Movie Review: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Updated but still spoiler-free)

The latest episode in the lives of our favourite space heroes and villains has arrived at our cinemas just in time for the holidays and the reviews are coming in faster than the Millennium Falcon on hyperdrive. Fanboys and fangirls started off by saying that STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is the “best film everrrrrrr” but it only took a few days for them to turn en masse and cry “foul play” over director Rian Johnson’s messing with the canon. More rational souls, meanwhile, are saying that it’s one of the best films in the franchise. So which is it… or is it either?

A bit of history first. In the last episode (THE FORCE AWAKENS), it’s 30 years after the events in Episode VI that saw the Galactic Civil War and the destruction of the Death Star. Now, the First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire and it seeks to eliminate the New Republic, the latter of which is led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). We’re introduced to a host of new characters, including Rey (Daisy Ridley, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS), a scavenger from the desert planet of Jakku who was abandoned as a child; Finn (John Boyega, THE CIRCLE), a First Order Stormtrooper who defects from the First Order to join the Resistance; Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, EX MACHINA; A MOST VIOLENT YEAR; INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS), a Resistance X-wing fighter who doesn’t like to sit idly by and watch events unfold before him; Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, LOGAN LUCKY; SILENCE; PATERSON; WHILE WE’RE YOUNG; INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS; FRANCES HA), a high-ranking member of the First Order who, like Darth Vader before him, has gone over to the Dark Side; Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES), who is the political leader of the First Order and is Kylo Ren’s mentor; and BB-8, an adorable droid in the vein of R2-D2. So that fans of the original series would make the jump to these new characters, TFA also includes Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) appears in the film’s closing scene when we see Rey finding him on the remote planet of Ahch-To. She passes a lightsaber to him, but not before we learn that Kylo Ren is (TFA spoiler here) Ben Solo, the love child of Han and Leia.

THE LAST JEDI picks up the story right where THE FORCE AWAKENS leaves off. Rey, who is with Luke, wants him to teach her the ways of the Jedi and how she can channel the force, which she realises is within her. But Luke, now a Jedi Master, has no interest in being her Obi-wan Kenobi. He did that before for Ben and that didn’t turn out quite as he had expected. Meanwhile, the New Republic is under attack from the First Order under the command of General Hux (Domhnall Gleason, MOTHER!; AMERICAN MADE; BROOKLYN; EX MACHINA) and there are many losses on both sides. Leia’s Resistance forces regroup and stall for time while Finn and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a Resistance maintenance worker, fly off to a nearby planet to find the one person who might be able to give the Resistance an edge over the First Order in their fight.

THE LAST JEDI is a very character-driven story, which is nice, and there are some wonderful scenes with Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher and Laura Dern (WILD; THE FAULT IN OUR STARS), who plays Vice-Admiral Holdo. Carrie Fisher is the film’s star this time around, and her performance is one that is full of grace. What a final bow on a lifelong career in show business! Before nerd herd mentality kicked in, the fanboys and fangirls were all saying that this is Mark Hamill’s best performance ever. But let’s be honest, isn’t that a low bar to hop over? Now even Hamill himself has jumped on the bandwagon and has said he wasn’t pleased about the things his character did. Motivation and Comic-Con marketability aside, Hamill doesn’t have the gravitas of Alec Guinness but I’ll admit that I liked his performance here. Ridley, Boyega, Isaac and Driver also do top-notch work here. It’s also nice to see some Asian characters this time around, Rose being one of them.

Of course, STAR WARS wouldn’t be STAR WARS if it didn’t have battle scenes with explosions a-plenty, though some of the scenes where the First Order’s cruiser is attacking the Resistance ships are a tad on the underwhelming side. There is the obligatory chase scene between the Millennium Falcon and the TIE fighters that takes place in a chasm, and there are a couple of fight scenes with the lightsabers which are choreographed and shot extremely well. The colour palette for this film has a predominance of red, which can be seen in the costumes, Kylo Ren’s lightsaber and on one of the planets. I don’t think Johnson has revealed what it means but I’m sure if you go onto a fan site, you will find all sorts of theories about it. Speaking of those costumes, Snoke’s Praetorian guards are dressed in a red version of a Stormtrooper outfit with some modifications. They look like a cross between a samurai and a conquistador — absolutely stunning!

Being a Disney STAR WARS film, there has to be some new furry and highly marketable characters, and this film is no different. The cutest are the porgs, who look like a cross between a puffin and a gremlin. As I predicted, stores started selling plush versions of them the day the film opened. There’s a great scene with Chewie and the porgs that is laugh-out-loud hilarious. (There’s also a toy Dark Side version of a BB-8, called a BB-9E, that lights up, rolls and apparently makes more than 17 sound effects. I haven’t seen any toy versions of those crystal foxes yet but I’m sure they’ll come too.)

While this is a very enjoyable film, contrary to what the fanboys and fangirls are now saying, it’s not a perfect film. First, the film lacks spectacle. It didn’t wow me the way Episodes 4, 5 and 6 did. Maybe we’ve (I’ve) seen too many sci-fi films over the years and seen too many explosions in space to get excited now. It’s all becoming old-hat. Ahch-To, for example, looks too mundane. Why doesn’t it have a purple sky and an orange sea with five moons, each a different colour? Okay, it has some interesting extra-terrestrial life but Johnson should have taken it further than that. The same can be said of the planet that Finn and Rose visit. It looks too similar to a certain place here on Earth. All the ships, on both sides, seemed uninspired and could have done with some nifty, new technology in place. Yes, I understand that the franchise always had a rust-bucket or retrofitted atmosphere to it but that shouldn’t mean than nothing ultra-high tech gets developed over the years. Second, clocking in at just over 2-1/2 hours, some scenes could have benefitted from a snip here and a trim there. In all, the film could easily have been 10 minutes shorter. A few times there were situations that were akin to someone who tells you what they’re going to do, does it and then tells you what they just did. These scenes were useless and should have been axed.

There has been quite a bit of media chatter about all the cameos in this film. In TFA, Daniel Craig plays a Stormtrooper, though you wouldn’t know it because his face is covered up with a helmet. With this film, famous people were apparently lining up to do cameos including the likes of Princes William and Harry, Tom Hardy, Ellie Goulding and Gary Barlow. My understanding, though, is that the Windsors’ scene ended up on the cutting room floor. Joseph Gordon-Levitt had a voice cameo but I’ll be darned if I can remember which character he is. Gordon-Levitt had previously starred in Johnson’s 2012 film, LOOPER, so it’s not surprising that his contribution stayed while others’ did not.

As for Johnson, who also wrote the film’s screenplay, it couldn’t have been easy to step into a franchise as well-established and beloved as this one and put one’s stamp on it. Shortcomings aside, I thought he did a good job. One of my beefs with THE FORCE AWAKENS is that it is too much of a fan service film, with the story being essentially Episode IV with new characters. THE LAST JEDI is both fresh and original but it still keeps to the traditional structure of a STAR WARS film. It was announced a few weeks ago that Johnson will be creating a whole new STAR WARS trilogy that is to be set in a different corner of a galaxy far, far away. He will be writing and the directing the first of the films. Given the backlash that’s now going on, he’s probably wise not to sign up to direct Episode IX.

I also have to mention John William’s iconic score. I don’t what he did here but it never sounded better!

So, while THE LAST JEDI is not the best film everrrrrrr, nor is it even the best STAR WARS film (THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK is still my favourite), it is an amusing and very enjoyable film nevertheless, with good plot twists, strong performances and able direction. Yes, it lacks “epicness” but don’t let that stop you from seeing it, preferably on the biggest screen you can find. I saw it in IMAX 3D but the 3D part is not worth it.

May the force be with you!

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, December 21st at 8:30 am HK time!

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