‘It’s a crime to take something so majestic and render it so dull’ – MacDara Conroy on Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Two years ago, the first new Star Wars movie since the Prequels That Shall Not Be Named hit cinema screens around the world with much pomp and circumstance, and the promise of an exciting new era for the franchise. And for the first 45 minutes, that’s what JJ Abrams delivered with The Force Awakens — right up to the point where an old and tired Harrison Ford shows up with his hirsute companion and the film slips into a comfortable nostalgia trip, very much at the expense of its new characters and lore.
Expectations that Rian Johnson’s follow-up would set aside the old to explore all that fresh potential were dampened by the first trailers for The Last Jedi, with its brief glimpses of a young upstart in the ways of the Force who’s travelled to a distant planet to train with a Jedi master in his hermitage. Ring any bells?
Trailers are often deceiving, failing to truly reflect the finished product. However, in the case of The Last Jedi, they were right on the money. The Star Wars fandom may lap it up as much as the celebs at last weekend’s world premiere in Los Angeles. But I will reserve the right to question their judgement about a film that isn’t even close to being “better than Empire”, as has been touted in some respectable corners.
Without giving away any secrets or story specifics (for fear of the wrath of the fandom hordes — or worse, Mickey Mouse himself), suffice to it say The Last Jedi is pretty much a remix of The Empire Strikes Back with added self-aware flourishes and unearned indulgences. That self-awareness manifests in a depressing quota of nod-and-wink gags to show that hey, we’re not taking ourselves too seriously! That would be soooo embarrassing! Never mind if that kind of ironic distance breaks suspension of disbelief or anything important like that.
The unearned indulgences are topped with an overextended running time of a whopping two-and-a-half hours, far too much for an ultimately thin plot that resorts to doubling back on itself to fill the available space. At least two major set pieces revolve around people running away from big laser cannons that take a conveniently long time to charge up. (Wasn’t that also the McGuffin of last year’s Rogue One? There are other plot devices, you know.)
Stuff happens along the way, some moving in the right direction. While Rey (Daisy Ridley) gets schooled in the ways of the Jedi by grumpy-guts Skywalker (Mark Hamill, looking suitably aghast for much of his screen time), stormtrooper defector Finn (John Boyega) gets a substantial subplot this time around, and a partner in rebel engineer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). Hotshot X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, stealing yet another show) also gets more time to shine. Among the new characters, Benicio del Toro appeals briefly as a shady codebreaker. You already know the late, great Carrie Fisher is in it. Other names meet ignoble ends; sacred cows are sacrificed.
But to what end? Some chess pieces are shuffled around, but all the moves are safe. There are no brave gambits, no daring bets. Emotional resonance is nil. Now and then the film nods at shades of grey (again, no spoilers from me) but even as uncomplicated, good-versus-evil stuff, it lacks the requisite teeth. Adam Driver’s petulant, dead-eyed Kylo Ren continues to mope about like an emo goth with anger management issues, while Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux is reduced to mere comic relief. ‘Intimidating’ is not a word I would use to describe the villains of this piece.
Setting aside those story issues, The Last Jedi isn’t all that hot to look at, either. Absent is the breathtaking imagery of those opening scenes in The Force Awakens, replaced by generic starship fleets, curiously thrill-less dogfights, and a lot of poorly textured CGI. Don’t even get me started on those plastic hairy egg puffin things. And why is the vaunted appearance of Skellig Michael so underwhelming? It’s a crime to take something so majestic and render it so dull.
That’s the word for the whole thing, really. The Last Jedi is two-and-a-half hours of Star Wars porn, with seemingly little effort to craft a distinctly memorable story, or enthral the uninitiated. Or even strike out on its own for the dedicated. Oh, the irony of a film that talks constantly of razing the old to make way for the new while echoing a significantly better movie from 37 years ago. ‘Must try harder’ is writ large in bold, red ink on Rian Johnson’s report card. Seriously, save the hyperbole for something that truly earns that praise. It’s not only general audiences who deserve better; perhaps the fandom needs to take a long, hard look at itself as well.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens nationwide on Thursday December 14th, with previews in selected cinemas on Wednesday December 13th