Walking out of my screening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I couldn’t help but notice the mixed reactions. While many clapped and cheered during some notable, well-earned moments, it was hard to escape some conspicuous groans and dead silence during what should have been pivotal, emotional scenes. One girl beside me, when asked her opinion, sat back for a moment before blurting out, “I guess I enjoyed it. It makes you think and I really like thinking about things.” Thankfully, she had no idea what I was thinking at that very second.
[Mild Spoiler Warning.] The root of such reactions is that The Last Jedi pulls off the neat trick of meeting all expectations – for better and worse. When it shines, it’s a powerful, rollicking adventure within the best spirits of the franchise. Those moments, however, are splattered into a plot that is disjointed, overlong, and often wandering. Fans fearing that the film is a blanketed remake of The Empire Strikes Back à la The Force Awakens and A New Hope may be find themselves half-relieved and half-appalled. To put it bluntly, the film mashes together Empire and Return of the Jedi into one convoluted, unfulfilling capsule. Nonetheless, there are enough genuine surprises, fun gags, and fan-serving winks that give The Last Jedi an identity of its own despite its seemingly safe intentions.
Picking up where The Force Awakens left off, Rey (Daisy Ridley) begins her Jedi training under the reluctant tutelage of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) as she slowly unravels the mystery behind his hermitage. Meanwhile, the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher), is on a desperate run from the overwhelming forces of the First Order following a pyrrhic victory masterminded by the impetuous Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). With the fleet running low on fuel, Finn (John Boyega) embarks on a daring, unsanctioned mission with a lowly Resistance mechanic, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), to restore a spark of hope for the galaxy.
The Last Jedi succeeds and fails on the strength of its characters. Sadly, there are too many and the film quickly loses focus with the shoehorned addition of new players that add little of value and only serve to subsequently detract from the overall story. Side missions are forged with little consequence to keep returning characters active resulting in unnecessary padding and jarring tonal shifts while other more intriguing threads are rushed to inaugurate the film’s big set pieces. The rambling nature of the narrative is never more apparent than a seemingly natural climax that is followed by yet another 30 minute extended action sequence. It’s as though The Last Jedi hosts a mini film trilogy of loosely connected highlight reels within its own running time.
The film sparks to life whenever the spotlight reverts to Luke’s story and Rey’s duality with the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). These scenes form the core of the picture and are supported by an impressive turn by Hamill. His performance here may stand as his most interesting, nuanced take on the character. Although Oscar Isaac and John Boyega are swallowed up in the side show, Ridley and Driver get a chance to develop beyond their (arguably) flawed introductions in Force Awakens leading to some of the strongest sequences in the new trilogy so far. The knowledge of Carrie Fisher’s tragic death adds an emotional depth to her scenes in the picture. To the film’s credit, it never manufactures a garish trick to her presence here, allowing her performance to stand on its own merits.
Visually, director Rian Johnson charts a more unique course than his predecessors which is particularly evident with the salt world of Crait and Rey’s cliffside training sessions. Reds are vibrant and harsh and the space battles blare with an intensity akin to the best sequences from last year’s Rogue One. Better still, the spiritual side of the Star Wars saga is strikingly conceived with a mythological tone absent from the series since the original trilogy.
On the whole, The Last Jedi is an impaired product made up of individual flares of vigor. Lazy in its repetition but daring in its twists and turns, the worst that can be said is that it is a mixed, overstuffed bag. With so many iconic sequences from the original trilogy represented (or flat out recreated) already, it leaves Episode IX in a far more exciting position to finally tell its own story free from the detracting influence of its predecessors. Perhaps that in itself is a new hope.