to those of us too jaded to love the cute critters when one of them, hitching a ride on an iconic vessel, is slammed face-first into the glass when the vessel pulls a spin. Some of the jokes are a little flat (it’s not wholly inaccurate to say that Luke’s wink at C-3PO, which is amazing by the way, is as close as this movie gets to TFA’s “You’re cold?!”) but they serve the characters and the tone well enough.
So yeah, that’s my spoiler-free (I think) review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I really liked it. I’m relieved that they didn’t drop the ball with Luke. I like that they gave Leia a jaw-dropping force moment, which she should have had ages ago. Good job, people. Good job.
Rian Johnson, ladies and gentlemen. If you see him, buy him a beer.
*The story the prequels told was good. The way it told that story was, for the most part, not good. That’s as much as I want to say about that here, except that Hayden Christensen deserves none of the blame, people. None. Of. The. Blame.