Editor's note: This is the original version of a review that appeared in our 18 December 2017 issue. It contains sexist commentary about Carrie Fisher. We have edited the version appearing the 18 December issue to remove this commentary, but will keep this version as-published so future readers are aware of what's changed. For additional background, please see this Twitter thread.
Be advised: this review discusses all of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. If you are concerned about spoilers, we recommend seeing the film before reading this review.
So here we are again. When the first Star Wars film was released in 1977 I was twelve years of age. I saw it thrice, and one time even bunked off school to see it. Now I’m 53, and still here, still eager to queue up and hand over my readies at the box office—at last, casting my jaded eye over The Last Jedi. Only a week since initial release and already it’s a smash: earnings accelerating rapidly in the direction of a billion dollars, Rotten Tomatoes score solidly at mid-90s% approval, the fans are happy. The fans are happy and who can argue with that? Why be a Star Worrier when you can join the crowd of happy Star Warriors?
And, do you know what? I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it plenty. It was an extremely Star Wars experience. It was a space extravaganza in which every set piece and every shot had been scented with essential oil of Star Wars—not just the look (although the filmmakers get the look spot on) but the feel, the inter-character dynamics, the mix of action, pathos and comedy. It’s a perfectly passable action SF movie and a very Star Warsy Star Wars movie indeed.
So why the grouch act? I can explain, but it will take a little while, and will entail spoilers. So be warned, in what follows there are Star Wars spoilers. “Spar Woilers” if you will, which, by a remarkable coincidence, is also my Rebel pilot name.
Can I tl;dr it? Well, I suppose the problem is that when I first saw the first of these movies I was a fresh-faced kid with a shock of blond hair, my excited eyes looking to space as an arena of adventure and possibility. And now, going to see the latest of these movies, I am a grizzled old greybeard, living out my last disillusioned years in self-imposed exile, drinking for sustenance sour, fish-flavoured mermaid milk—and not the toothsome mermaids of legend, oh no, but the hideous grey dugongs that desperate sailors foolishly mistook for mermaids, and whose milk, believe me, is not sweet. Where once I would have been properly excited by the prospect of an endless queue of Star Wars movies stretching out, like that line of kings in Macbeth’s cursed mirror, clicking their fingers and waving their hands in an infinite cloned Mexican wave, now … well, now, to be honest, I’m starting to think the one thing I know about the Star Wars series is that it’s time for them—to end.
And this movie? There are two main story locations: on the one hand a bunch of starships in deep space, and on the other a mystic Jedi island on a faraway planet. In the former, a huge First Order battlefleet is pursuing the last few spaceships of the Rebel alliance. By virtue of an entirely arbitrary and, we can be honest, idiotic narrative premise, the giant engines of the First Order battleships not only can’t outrun the tiny battered Rebel craft, they can’t harry them with fighters either, nor can they blast them long range with their gigantic laser cannons. They can only give lumbering chase. Then again, the rebel fleet can’t wink away into hyperspace and vanish, because (a) the First Order has invented a new machine that can track craft through hyperspace, so they’d only be followed, and (b) the Rebel ships only have enough fuel for one more jump anyway. So the First Order fleet rumbles after the Rebel fleet, very slowly gaining ground.
Now, you may ask yourself: “why can’t the First Order battleships do a little mini FTL jump, and get close enough to destroy the Rebels?” And you may ask yourself: “why do these space cannons only work at close quarters? It’s not as if there’s any friction in the vacuum of space to rob them of force or attenuate them.” And you may say to yourself: this is not my beautiful plot. And you may say to yourself: this is not my beautiful film.
But I’m being obtuse, of course. The reason for this anti-logical setup is to give our heroes a deadline against which to measure the film’s central escapade—John Boyega’s Finn and a new character, Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico, nipping off in a ship to a distant planet, on which is a super-rich casino, so as to locate a master codebreaker. Once they find him in the casino, the plan is: bring him back, smuggle him aboard the flagship of the First Order fleet, use his skills to disable the new FTL tracking device, and thus give the Rebel fleet the chance to jump away at light speed without being followed. Having the clock ticking down on this excursion adds excitement to all the running around and fighting and breaking out of prison and suchlike flimflam out of which it is constituted. Allegedly. At any rate, this running around flimflam is the bulk of the movie’s middle-act.
Meanwhile, Rey has tracked Luke to Craggy Island, but asks to be trained in the ways of the force. He refuses to train her, though, claiming that it’s time for the Jedi to die. Like that’s ever going to happen: we all know this franchise is 2 Jedi 2 Die. Still: that’s Luke’s determination, guilt-ridden, as he is, by his failure in the matter of the training of Kylo Ren. Down with this sort of thing! (Careful now.) In the absence of his guidance Rey more or less trains herself, swinging a lightsaber about a bit, learning to lift rocks by the power of thought alone, and sojourning in the island’s seaweed-fringed Hole of the Dark Side, inside which she finds a gigantic cracked mirror and a million reflections of herself. Then Luke changes his mind and says he will train her, after all. He promises her three lessons, only two of which (unless I miscounted) he actually delivers. The state of modern education nowadays, though. Insufficient contact hours with tutors, syllabi not delivering what they promise. Tch.
Whilst this is going on, Rey starts connecting, mysteriously, with Kylo Ren—connecting by a kind of interstellar telepathic intensity that shows him her but not her surroundings, and shows her images of him with his shirt on and, sometimes, off. These communications grow in frequency and intensity until, eventually, the two of them are able to hold hands, even though they’re on different sides of the galaxy. This could have been ridiculous, but actually it works. Not the shirtless scene—that’s boggleworthy in the wrong way (seriously: what self-respecting goth or emo would sport such a six-pack? Such outrageously bulging and defined pecs? The dude is massive. Shirtless Ren looks like a brick shithouse in a Megan Fox wig)—I don’t mean that, so much as the way actual, unmistakeable sexual tension is developed and is then put to use to service the plot. Will Rey be turned to the dark side by Kylo’s pointy nine-inch-nail nipples? By his smouldering scowl and his piratical scar? For about half an hour the audience are genuinely unsure.
Act 2 is about twenty minutes over-long, I think, but you barely notice because there’s so much visual busyness and in-jokes, and action. With Leia comatose after an attack, the Rebel command passes to Admiral Amanda Holden (I think her name was; I may have misheard) played with impressively stately gravitas by Laura Dern. And in terms of gender representation this Star Wars is the most progressive yet: all the senior authority figures and many of the junior officers in the Rebel alliance are women, many of them (and this really is the last frontier where Hollywood is concerned) older women. The contrast with the yelling, gammon-faced all-male officer class of the First Order is well made. But the story is basically treading water until its second act closes on its half-expected narrative twist, and everybody dashes down to a deserted Rebel base for Act 3 and the film’s denouement.
That denouement takes place on a planet called Crait, a planet covered in deserts of salt. Now, as soon as I saw that this planet was covered by deserts of salt, I had a bad feeling: “well clearly,” I said to myself, “it’s a stupid idea to locate a science fiction story on a planet entirely covered by deserts of salt. I mean, who would possibly think that a good idea, to set a SF story on a planet covered by deserts of salt?” The filmmakers persevere, though. The Rebels hide in a cave behind gigantic metal doors, and the bad guys assault the doors with a ground army and a huge laser cannon. The ground assault is necessary because the base is protected by shields that make blasting them with a space-cannon from orbit unworkable. Accordingly the First Order disconnect a space cannon from one of their ships and schlep it down to the ground. Because the shields that protect the base only protect it from space-cannons fired in space, see? Not from space cannons situated lower down than space. I mean, that makes sense, right?
Anyway: it’s probably true that the bagginess and strung-togetherness of the storyline matter less than the excellence of the individual set -pieces—most of them are very well staged—and much less than the characters. It’s the characters the fans love, after all.
As far as those characters are concerned, well—it’s a mixed bag. Daisy Ridley’s acting performance in this movie is, I think, better than her gosh-wow turn from the first one. There is, as I note above, palpable chemistry between her Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren: it’s the one relationship in the film that the filmmakers give enough space and screen time to, to breathe and grow, and it becomes both genuinely compelling in its own right, and sets up the film’s single best moment. Ren (spoilers, remember?) kills the Supreme Leader by force-manipulating Luke’s light sabre at a distance—one remote poke with the laser-spoke and Snoke croaks—and then Ren and Rey fight, back to back, against Snoke’s red-cloaked Praetorian Guard. Properly exciting, this.
Kelly Marie Tran is bright and likeable as Rose Tico, and it's good to see an Asian actor playing a main character (startling to think Tran is the franchise's first). Although her main-characterness could have been, er, main-er. Rose's role is (a) being Finn's sidekick, and becomes (b) her having a secret crush upon him. Given the widely-believed fan theory that Finn and Poe are destined to cop off with one another, you have to think she's barking up the wrong tree. But maybe not.
But the rest of the cast was variable. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are both actors with genuine screen presence and star quality, and whenever either of them is on screen their charisma is palpable. But who else shines, here? Lupia Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata is relegated to a cameo—since she appears for less than a minute via Space Skype I guess we can say she literally phoned-in her performance—C3-PO has nothing to do at all but stand in the background, R2-D2 pops up, plays his greatest hit from the 1970s (“help me, Obi Wan, you’re our only hope”) and disappears again, Warwick Davis plays a gambler called Wodibin, presumably so-called because it wodibin nice to have seen a bit more of his character, Benicio del Toro’s codebreaker is a performance carved from a slab of solid sleaze—you couldn’t call it nuanced acting, although it has a certain oily memorableness—and Domhnall Gleeson as Hux overacts, simple as that. He hams, and shrieks, and gurns, and stomps around, and it’s all rather tiresome.
Few others are given much screen time. Yoda gets forty-five seconds of ghostly syntax-inverting. Gary Barlow, Tom Hardy and Princes Harry and William (of all people) cameo as stormtroopers and so on. This time around it’s Joonas Suotamo inside the Chewbacca costume, since, we presume, Peter Mayhew up and told the producers that he ain’t going to wook for them no more. Although Mayhew’s name does appear in the credits. He’s listed as “wookiee consultant”. And I’m sure Suotamo appreciated his advice. Playing that kind of role can, I’m sure, be trikiee.
Which leaves us with the brother-and-sister from the original movie, Luke ’n’ Leia. Mark Hamill has certainly aged appropriately into the role and looks proper gnarly, although he handles the eccentric reclusive loon portion of his part rather better than the heartfelt all-the-feels portion, during which he scowls distractingly and delivers his lines too slowly. And then there’s Leia. Now, I’m well aware that voicing criticism of any kind where Carrie Fisher is concerned is as close to an excommunicable offence as Star Wars fandom admits. And, believe me, it gives me no pleasure to say what I’m about to say. Heterosexual nerdy teenage me was *clears throat* very struck by Princess Leia when I saw her on the big screen back in the 1970s—very struck indeed—and like millions of fans hers is a character that has meant a lot to me. But Fisher’s performance here is lamentably stiff and unengaging. Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma shows more variety of facial expression in this movie than does Leia.
More substantively, Leia’s character spends her screen time passively waiting rather than actively doing. In the opening space battle she is, in effect, a narrative token in the game the filmmakers are playing with us, the audience, via “will Kylo Ren kill his Mum or not?” He has a clear shot at Leia on the bridge, but his gloved thumb hovers over the firing pin. He can’t do it! Although, deflatingly, it turns out that this moral hesitation doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of the film because other TIE fighters swoop in, blow the bridge to smithereens and blast Leia, unprotected, into the vacuum of space. Nonetheless, she’s able to survive and haul herself back to safety using nothing but the power of the Force. Still, the experience puts her in a coma for most of the rest of the film.
Hindsight is cruel, and we know the filmmakers’ plan was to have Fisher figure prominently in Star Wars IX. They weren’t to know death would rob them, and us, of that chance. But still—it might have been nice for Leia’s last appearance on film to have shown a little more agency.
Incidentally, this “Ren hesitation moment” happens more than once in this movie. Present your character with the chance to destroy something, have them choose not to destroy, and then have the thing blown up anyway by a third party. It happens with Kylo Ren and his mum, and then again towards the end of the movie, when Luke Skywalker decides to burn down the holy tree that grows out on this Jedi Fraggle Rock. He marches up with a flaming torch, wrestles with his conscience for a while, and then decides he can’t do it. The movie having once again dramatized the importance of choice, the choice is immediately rendered retrospectively irrelevant: Ghost-Yoda manifests himself and blows up the sacred tree with a giant bolt of lightning. Little green Thor, he turns out to be, mmm? Saw that coming, you did not. Undermine the film’s large scale ethical emphasis on the importance of freely choosing to do the right thing, it does.
It’s a twist, is the point, but there comes a level where plot-twists stop being a feature and aggregate into a bug. The whole of this movie is sutured together from twists: the unexpected jolt, the knight’s move, the character dying when you didn’t expect it, the other character certain to die who is saved at the last minute. It’s a film allergic to the idea that actions have permanent consequences: Poe Dameron can lead an old-school, actual, honest-to-goodness mutiny against his superior officers, fail, get captured, and then face not a firing squad, not a long term in jail, but nothing at all. Five minutes later he’s back in the good books of the chain of command, and is even being preferred for a command position himself—“what are you waiting for?” says Leia. “Follow him!”
There’s a more serious point here, I think. The emotional content of this film is, when you boil it down, strung between two affects: eucatastrophe and nostalgia. Now, both of those are, or at least can be, potent, and that potency is sometimes on display in The Last Jedi. But, importantly, neither of these are what the movie says it is about. It says it is about hope, about the proper relationship between the old and the new generation—which is to say, about questions of authority and trust, teaching and responsibility. It purports to be, like many of the previous Star Wars movies, about moral choice, the dark and the light and the importance of choosing the latter not the former. And most winningly of all, it says it is about the importance of friendship.
Eucatastrophe is Tolkien’s coinage. It means: the at-the-last-minute averted disaster. The laster the minute (if you see what I mean) the more exciting the triumph, plucked from defeat’s jaws, or from halfway down its gullet, or picked out of defeat’s half-digested pooh. Guy Gavriel Kay somewhere defines eucatastrophe as “the gigantic meteorite hurtling towards the earth that right before impact swerves and misses us.” You can see how the larger structure of Lord of the Rings is eucatastrophic, and you don’t need me to tell you that as such it can be a very exciting storytelling shape. But it has its dangers. It is glucose in the storytelling recipe rather than protein, roughage or vitamins. Empty calories.
So, The Last Jedi kicks-off with a space-battle assault upon one of the First Order’s dreadnoughts, or super-dreadnoughts, or ultra-dreadnoughts (I wasn’t entirely paying attention). It’s a well-cut and kinetic action sequence that builds to not one but two eucatastrophic moments: first, will Poe Dameron’s malfunctioning gun be fixed by BB8 in time for him to take the “all or nothing” shot at the dreadnought’s last remaining laser-cannon? Answer: yes, it will, in the very nick of time. Second, will the last surviving Rebel bomber, its hold filled with dangling, clinking bombs ready to be dropped through the open bomb-bay doors onto the dreadnought below—because, as we all know, there is no up or down in space—be able to deliver its payload? Answer: yes it will, in the very nick of time, that nick being elongated by a prolonged sequence in which the one remaining crewmember lies at the bottom (remember: there is no up or down in space) of the bomb-bay, having left the big red button that releases the bombs at the top of the bomb-bay, with that crewmember kicking the frame of the rack of jiggling, dependent bombs so as to cause the big red button to fall down (remembering always that there is no up or down in space) so it can be triggered.
The whole story, or the discrete chunks of story loosely threaded together, repeatedly adopt eucatastrophe as their mode: Finn and Rose fleeing, are trapped by the very lip of a tall cliff as the bad-guys approach, only to be rescued in the very nick of time. Rey’s death is moments away in the lair of a gloating, overpowering Snoke, only to be averted in the very nick of time. Finn is flying down the very throat of the First Order’s giant laser canon, ready to sacrifice himself to protect the Rebel base, only to be saved in the very nick of time. The whole shape of the movie is: the entire rebellion is doomed, its annihilation literally seconds away and—oh look! here’s Luke Skywalker! Saved!
Don’t get me wrong: I’m as much a sucker for the old eucatastrophic bait-and-switch as the next spaceboy or spacegirl. But there are two problems with it here. One is the general problem of too much sugar and not enough nutrient: overused, this story device becomes expected and therefore empty, its buzz diminishes with each additional deployment use. Diminishing returns, you see.
Two is more worrying, I think—it is the way this undermines what the film is saying about leadership.
What we want from leaders, and from our military leader particularly, is the ability to anticipate snags and navigate past them, the organisational nous to steer the group through the vicissitudes that assail us. You can’t anticipate everything, of course, but you can at least predict some things. Not in the Star Wars universe, though, where the exigencies of the franchise’s storytelling require everybody to be surprised by everything all the time. Could Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo not have anticipated that evacuating the entire surviving population of Rebels with small, unarmed shuttles to the only planet in the vicinity might bring the armed might of the First Order down upon them? Talking of which: how have the Rebel high command allowed their forces to become so denuded? Is fighting a war of attrition against a larger and more powerful enemy wise? It’s great to show the good guys being led by strong, confident women, but it would surely be more progressive if these leaders were not—whisper it—so incompetent. I mean, the First Order senior staff seem pretty incompetent, and exist in a state of constant sniping, upheaval and infighting, but there is, surely, a big difference between a (male) officer corps that is dysfunctional because they’re all so ruthless and personally ambitious, and a (female) officer corps that is dysfunctional because they just don’t have the ability to plan six hours into the future. Add to this that the female officer corps all have really great hairdos, and we are surely encroaching on Egregious Sexism.
I don’t want to over-read this text of course. And in one sense Admiral Holdo can’t be blamed. It’s not her command skills that are at fault, so much as the fact that she exists in a universe in which everything is bent around the lines-of-force of the audience’s eucatastrophic satisfaction. It hardly matters how you plan if, in the end, the universe is always going make things get as bad for you as can be imagined before, in the very nick of time, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Might as well just go with the flow.
What I’m suggesting is that eucatastrophe distorts not only the film’s storytelling but its worldbuilding. At the end of The Last Jedi, Admiral Holdo, the last person left on the last Rebel cruiser, crashes it into the First Order Superduperdreadnought, accelerating to light -speed to really mash it up badly. Which is fine, although it does leave the viewer thinking: if one small ship accelerating to light speed can do so much damage, then what were the Rebels doing at the beginning of the film, piffling around with those snail-paced bombers and their racks of black spherical Spy vs Spy-type bombs? Why not grab a few old space tugs, put robots in the pilot seats and have them accelerate at the enemy? It beggars belief equally to assume that the Rebels knew that this was possible but elected to go with the tortoise-paced bombers regardless, or that the nobody previously realized this was possible in however many centuries of space-flight? The truth is: neither circumstance applies. The Admiral’s final kamikaze is there in order to pluck unexpected victory from the jaws of inevitable defeat, and for no other reason. It is a formal iteration of the movie’s eucatastrophic logic.
So, yes: the kinds of excitement eucatastrophe provides are at odds with the kinds of discipline and satisfactions proper leadership and strategic planning provide—it dissolves the communitarian ethics of fellowship and friendship the movie is supposed to be about, as salt dissolves a slug. And in another way, the other important emotional pole of the movie cuts against the movie’s other purported ethos: hope.
The nostalgia is inescapable, of course. It’s why a good chunk of the movie’s audience, myself included, go to see the film in the first place. And The Last Jedi works shamelessly with the grain of that vibe. There is no dramatic or character-development need for C3-PO to be on screen at all in this fillum. He’s only there so that fans of the earlier films can see him and think “oh look! Threepio!” The same holds for R2-D2, pretty much for Chewbacca, for the ghost of Yoda past, for the Millennium Falcon and so on. They serve no narrative purpose (perhaps except for the last one, that has a small role to play in one of the movie’s many eucatastrophes, near the end).
Insofar as the movie attempts to integrate the gravitational pull of this nostalgia into its fabric it is at least attempting something interesting. We are offered two models of how the future escapes the dead hand of the past: ghost-Yoda telling Luke Skygrumper that masters exist for their apprentices to grow beyond, and Kylo Ren’s more scorched earth philosophy: “Let the past die,” he urges Rey. “Kill it, if you must.” Luke’s desire to be the last Jedi is part of the same thing. They’re all sentiments that speak, in their different ways, to a sense that Star Wars is suffocating under the weight of its own past, and that look to a future for the franchise. But that future will be what its present is, construed wholly from its past. We can no more dispense with it than Kylo Ren, for all his emo bragging, can shoot down his mother. Nostalgia’s affect is different to the affect of hope, and in some ways inimical to it.
Not that I’m complaining. Not really. There are plenty of things to enjoy in Star Wars: the Last Jedi. It’s a movie sure of its grace notes, many of which are delightful—the close up of a flatiron-shaped spaceship descending in a puff of steam that is revealed to be an actual iron. The long pan-in zoom shot across the tables in the space-casino paying homage to the famous long pan-in shot across tables in the movie Wings (1927); or better still, the four-foot-tall frog servants who keep Luke’s Jedi Rockall in good order, washing and repairing and so on, and who are clearly lifted visually from Miyazaki’s Spirited Away (2001)—lovely! I even like the porgs.
But these details get squished, rather, by the sheer weight of inertial Star Wars expectations: that there be yet another charge by Rebel fighters at a well-guarded enemy superweapon about to destroy them; that there be yet another lightsaber duel; that yet another disfigured, hubristic villain urges our conflicted hero to “fulfil your des! tee! nee!” There is something there, still, under the weight of all this Star Warsy stuff; some glimmer of hope that Skywalker’s dream might come true, the dream of putting an end to all of that so as to make room for something new. But the fans wouldn’t stand for it. The franchise wouldn’t dare. The No-Face that is Star Wars has devoured the possibility of Jedi kenosis.
I’ll still go and see Star Wars IX, mind you.