This time two years ago, Disney’s remake of Star Wars made its worldwide debut. Helmed by film franchise czar and all round safe pair of hands J.J. Abrams, The Force Awakens gave us a desolate desert, a MacGuffin-carrying droid, a father-son confrontation (complete with mask-clad villain), and a death planet. In return for this originality, we gave Disney $2.068 billion. All of which is now in the pockets of Rupert Murdoch, thus completing the Circle of Life ©.
Cynicism aside, our much-anticipated return to that galaxy far, far away was frustratingly weak; a seen-it-all-before story with bizarre, misplaced humour and some unforgivably crap new characters (Maz Kanata, I’m looking at you), born of a gurning, self-indulgent production. A long overdue vehicle for risky innovation in the Star Wars universe, TFA was not.
The man left to pick up the scattered plot pieces and form an imaginative follow up was writer-director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper); an encouraging appointment far exceeding the minimum requirement of “anyone but J.J. Abrams” and rapidly cranking the hype(rdrive) up to light speed, sending Star Wars as a creative cinematic entity hurtling towards its destiny…
And… breathe. Just, breathe.
As the theatre lights dimmed and the Lucasfilm logo faded into view, the usual scatter of whoops and claps quickly evolved to cheers as the main titles sprang back to make way for the opening crawl. And then, quicker than you can say Kessel Run, any and all optimism I harboured for TLJ evaporated.
The first half, for the most part, is nothing short of disastrous. An ultimately meaningless opening space battle – taking place soon after the events of the last film – sets the tone, or lack thereof, with an immediate return to the cringe-inducing, Poe Dameron (a once again wasted Oscar Isaac)-led frat boy comedy that did its best to ruin the tension during the TFA’s equally disappointing intro.
What follows is a muddled, disjointed mess, built on more unnecessarily quirky “laughs” and bizarre moments bordering on parody. As the Resistance fleet, headed by Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher and, unfortunately, queen of the aforementioned bizarre moments) flees General Hux’s (Domhnall Gleeson) First Order, we are treated to a sort of slow motion whacky race that serves little purpose other than to keep everything ticking over as we cut now and then to TLJ’s force-driven core.
And when we’re there, things improve. Ever so slightly. Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) gradual unearthing of the force under the reluctant tutelage of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and her newfound connection with conflicted dark-sider Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) still takes a while to get going, however, as an array of cartoon animals and clunky dialogue seeks to disrupt what should have been an open goal of dual encounters.
Pulling us out still further is the insistence on returning time and again to a bafflingly out of place Resistance escape subplot – featuring Finn (John Boyega) and maintenance mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) – that somehow manages to flirt with both prequel and completely non-Star Wars territory all at once. The low point by far, rounded off by eye-gougingly irritating commentaries on real world sociopolitical issues. It is during this time one starts to question whether this was solely Rian Johnson’s vision, rather than that of a clandestine team operating on behalf of the Mouse upstairs.
Around the halfway mark some of that Johnson quality does finally begin to kick in. The focus tightens on Rey, Kylo Ren and Luke; their various connections, past and present, coming to a head in tandem with Luke’s beautifully bitter examination and explanation of a Jedi’s relationship with the force. Driver, unlike many of his fellow cast members, is both a great actor and has a decent character to work with. His moody, understated performance – the writing too deserves an extremely rare nod of approval here – stands out, as does the decent amount of depth added to Kylo Ren (whose want of destruction for all things old is also gloriously ironic, considering the amount of needless callbacks to The Empire Strikes Back).
On the light side, Ridley’s one-dimensional earnestness worked in her favour as the plucky heroine of TFA, but it does not translate all that well to her pursuit of, and initial discussions with Luke. Fortunately, as Rey looks inside herself beneath the Jedi temple (a well- worked sequence that simmers with Johnson’s influence), Ridley’s performance finally syncs up and flows more naturally for the remainder.
Merely witnessing Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker was always going to be a joy, and eventually he too gets his head around the dodgy writing; embodying both the Luke we remember, and the key character developments it seemed might never come. The same cannot be said for Luke’s opposite number. Supreme Commander Snoke is poorly conceived and under-utilised in execution (if you have the godfather of mo-cap at your disposal, maybe have him do more than sit in a chair for the entirety of his screen time?), but the confrontation he inevitably designs does at least bring about meaningful emotional impact, a hint of tension, and, at last, some first class close quarters action (matched only by a single jaw-dropping moment out in space just a few minutes later).
As we fly head on into the finale, everything from the writing and performances (though we aren’t yet free from the odd needlessly confusing moment), to the direction and other technical aspects come together to resemble what appears to be a Star Wars film. The ending, too, is as satisfying as it could be based on the contempt for resources and talent that came before it, but it was all too little, too late.
So, what went wrong? Clearly Johnson inherited a poison chalice in the shape of Disney and J.J. Abrams’ wanky hubris, but with TLJ he and the Mouse (let’s be honest, mainly the Mouse) somehow conspire to lower the bar to almost unknown depths, before pulling up to salvage some dignity at the last moment. And it is not just the suspect, this-definitely-wasn’t-penned-by-ten-people writing or clunky performances; the editing is utterly appalling – particularly during the first half – and a major contributor to the indistinguishable nature of the film’s tone. John Williams’ score, while harmless in comparison, is not at all that memorable and instead takes a backseat to his own classic themes.
Ultimately, it appears that Johnson made major story and script concessions in order to emphasise the aspects that were quite clearly part of his vision. The concessions made were so damaging, however, that whatever could be deemed to be, at a stretch, good (Adam Driver, the central force-based plot and related themes, and, surprisingly, BB8’s increasingly sadistic nature), was dramatically outweighed by all that was truly awful (I have not even commented on General Hux; the bloke belongs in a Harry Potter film).
Strangely, unlike during TFA, when the sheer waste of opportunity stirred up increasing annoyance, The Last Jedi did actually inspire enjoyment. This does not mean it was anything other than a huge disappointment, but upon realising that early on it was easy to relax and actually get into the legitimate “so bad it’s good” vibe the picture flirted with on numerous occasions, before getting as close to fired up as one could for the final act, once things finally started to pick up.
With Abrams due to return for Episode IX, it makes sense to give up hope and approach the home stretch in exactly the same manner. Rian Johnson was our last hope. Now, there is no other.