The first Star Wars film, the one we now know as Episode IV, was a very different creature from its most recent sequel, The Last Jedi (Episode VIII, in case anyone’s still bothering to keep track of such things). A New Hope, as we’ve been encouraged to call the original film, was a complete story. It had a clear beginning, and a clear end. The Last Jedi has, despite being half an hour longer, has neither.
There are, essentially, two primary stories running through The Last Jedi. In one, Rey (Daisy Ridley), last seen handing Luke Skywalker (a pleasingly grizzled Mark Hamill) his light-sabre (a “laser sword,” as he sneeringly dismisses it), is trying to convince Luke to Jedi up again, to help her defeat his nephew Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is connecting with her telepathically to try to convince her to come over to the dark side, which now takes the form of the First Order, run by Supreme Leader Snoke (a suitably malevolent Andy Serkis). Setting aside the fact that Snoke is simply too cuddly a name for an evil supreme leader of an evil order, Rey resists as best she can, while in a parallel strand Carrie Fisher’s Leia, a princess leading a republic, tries to find a way to strike at the First Order fleet helmed by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), with Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) trying to implement plans to destroy the fleet with varying degrees of success.
In other words, then, it’s a by-the-numbers Star War. Writer and director Rian Johnson has, however, managed to do something a little more than just produce yet another Star Wars film, but has at the same time fallen into the trap that has claimed most of the recent entries in the series. It’s a visually very impressive film, from the opening space battle to the climatic ground fighting with soil as red as blood, and Johnson’s pacing of the film is brisk enough that the two and a half hours, while much longer than the film needed to be, trot along at a decently brisk pace. He manages to introduce a decent amount of light and levity into the dialogue, saving it from the usual ponderosity that blogs down most Star Wars films, from George Lucas’ originals onward, the interplay between Rey and Luke often particularly sharp. He also gets some fine performances from his cast, Ridley as Rey again a standout, her delivery at once naturalistic and dignified, intense without ever over-acted. Hamill’s performance, too, is less stagey and stilted than it has been.
And this is how it should be in a film that is, ultimately, about characters and their relationships. When Rey and Ren interact, it’s the strength of Ridley’s performance that pulls the film forward, Driver still unable to completely lift Kylo Ren out of emo-angst, his anger and rage a stark contrast with the pure, cold and simple evil of Darth Vader, against whom Snoke contrast him. When the film focuses on these relationships, the tensions and conflicts between the various players, it’s at its strongest. When it’s trying to be a sweeping saga, it fails a little, never more than when Finn and Rose send themselves off to look for a master codebreaker, and end up with Benicio Del Torro’s show-stealing DJ, and find themselves in a quite unnecessary racehorse-liberating scene that’s meant to explain something about Rose’s background but which adds little to the overall product. The sequence that precedes it, in a casino full of rich and varied species, is a clear callback to the Mos Eisley Cantina scene of the first film, replacing what Obi-Wan Kenobi describes as “a wretched hive of scum and villainy” with a setting that would look more at home in a Bond film, and which, again, could easily have been cut.
But for all its strengths, The Last Jedi shares the same weakness of many films that are episodes in longer cycles — it’s quite clearly not a stand-alone film, but one that has its roots, roots which are called back to repeatedly, in earlier films, and one which gives a real sense of, while having an ending, lacking finality, completion, closure. We already know there will be a ninth — a ninth, God help us — film in the Star Wars series, and so we know that for all the appearance of ending, the characters that survive, which is, unsurprisingly, not all of them, will be back for more. And it’s this lack of finality that prevents The Last Jedi from being a truly brilliant film, and this is a shame, because Johnson has put together possibly the best Star Wars film — we’re excluding Rogue One here, which, while billed as “A Star Wars story,” was not, technically, a Star Wars film, but was bloody good regardless — to date.