Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran and Andy Serkis
First half is spoiler-free, spoilers after the warning half-way through.
I liked Force Awakens. But I didn’t love it. While a funny, entertaining and well acted entry in the franchise, it played things far too safe and was far too similar to A New Hope. It also left far too many questions unanswered, leaving The Last Jedi with the difficult balancing act of providing answers, setting up Episode IX and still providing a good enough story to be a hit with audiences. Fortunately, Rian Johnson seems to posses a far greater understanding of what makes Star Wars great than J.J. Abrams, and delivers a touching, epic film that, while somewhat reverential to the original trilogy, is still focused on telling an original, engaging story and not just rehashing the franchises greatest hits (like the second half of Force Awakens). It stands well on its own merits and also serves as a fitting middle segment of this sequel trilogy. As for the lingering questions from Force Awakens: it explains Rey’s origin and the reasons for Luke’s disappearance well enough, while Snoke’s backstory remains frustratingly obscure, as does the First Order’s rise to power between Episodes 6 and 7.
The film itself isn’t perfect (its slightly longer than necessary and the dialogue can feel a bit forced and clunky in places) but overall is a resounding success. Even the Porgs aren’t that annoying (they aren’t up there with Ewoks or Gungans anyway). New cast members Kelly Marie Tran (playing Rose, a young resistance fighter who gets entangled in Finn’s storyline) and Laura Dern (Leia’s second in command) slot into their roles with ease, while the regulars all give accomplished turns. Mark Hamill and Daisy Ridley bounce off each other well, while Adam Driver and Carrie Fisher keep the other plotlines engaing. General Hux (Gleeson), Snoke (Serkis) and Poe Dameron (Isaac) all get a welcome amount of extra screen time which helps flesh out their characters far more than in Force Awakens, although Gwendoline Christie is still rather wasted as the underused Captain Phasma.
The production team have performed equally well. Rian Johnson’ direction helps return a sense of wonder to proceedings, and he handles the action squences remarkably well, particularly the opening space battle and the various bits of lightsaber action. John Williams’ musical score is an improvement on his lacklustre effort for Force Awakens, and although its still below his best work for the series it serves well enough throughout. The film’s plotline is refreshingly well-crafted, even if the script could have used a bit of polishing to cut some of the corny dialogue (and perhaps losing 5-10 minutes would have helped the film feel tighter).
Overall Last Jedi delivers on giving us an engaging story without just re-treading old ground. It’s a touch too long and the dialogue can be a bit clunky, but some brilliant action pieces, surprise twists and good performances from the cast help it to surpass Force Awakens and leave the stage set perfectly for Episode IX. Hopefully J.J. Abrams can improve upon his previous effort and give us a fitting finale to the current trilogy.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
WARNING! MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW!!!
So, onto the specific plot points. We’ll probably never know who Snoke was now, but given how long the film already was, I can understand why they didn’t bother fleshing out his backstory. It would only have worked well if Luke had been present for the reveal anyway, given that no other character had met Sidious or might have heard of Darth Plageius (the only two good Snoke theories). Either of them revealing themselves to Rey alone would have just fallen flat. Snoke just being an evil guy who rebuilt imperial forces into the first order isn’t exactly a satisfying answer to who he is, but I think the fanbase may have simply overthought it. This does make it more of a pity we never got any flashbacks to how the First Order formed, which might have fleshed Snoke out a bit. Fortunately, Andy Serkis’ performance still made Snoke a memorable foe, making the surprise twist of Kylo Ren turning on him all the more effective. Having Snoke and Ren both still in play in Episode IX might have led to Abrams crafting something too close to Return of the Jedi anyway, so only having Ren and Hux left on the villains side should provide a different dynamic. Phasma’s death was less impactful, mainly because she’s done bugger all so far, though her fight with Finn was pretty decent.
Speaking of fight scenes, Rey and Ren fighting Snoke’s bodyguards was pretty epic (nice to see Imperial bodyguards actually doing something for once – Sidious’ men looked cool but never sprung into action once). Johnson did a good job of teasing one of them turning to the light or dark side, but I’m not surprised he didn’t follow through on it. Kylo taunting Rey about her ordinary parentage was an effective enough way to reveal that Rey ISN’T a Kenobi or a Skywalker or the daughter or Sidious or Snoke (the later theories night have worked but, in the end, Rey not being born someone important with a famous family seems more appropriate than forcing a connection with Luke, Leia or Obi-Wan. I was mildly surprised they gave Finn another love interest in the form of Rose, but as someone who never entirely brought into Finn and Rey i’d be quite happy if Finn did end up with Rose, as Boyega and Kelli Marie Tran have good chemistry with each other. Rian Johnson did a good job of making Finn’s death feel like a genuine possibility in the final sequence, but this is Star Wars, not Game of Thrones, so I wasn’t surprised by the Rose-ex-Machina rescue. Admittedly Rose and Finn’s trip to the casino was probably where the film’s runtime could have been cut down easily, but the two made an interesting enough pairing that it was still an enjoyable part of the film.
One thing that really pleased me in the film was how the force was dealt with. Too often in the prequels the Jedi merely felt like skilled warriors rather than powerful wielders of ancient power, but here Luke, Snoke, Rey, Kylo and Leia all used it in interesting ways. It was nice to see Leia finally use some force ability other than telepathically sensing Luke or Han, while Rey and Kylo’s psychic connection was a neat trick to allow dialogue between the two of them. It was a slight pity we never got to see Luke square off with Snoke, given that Snoke seemed potentially even stronger than the Emperor ever was, while Luke’s force projection ability provided a neat final twist.
To sum up, it wasn’t perfect, but the combination of surprises, quality acting and diverting action sequences place this above Force Awakens in the Star Wars saga. It may not be the series’ absolute best, but it’s still top 4 or 5 as far as I’m concerned.