Star Wars: The Last Jedi is long. A bit too long. But the final third picks up so much that just as I thought the film was about to finish on one of its many cliffhangers, something else, even better, would happen.
It’s certainly a rollercoaster ride. And an exhausting watch, as bright ideas turn out to be dead ends, defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory, the Resistance is depleted again and again and fighters die or run.
A couple of flashbacks look a bit melodramatic but in the main this is an epic that sweeps you up and along.
On occasion it’s hard to remember who is where, or doing what, and the film is occasionally bloated and untidy – but in the way that real life is often a bit of a mess, with lines of enquiry or attack suddenly closing off while others suddenly open, not necessarily at the right time.
I always start any conversation about Star Wars with a disclaimer that I don’t know much about Star Wars. I’ve seen most of the films, years ago, but can’t remember them and last night had to google how to spell Wookiee. (I know you die-hards don’t think people like me exist but we do and we will continue asking you stupid questions about people’s dads).
But for me what makes this film are the relationships between the individuals, particularly those involving Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who both help this occasionally rambling story reach peaks of greatness.
Driver is truly exceptional, so good he blows away most of the other talented actors opposite him. So many emotions are played out across his young but increasingly battered features: fear, self loathing, self interest, pain, anger (so much anger), and more. In fact in his louder moments he seems too unstable, too lacking in the measured wisdom that age brings (even if it is the wisdom of a villain) to ever be reliable.
His relationship with Rey (Daisy Ridley), maintained via a psychic link between the two across the galaxy, is one of equals, a constant tug of war and peace.
But she’s also open to darkness, as they battle for each other’s hearts and minds. Rey sees something saveable in him and he sees in her a link to something that can turn her. Kylo Ren seems initially fragile but despite their closeness uses her own vulnerabilities against her (this is her constant search for her parents in other people and is both Rey’s weakness and her saving grace). I genuinely had no idea how this personal war of attrition would end.
Luke Skywalker has exiled himself to island life with his only company those cute Porgs, and the Caretakers who’ve guarded the Jedi temple and sacred texts for centuries. It looks freezing, and wet, as he hides out in a round slate hut that resembles one of those National Trust toilets they build to fit in with their freezing and wet historical surroundings.
Rey has been sent to bring him back to help the Resistance. He’s more interested in the Force inside her and how she can control it, while she needs an anchor: “I need someone to show me my place in all of this” she says.
Skywalker has his own demons to fight, though it’s an old hero’s privilege to walk away, and sit enigmatically in a cave while everyone begs for help. He’s previously tried to rein Ren in with horrific consequences and now here he is with some dusty religious tomes that are apparently both useless and valuable.
The Last Jedi starts with an evacuation and a battle, which ends badly. And the First Order has developed the ability to track the Resistance through light speed, which means even if they use their last fuel to escape they’ll soon be sitting ducks again.
Finn (John Boyega) has his moment of doubt as the Resistance’s future looks not so much bleak as non-existent – though he’s pulled back by Rose (Kelly Marie Tran’s wonderful performance as the backbone of their pairing). Rose works out they are being tracked by one ship, so she and Finn go in search of the expert code breaker they need to get on board. They find one, a morally ambiguous man who is probably right.
Leading the First Order is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), a mass of scars and wrinkles. Kylo Ren is his junior, and in some ways there’s that proxy father-son struggle we’ve seen unfold in many legends. But watching Rey and Kylo Ren fighting as a team around Snoke’s red-lit hall, a space age ballet of destruction, is both gratifying and inspiring.
Space fights don’t really grab me, but there’s a wonderful scene on a mineral planet, covered in salt that sparkles white like snow. As fighters race towards each other across the terrain they leave tracks of vibrant red churned up from below the surface. And there’s sacrifice, because as in so many sci fi films someone always has to stay behind to do something important even though by now spaceships should really be fully automated.
There are jokes amid the destruction. Rey is earnest and Kylo Ren troubled so they make a somewhat humourless pair; Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) looks permanently anxious. So the movie’s light relief is welcome, whether Skywalker ostentatiously flicking an imaginary piece of dust off his robe after walking away from an extraordinary barrage of weaponry, or Poe Cameron’s fighter-to-ship phonecall to Hux where he claims not to hear the General in a sort of “Hello? Hello? This line is terrible” moment while Hux has to keep restarting his boorish pontifications.
Poe (Oscar Isaac) is brave but swaggering, taking risks that don’t always pay off, while older, wiser heads would wait. He’s an always engaging presence, who despite his impetuousness always bounces back, and understands the long standing value of hope.
It’s poignant watching Carrie Fisher. Leia is a wise head among the chaos, simultaneously admiring Poe’s rabble-rousing bravery while understanding that sometimes thoughtfulness should prevail. It would have been nice to have seen more of her friendship with Holdo as they clearly have a bond.
The Last Jedi is sad at times and traumatic at others, especially when [SPOILER ALERT] Chewy tries to eat a Porg [/SPOILER]. But time after time, just as you’re getting ready for events to wind up, they blast wide open and the fun starts again.