The Last Jedi review: a more lighthearted Star Wars that’s not without its flaws

Rian Johnson has produced a more distinctive entry than The Force Awakens, but it occasionally lacks drama.

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If this review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi contains no spoilers, that will be in part because there isn’t much to spoil. This is no reflection on the quality of the eighth episode. (Or ninth if you include last year’s excellent stand-alone film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.) In the hands of the writer-director Rian Johnson, who arrives by way of lively genre experiments such as Brick and Looper, The Last Jedi is a more distinctive and lighthearted work than the karaoke retread represented by The Force Awakens, with which the latest cycle of Star Wars movies began in 2015.

From the moment early on when the Rebel fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) toys with the evil ginger rockabilly General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) during a silly bit of telephone chit-chat, notice is given that daftness will have its place among the franchise’s customary leaden mythologising. As for shock twists, what can I tell you? Chewbacca contemplates vegetarianism. It doesn’t get much bigger than that.

This is indicative of Johnson’s approach: look after the details and the rest will take care of itself. It doesn’t quite work out that way. The asides are often amusing and the characters, including the returning hero Finn (John Boyega), his plucky fan Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and the shifty computer wizard DJ (Benicio Del Toro), largely engaging. A handful of the visual gags are even inspired; one, involving a fearsome spacecraft making its landing, undercuts delightfully the usual Star Wars pomposity.

In the final analysis, though, this is still a film about an attempt to turn off a tracking device. There’s no getting around that. Poe, DJ, Rose and Finn, who sound like a new generation of Teletubbies, are given the task of secreting themselves on board an Imperial battleship and disabling its capacity for monitoring Rebel forces.

I appreciate that not every Star Wars movie can revolve around the destruction of a Death Star, and nor would anyone wish it to, but this must be said to be at the low end of compelling. However many special effects are thrown at the film, however demonstrative the score, it is still not the 40th-anniversary high-point that might have been hoped for.

It is indeed four decades since Star Wars, as it was then known, or Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, as purists insist we now call it, was released in Britain. On December 27 1977 it began its London engagement at the Odeon Leicester Square, saturating the provinces over the next few months.

Nowadays the hoopla would cause servers to crash and websites to go down and the internet to come apart at the seams. How quaint, then, to flick through the December 1977 edition of Film Review magazine (25p from your local cinema!) and find the approaching phenomenon greeted with an unprecedented splash. “The Most Popular Film Ever Calls For Our Biggest Coverage Ever,” it screams. “So We’ve Given ‘Star Wars’ Nine Pages!”

Nine? Woah. In an issue that also contained a “king-size” colour poster of Nick Nolte in The Deep and a feature entitled “Gene Hackman – A Busy Fella But a Bit of a Yeller,” this was almost too much excitement to take.

There in that nine-page spread is the Star Wars cast, all impossibly young and hopeful: Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, a smooth-skinned, blond-haired go-getter in karate whites; Harrison Ford as Han Solo, looking blasé already about the unimaginable level of fame coming over the horizon in his direction; and Carrie Fisher jutting out her chin with maximum sass as Princess Leia and trying not to buckle under the weight of her own hair.

Things look very different now. Hamill, glimpsed in a cowl at the end of The Force Awakens, is back in The Last Jedi as Luke, exhibiting a level of hirsuteness at which even the hardiest Hoxton barber would balk. Tricky, in some shots, to tell him apart from Chewbacca. He’s been holed up at his inhospitable country hideaway to escape all the Jedi nonsense. “Do you think I came to the most unfindable place in the galaxy for no reason at all?” he asks the Rebels’ new superstar, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Embarrassingly for Luke, she has succeeded in finding him, but she at least has the good grace not to point out that you can’t have degrees of unfindability. You either are or you aren’t.

She hopes Luke will teach her the ways of the Force, much as Yoda taught him. She has seen his daily routine, as she gently points out, and it’s not as if he’s busy. He spends his time catching giant fish with the world’s longest spear. If he has the afternoon free, he might attach a breast-pump to a pot-bellied diplodocus and quaff down its milk in one go. The hours pass slowly when there’s little or no phone coverage.

Ford as Han is absent, having been killed inconveniently in The Force Awakens by his own son, the dastardly but conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). And it’s only right that the new movie should be dedicated to Carrie Fisher, who died last December shortly after finishing most of her scenes as Leia. For the remainder, some digital jiggery-pokery was required to put her into places she never actually went. Though one shot of Leia in a spaceship, gazing mournfully out of a floor-to-ceiling window at a battle taking place in the distance, must be very much like another.

That process of inserting characters artificially into shots is echoed in one of the plot devices cooked up by Johnson. When Rey interacts with Kylo Ren, she does so via a process that brings them into the same optical and psychological space, no matter that they might be at opposite ends of the galaxy. In the world of the film, it’s a Jedi mind trick, though we know it better as FaceTime.

Rey is trying to tempt Ren over to the side of the angels. He is, after all, a former pupil of Luke’s, though their association ended messily. Cross words were exchanged, light sabers brandished, a school burned down, the usual.

Ren, for his part, wants to enlist Rey as a minion to his own master, the crease-faced Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who looks like Wilfred Brambell in a gold dressing-gown, if you can imagine such a thing. Creature design is one of the strong suits of a good Star Wars film, and The Last Jedi doesn’t stop at lactating diplodocuses. There are icy-horned lynxes whose frosty coats seem to jangle and clatter. (Finn refers to them as “Crystal Critters”.) A family of cuddly birds will look familiar to anyone who was swept up in the 1990s Furby craze.

They’re no competition for the most memorable human cast members. The incomparable Laura Dern shows up for a few scenes as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, continuing the Star Wars tradition of characters who get their names from an arbitrary assortment of Scrabble tiles. Dern is so tough she’s the only one allowed to acknowledge an alternative belief system to the Force (“God speed,” she says). Put her in any shot and its dynamism factor escalates tenfold, not least when she is wearing, as she is here, a ruched caramel toga with a matching half-snood, and a violet rinse worthy of Mrs Slocombe. Few performers could exude gravitas in a get-up which combines ancient Greece with Are You Being Served? but Dern is one of them.

The only other performer impervious to the negative effects of appearing in a Star Wars movie – a tendency to sag under the weight of exposition, a weariness at striking the same reaction shots or pretending not to want to kick a droid – is Adam Driver. As though acknowledging the magnetic qualities of his feral physiognomy, he spends some of his time smashing up the headgear that obscured his face in parts of The Force Awakens, after he is accused by Snoke of being nothing more than “a child in a mask.”

He and Rey are both out to prove themselves but Driver, with his capacity for playing arrogant angel and self-doubting devil in the same shot, has the more absorbing challenge and the greater range for exploring it.

Even Johnson’s sense of fun and mischief can’t sustain the film for two-and-a-half hours; the warring gets boring. One scene is replayed three times with different interpretations but it’s hardly Rashomon and a movie this long can’t afford to dawdle. No one could mistake The Last Jedi for an outstanding contribution to cinema, or even to escapism, but it has its attractions.

As long as the franchise can throw enough temptations at Driver to keep him on board, there will be a reason to turn up for episodes nine, ten and beyond. The Rebels talk constantly of sparks and flames, optimism and faith, but it is in this infinitely fascinating actor that the series has found its most convincing new hope.

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ is released on 14 December

All photos: Disney

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.