Feature: With The Last Jedi, has Rian Johnson shown he can helm a full Star Wars trilogy?

This piece contains spoilers regarding Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

The Last Jedi is here.

Rian Johnson, writer and director of Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Looper, has been given the reins to the Star Wars empire. I met and dined with Johnson back a few years, and he was utterly lovely. Quiet, friendly, humble. Exactly the kind of guy you want behind the wheel of a franchise you care about. We got along famously and he was a delight on every level.

He is not, however, a deft cinematic hand. His debut, Brick, was a wordy high-school detective flick, but it was iconic in the same way that Donnie Darko was – of its age, in other words. His follow-up efforts were fine, but then we got to Looper, a film I regard as utterly facile, oddly paced, and filled with facsimiles of interesting characters, shouting and screaming and going through the motions. So whilst I was optimistic when I heard who was making The Last Jedi, I also began to harbour some nerves.

I am a die-hard Star Wars devotee; I read the comics, the books, play the games. I revel in it, and I love when creators playing in its depths try new things. But The Last Jedi is proof that Johnson might not be the right man for the job (a concerning realisation, seeing as how he’s just been given his own spin-off Star Wars trilogy once Episode 9 wraps up).

The Force Awakens jumped ahead 25 years, and combined characters old and new to establish a galaxy in which the offspring of Han and Leia had ostensibly turned into a fascist asshole with a lightsaber and a grudge the size of the Death Star – bigger, actually. You see, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a real piece of garbage. In The Last Jedi, he’s making a push towards being even worse, under the tutelage of the bizarre Supreme Leader Snoke, a warped CGI villain about whom we know nothing, which the film doesn’t seem to think is important. It absolutely is, for the record. But regardless, he saunters across the screen looking extremely animated and postures like any good villain.

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. (Photo: Lucasfilm)

So let’s talk CGI. The original films – hell, even the majority of The Force Awakens – had a sense of place. The Last Jedi regularly feels rudderless; apart from Luke’s island, locations are muddy and indistinct, or even borderlines copies of locales from the original trilogy. And when they’re not, they’re filled with such an excess of CGI creatures and aliens it begins to feel less like we’re in a Star Wars film and more like… well, a Star Wars prequel. Characters are wiped from the playing board with such flippancy one wonders whether there’s any point getting attached to anyone here at all. War is hell? Life is hard? Yeah, it’s 2017. That’s something we’ve all well and truly internalised. You can imbue a plot with meaning by just shaking it until people fall off.

Everyone does their best, mind you, but it’s an average, messy, overlong film peppered with very good actors creating some very good moments under less than ideal circumstances. There’s the skeleton, the thread, of a plot in there that could have sundered the foundations of the Star Wars canon in bold, fresh ways. There’s Luke, and he’s as good as ever! There’s the final performance from the irrepressible, magical, unshakable Carrie Fisher as Leia! And there’s Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver, forming the core of what would have been a dreary ride without them.

But a lot of how you feel about The Last Jedi is going to hit you after you’ve seen it. Reviews appear to be polarising; people are either singing it’s praises or wanting to bury it. So here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to tell you to see it, then report back. Because maybe I’m wrong! Maybe I just don’t get it. Maybe I’m missing something. I hope i’m way off the mark, and that I grow to love the film somehow. But what I’m going to do now is skip over to the spoiler section, where we can dig into what I think threw The Last Jedi way off course.

First off, the entire B-plot – that is, the Resistance running from the First Order – is basically the equivalent of a horror film in which a truck is running down someone who never thinks to run left or right. What’s more, the First Order never think to call in reinforcements. The war, the titles say, has been going for a little while, and as we learn on the bullshit hollow casino horse planet, weapon dealers have been making their fortunes. You telling me they can’t perform a flanking maneuvre with the aid of reinforcements?

What we have here is a very promising A-plot – Rey and Luke, and later Kylo – delving into what it means to use the force, or to have the force use you. And all of this is going well, even if it does paint Luke as needlessly bitter – a somewhat cruel choice made by Johnson to add gravitas to the proceedings. Then, just as all the promises look to pay off – the argument that Jedi and Sith are stupid, war is pointless, and let’s hit the reset switch and go from white and black to grey – Kylo reverts to cartoonish super-villain again.

All the build-up, all the borderline-sexual tension (which seems grotesque given we and Rey have had less than ninety seconds to fucking grieve Han since he was popped in the last film), gone. Just think of a film where Kylo and Rey decide to shut it all down, with the help of Luke. Just dwell for a moment on how good that could have been, to have good and evil meet in the middle, and find balance. Nuance.

John Boyega as Finn. (Photo: Lucasfilm)

Then, there’s Finn’s filler plotline alongside his new friend Rose, a half hour of dross in which CGI horses are whipped and tasered by CGI aliens on a planet filled with CGI gamblers. This entire plotline, incidentally, comes to naught. They’re fucked over by Benicio Del Toro‘s inexplicably stuttering slicer, thereby rendering their roles in the story moot. This entire garbage wing of the movie should have been replaced with this:

LEIA: Finn. Rose. We need a slicer.

ROSE: Where do we find one?

LEIA: (Smiles wryly) I know a guy.


Lando Calrissian steps onto the bridge of the ship.

LANDO: You rang?

Then, cut straight to the ship, and have the plan work. Because you know what? It wasn’t until after an hour of infighting, casual mutiny and idiotic lack of communication that Laura Dern revealed she had a fucking cloaking-related plan to get the transports out. So Poe’s entire plotline up until this point?


Also, the entire Finn / Rose subplot is truly a waste of space. We start with Rose, a character who tasers people who dare to leave to save themselves. They’re volunteers, Rose. Since when did the good guys lurk by the escape pods electrocuting people who bailed when that’s their right? Then, she and Poe do their casino magic space horse idiocy. Fine. Whatever. But this plan ends up revealing the plans of the resistance and the locations of their ships, which means that those two get about, oh, 70% of the resistance wiped out? Nice work, guys.

Oh, and you can hyperdrive through a star destroyer? Jesus. That would have been helpful in, I don’t know, the last film. Probably would have saved Han if they could have just looked at Starkiller and, you know, put a fucking hyperdrive through it. Not a thing anyone had done before? An inconceivable gambit? A crazy plan that had never gone down in Star Wars before? Then how come the bad guys figured out exactly what she was going to do the second she began to turn? And how come she didn’t just do that THE SECOND the transports started getting whacked?

Also, let’s talk about Luke. Obi Wan waited in exile watching over Luke, but his exile had meaning. He was waiting for Luke to save everyone. He had a plan. In The Force Awakens, the plan is hinted at – Luke leaves his Saber with Maz, and it speaks to Rey. Everything seems ready for Luke and The Force to put all the pieces together to save everyone, which is how things should have gone, but here, things are the opposite. 

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker (Photo: John Wilson)

Johnson chose to have a film about hope end with nobody answering Leia’s call – again, pointlessly cold. Luke arrives and helps. Only it’s not Luke, it’s a projection of Luke as the galaxy’s hero. And what’s more, it turns out to be a heist of sorts, a gambit Han would be proud of. But then just as Luke reveals he’s been projecting his image back the whole time, he sees the twin suns – a view he’d have seen every morning for the last six years – and fucking disappears. And as if in answer to my concerns that what I just saw was lazy bullshit writing, Rey and Leia almost break the fourth wall and say it wasn’t sad. It felt good. And hopeful. Well thanks for that.

There are a litany of other problems – why did Finn, a coward and a man very bad at combat, manage to best Phasma, a character who got built up then offed without so much as a whiff of backstory? Who the fuck was Snoke? Why did Porgs get more screentime than Admiral fucking Ackbar, a hero of the rebellion who effectively got killed off-screen?

There was some great potential in this film, but it was often squandered, or smothered to death by Disney, or something, because what we got was messy. What we got was a muddy nostalgia cocktail brewed up with excellent ingredients, but an unpracticed hand.

But before I go, let me find something – quite a big something – to like about The Last Jedi.

Luke, Leia and Han had about 25 years of good fun adventure peace times between the trilogies, and that’s nothing to scoff at. Then, Luke started the academy and was presented with a horrible choice: Leia and Han’s son is going to be Space Hitler, essentially. He’s evil. And in spite of how the movie framed it, his moment of lowering his saver is an act of strength, not weakness. A Sith WOULD strike down Ben. Remember, by this point Snoke already had his hooks in. But choosing not to euthanise a tyrant doesn’t make him a bad or a weak person, it does the opposite. And good people tend to blame themselves for the failures of others; so Luke ran and hid, determined not to weaponise any more young monsters in waiting. He knew deep down that some simply can’t be saved, but love stopped him.

And then, he made his final gesture a monumentally heroic one: he saved his sister, and his pupil, and the remains of the rebellion, and scared Ben in the process. And then he passed on, sure, but Jedi don’t ever really die. Yoda appeared to Luke and interacted with he and the world just as a regular person would. Luke died in the same way Gandalf did: he evolved into something else, something greater. That’s not sad. That’s beautiful.

The Last Jedi might be a mess, but nestled in there is a solid, and at times profound through-line about the Jedi, and I think it’s an ultimately hopeful one. And it’s enough to drive me on through to Episode 9.

The Last Jedi is in cinemas now.

Lead image: Lucasfilm.


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