The previous film of the Star Wars series, The Force Awakens, ended with a fascinating scene. Rey (Daisy Ridley) tracks Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a deserted island and presents him with a lightsaber – a long-awaited moment leaving a master and heir together. But early in The Force Awakens’ sequel, The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, Luke refuses to speak to Rey. A recluse trying to forget his past, Luke has become sullen, shunning the world of lightsabers, Millennium Falcon, and intergalactic wars. His sister, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), gets injured battling the First Order — a new dictatorial regime replacing the Galactic Empire – and spends a considerable time recuperating. These plot points, making two iconic figures step off stage (in addition to the third, Han Solo (Harrsion Ford), dying in the last film), seem deliberate, as the series needs new characters and conflicts to evolve. The Last Jedi, the second film of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, declares its intent early.
The Force Awakens, in fact, had already done some of that work. It took off from the 1983 Return of the Jedi (concluding with Darth Vader’s death and Death Star’s destruction) and introduced five characters: three from Rebels – scavenger Rey, an ex-stormtrooper “Finn” (John Boyega), resistant pilot Poe (Oscar Issac) – and two from the First Order: Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and a Jedi swallowed by the dark side, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The Last Jedi gives us three more, Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), Rebels’ new leader in Leia’s absence; Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a maintenance worker who befriends “Finn”; and DJ (Benicio Del Toro), a “Master Codebreaker” hired to disable the First Order’s tracking device.
These characters drive the plot forward, add dramatic tension, create and resolve conflicts. But unlike the series’ veterans, they lack commanding screen presence, compelling traits and, with the exceptions of “Finn” and Kylon, pointed backstories. As the Star Wars films have become bigger, they’ve also become overcrowded, making it difficult for the audiences to welcome every change. Several replacements have not worked. Snoke, a stereotypical villain, doesn’t evoke the same curiosity as Darth Vader. Rey, as the first female Jedi, adds crucial undertones to the series but is devoid of Luke’s charm and humour. Kylo, whose moral complexity makes him intriguing, is let down by an uninspired Driver.
Getting disappointed by a film for not matching up to its prequels is ideally unfair, as a movie should be accepted or rejected on its own terms. But a Star Wars movie, part of one of the biggest film franchises ever, is no ordinary fare. It tells an ongoing story, retaining the series’ original cast, with few changes in overall stakes, so any expectation from it cannot be independent. The Last Jedi, like any Star Wars film, has intergalactic battles aplenty, serving visual and aural spectacles, and while that is necessary, we also need the intimate – the small situations where characters live their fears, indecisions, and vulnerabilities. The few scenes involving Luke and Rey, and Kylo and her intent to correct some of that shortcoming, but they’re largely uneven, let down by weak acting and predictable backstories. Only a handful of scenes leave a lasting impact, such as the interaction between “Finn” and Rose in the climax, Leia recognising her identity, Luke confronting Kylo.
The humour, in contrast, arising naturally from the film’s world – whether through Luke’s cynicism, DJ’s tomfoolery, or Poe’s brashness – is much more memorable. So is the final scene, absorbing the universe with wonder and innocence, laying the sequel’s foundation without a line of dialogue. It is a wonderful moment – hope peering through despair. The end is eternal only if it doesn’t promise a new beginning.