By BRUCE DENNILL
Star Wars: The Last Jedi / Directed by Rian Johnson / PG13 5
What made the first three Star Wars films brilliant – and, ironically, the next three terrible – was their being the product of one mind and vision, with the creator of the universe in which the entire story takes place (and in which the function of all the associated phenomena is defined), George Lucas, seeing a single, extensive narrative and doing his best to communicate that progression of ideas.
Now, with different personalities at the helm every time, outcomes are less predictable. JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens finally righted the ship after after the bloated second trilogy, and the odd space-filler that was Rogue One was, one assumed, the price to be paid for the vast success of the franchise – it was hardly surprising if the studios involved wanted to get maximum bang for their buck. With the standalone Han Solo movie on its way, though, The Last Jedi needed to keep the core story as clear and distinct as possible to keep the thread of the main story on track.
Director Rian Johnson is only partially successful in that endeavour, with his sprawling chapter seemingly designed to tick all possible audience boxes rather than focus on particular characters and give them specific story-led tasks to fill.
One of the big themes is the possible return of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker to the fray after his many years of self-imposed exile on a remote island. Another is the further development of Rey (Daisy Ripley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) as the figureheads of the light and dark sides of the Force, respectively. Ripley again gives the best account of herself after being the best thing in the excellent Episode VII, with Rey patiently dealing with a sulky Skywalker and figuring out what she is becoming capable of with the requisite angst. Driver has a great character arc to play with as Ren makes a play for the ultimate leadership of the First Order, but without Han Solo’s dry wit to balance his intensity and torment, his scenes often wander into soap opera-style drama.
Beyond those central subplots, there are a myriad distractions, some of them fun, but none of them essential. Finn (John Boyega) and new character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) are sent off on a wild goose chase to counter a threat that can only exist if the way in which the Star Wars universe has worked to date is simply ignored; Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is left out of half the film despite being in charge of the Resistance forces, and Hollywood A-listers step conveniently into spaces created for them by often unlikely script turns, with Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro the most prominent recipients of this exposure.
There’s a nod in the direction of several topics important to the news cycle but not necessarily to a blockbuster film, with a moment taken to pointedly remove a saddle from a previously abused creature as it scampers back to join its herd; a wide range of ethniticies represented in various subplots; and Jedi training being more obviously compared to a religion than in previous instalments.
None of it is especially frustrating in isolation, but this is a very long film – over two-and-a-half hours – and discovering that you’re failing to be thrilled or surprised by new twists much past the hour mark makes getting to the end, if not a chore, then at least more of an effort than it might have been, given the possibilities. There’s not enough here to make it possible to add this film to the franchise’s list of successes, so the ratios for the series are even again – four good films, and for bad or merely less than inspiring.
Note: Sitting in the new D-Box seats at some Ster-Kinekor cinemas – the chairs vibrate and lean left and right in accordance with explosions, chase scenes or fights on screen – only enhances the experience up front, where the novelty value is most pronounced. Again, the length of the film may hurt The Last Jedi in this regard, as being shaken around is only exciting for so long, and though the leaning as a spaceship turns or similar does give a sense of movement, there’s never anything close to the gasp-inducing rush suggested by the Millennium Falcon shooting up vertically or diving into a chasm.