Saturday 16 December 2017

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi

Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi

The Force Awakens was a clever riff on A New Hope, following a loosely similar structure but with fresh characters as a way of resetting the series for a new trilogy. It offered an opportunity to revel in the familiar, while providing just enough novelty to keep the audience guessing. It worked as a one-off gimmick, but following that the series was in need of something new.

And so, the central theme of The Last Jedi is the idea of severing the past to make way for a bold new future, to fulfil destiny. Except the film, like its characters, is caught in a conflict here, a disappointing stalemate between old and new.

The theme is encapsulated best of all by its central trio of Rey (Daisy Ridley), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the returning Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Rey requires the tutelage of Luke to fully awaken her Force powers and reach her potential, but Luke has isolated himself, his trust shattered by Kylo. This narrative provides the film's most satisfying plot points, uncovering the truth of Luke and Kylo's shared past and navigating the shifting balance of light and dark between him and Rey, creating an interesting dynamic between the heroes and villains. Even so, Rey is a bland hero who finds her powers all too suddenly, while Kylo is a petulant and tempestuous teen without the necessary villainous gravitas. Luke, more than anything, is nostalgia personified.

The balance of light and dark is reflected in the visuals too. The Last Jedi is a particularly colourful depiction of the Star Wars universe with cinematographer Steve Yedlin bringing some beautiful visuals. Washed out mystery mixes with glorious vibrancy, from the dizzying space battles, to the sweeping wind-swept vistas, to smoke curling around brooding heroes and villains alike. The final battle on the salt plains of Crait is a particular highlight, every movement throwing up blood-like scarlet debris.

It's colourful for its beasts too. There's a whole horde of new creatures and critters, from the cute little porgs seen in the trailer, to the nun-like caretakers of Ahch-To, the horse racing fathiers, and the crystal fox vulptices. They all lean towards the cuddly and amusing end of the spectrum and bring a light-heartedness that contrasts with the grim-faced protagonists, even if the menagerie - like the film - is bloated.

This also reflects a tonal shift from director Rian Johnson towards comedy. This is, perhaps, the funniest of the Star Wars films, which seems at odds with the serious plot. The script if full of overstatement, cliché and clunky jokes and, although nothing is Jar Jar levels of irritating, it's clear that with Disney at the helm the film is aimed more at children than ever. Despite some amusing individual moments, collectively the film errs too far into juvenile, fantastical silliness. Coupled with the misguided evangelising of Carrie Fisher's Leia Organa, it borders on disrespectful to the legacy of the franchise.

Most disappointing of all, though, is the lack of originality. The Last Jedi is a slave to its trilogy counterpart, The Empire Strikes Back, hitting all the same story beats. There's an opening escape by the Rebels, a Jedi in training with an old master before returning to save friends in peril, a parental plot twist, a siege against incoming walkers. It makes for a film that is crushingly predictable.

Anything that falls outside of these familiar tropes falls flat. The film is for the most part one long set-piece that never goes anywhere, stalling the narrative but without providing necessary characterisation. The focus is on introducing new characters, but too often they're barely developed (Laura Dern's Vice Admiral Holdo or Benicio Del Toro's DJ) or quite frankly ignored (John Boyega's Finn is given too little to do and his ongoing duel with Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma is little more than an afterthought). Where the old swashbuckling films were so successful was in the charm of its cast, but The Last Jedi relies too heavily on that nostalgia in place of developing original characters. Their inclusion here just isn't earned.

As the title scrolls by and John Williams' heroic anthem kicks in, it still sends tingles down the spine. And as a universe, Star Wars still has the ability to entertain and excite with well choreographed lightsaber fights and swooping space battles. Yet The Last Jedi is cripplingly unoriginal and feels more than ever like a cold, empty attempt at extending the lifespan of the franchise for the sakes of nostalgia. The Force, sadly, has grown tired and stale.


Watch: The Last Jedi is out now.