This review contains spoilers.
I saw The Last Jedi a month ago: while I was exceptionally and unusually organised at seeing it soon after it came out, clearly that organisation has not extended to actually getting round to reviewing it. Never mind: it’s probably still showing in a cinema near you, Star Wars being the multi-bajillion-pound property that it is.
So, the state of play at the beginning of The Last Jedi, as announced by the time-honoured crawl of text (I defy anyone not to feel a spike of excitement as the theme tune plays) is this: budding Jedi Rey is on Skywalker Island, trying to convince Luke to lead the Resistance/teach her the ways of the Force/at least not be quite so grumpy about everything. Meanwhile, the Resistance, for mysterious reasons of its own, is fighting a pitched battle against a huge First Order fleet.
The film wends its way through both storylines, slowly. Luke inevitably, reluctantly, agrees to give Rey three lessons in the ways of the Force, like a fairytale mentor. But during her time on Skywalker Island she begins to experience visions of Kylo Ren (First Order Supreme Leader-in-training and Han and Leia’s son, honestly, keep up), and tries to convince him that he’s not a bad guy, really, and would be welcome in the Resistance (which, he blatantly wouldn’t).
I’m being flippant, but the Rey/Ren scenes are the best thing about The Last Jedi. Elsewhere in the film, Ren’s tortured emo-ness (which he expresses, obviously, through blowing things up) becomes a little wearying, and Daisy Ridley isn’t given very much to do as Rey except shouting and stamping her foot, but the strange, intense bond – not quite friendship, not quite romance – that develops between them has all the passionate idealism of teenhood. For a while, we genuinely wonder if Kylo Ren will turn to the light after all, or Rey turn to the dark.
Meanwhile, though, the Resistance’s tiny fleet is defeated in battle, and turns and flees: they’re just fast enough that the First Order can’t catch them, but not fast enough to outrun the First Order completely. What’s more, they only have enough fuel for one hyperspace jump, which there’s no point in them making while the First Order is tracking them. With only a few hours of fuel left, the Resistance leader Vice Admiral Holdo decides simply to keep flying.
This, however, is not enough for pilot extraordinaire Poe Dameron, who hatches a plot with escaped stormtrooper Finn and engineer Rose to capture the best codebreaker in the galaxy, sneak him aboard the First Order’s flagship vessel, and get him to disable their tracking device. All in the space of six hours or so, give or take.
THIS PLAN CLEARLY HAS NO FLAWS.
If there’s one thing that made The Last Jedi impossible for me to like, it’s this: Poe’s actions effectively (and needlessly) decimate the Resistance, but the film and its characters still see him as a likeable maverick.
Further: Poe questions the judgement of his female and very feminine commanding officer (she’s tall, willowy, speaks softly, wears flowing clothing that emphasises her figure without being revealing – these are all very deliberate character design choices), defies her orders (in scenes that are painfully familiar to any woman who’s ever worked in a traditionally male profession, like, say, battle command), and gets her and most of the Resistance killed, but the film and its characters still see him as a likeable maverick. Instead of, you know, a sexist idiot. (Because, of course, Holdo had a plan all along, and Poe went and screwed it comprehensively up.)
What makes this so particularly jarring is that, otherwise, the film makes very positive choices in terms of diverse representation. Not only are there plenty of women in the Resistance forces (and the film passes the Bechdel test) – including Leia, Holdo herself, and Rose, a new character – there are also plenty of POCs. Poe may have dreamed up the codebreaker plot, but it’s Finn (British Nigerian actor John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran, whose parents are Vietnamese) who carry it out. In a blockbuster film in 2018, this still, unfortunately, feels groundbreaking.
The Last Jedi also has an interesting, and in context rather odd, tic around cute animals, and specifically cute animals which help the Resistance in some way. There are the notoriously adorable porgs, included in the film so the production team didn’t have to edit out the puffins who haunt the real-life Skywalker Island; one of them joins Chewie in the Millennium Falcon as a sort of mascot. There are the rather lovely crystal foxes who lead the dregs of the Resistance out of the mines they’ve become trapped in at the end of the film. There are some horse analogues which carry Rose and Finn out of trouble during the execution of their misbegotten plan, and which also incidentally smash up a casino full of evil capitalists.
What’s the connection between diverse representation and cute animals? Well, in the context of The Last Jedi I think they spring from the same impulse: thematically, they position the Resistance as a heterogeneous, grassroots organisation which draws on, and values, a wide range of different skills and backgrounds. (This isn’t a new idea: think of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi.) That’s in contrast to the hosts of identical stormtroopers, marching in formation, which make up the First Order’s army. But with the idea of the Resistance of grassroots goes, inseparably, the idea of the Resistance as guerilla; which is where, I think, the film gets its problem with authority. Guerilla armies don’t have formalised structures; at least, not in the popular imagination they don’t. They never get big enough or homogenous enough to need command structures, as the Resistance does. So we have a mismatch between our idea of what the Resistance should be (a group of free actors, bound together only by a shared sense of Right, and basically able to perform acts of heroism with impunity) and what any fighting force, or indeed any organisation that wants to remain functional beyond the next five minutes, needs to be (structured, with lines of command and process, and consequences for breaking those lines). Add to the mix Hollywood’s obsession with individual heroism above collective work towards betterment, and you get a film fatally confused about what, exactly, the Resistance, or indeed anything else, stands for.
Probably all of this would have annoyed me less if the film was actually a proper shape, but, like every single blockbuster film I’ve seen recently, The Last Jedi has screenwriters who just don’t know when to stop. There is too much plot. There are too many denouements, too many climaxes. Not to get all cod-nostalgic here, but the genius of the first three films is that they are shaped like fairytales, with a beginning, a middle and an end. Despite their SFnal set-dressing, they are fables, and so they feel timeless. (And, yes, what is timeless in one decade is oppressive in another; what I’m trying to say is that the original trilogy judge what we in the West currently consider “a good story” very, very well.) The Last Jedi isn’t, and doesn’t. It’s too messy to be Star Wars.