2017 | rated PG-13 | starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Kelly Marie Tran, Domhnall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Laura Dern, Benicio Del Toro | directed by Rian Johnson | 2hrs 32mins|
Studio Pitch: More Star Wars for those nostalgic fanboys. Toss them a fish and watch them slap their fins together.
The Star Wars franchise long ago ceased to be films as storytelling mediums and turned into a religion where nostalgic men and women could get together and gush or rage over the latest soap opera revelations about character’s fathers and mothers or it’s latest cute creatures. It’s triumphant return, the J.J. Abrams helmed The Force Awakens, was less it’s own movie and more of a collage of nostalgic call-backs to the original film, and a cultural beacon to debate Disney’s number one priority: girl power and racial diversity. The spin-off Rogue One – now that was a movie – helmed by always restrained Gareth Edwards and building a WWII Dirty Dozen film out of sci-fi tools it immediately became the entry disliked by most hardcore Star Wars fans and loved by me. Still each new movie only proves one inescapable reality: the Star Wars universe is not as big as it seems. It’s actually quite small, one limited by fan demands to stick to the formula and the studio’s own lack of creativity to branch out of what these movie can be, none of the new episodes stray too far from light sabers, cute creatures, hollow speeches about The Force, the light and dark side, WWII/Nazi parallels and, most important of all, a child’s angst over their parents deeds.
Rian Johnson is solid talent, proving maybe more than any of the recent indie directors who get a massive film franchise handed over to them, how to creatively make art and open up his stories with very limited budgets. Brick and Looper are textbook works of invention through constraint. Johnson is completely swallowed up and buried under all the sound, fury and hyper-activity of Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, a movie that starts at a 10 on the energy scale and never lets up for 2 and a half hours. Instead of following a journey, it sits in a handful of places and cuts back and forth between them with all the grace and attention to effective pacing of a sledgehammer. It’s rare to hear people talk about Star Wars and it not just be excited slobbering gushing about how awesome it is. This is going to be a look at the technical mechanics of these movies as films. You’ve been warned.
First, though the positives. Johnson proves to be the consummate Disney Yes Man, getting the tone just right and in line with the rest of the franchise. Last Jedi is a big studio assembled adventure, like any star vehicle summer movie, that does it’s best to appeal to the widest demographics possible. It’s tense when it needs to be, funny and self referential when it needs to be and even occasionally weirdly surreal. It makes sure to dole all of this out in equal measure so no demo gets slighted. Yes, it makes sure we all have plenty of gender and racial representation in X-wing fighter pilots, but for the most part the movie’s mass appeal humor works. Leaning more toward a Marvel film than a DC film for sure.
Where The Force Awakens did a lot of teasing and fan service, setting up a pass-the-torch movie where a new generation of Han Solos (Oscar Isaac), Darth Vaders (Adam Driver) and Luke Skywalkers (Daisy Ridley) met their heroes in cameos, The Last Jedi does a better job of weaving the original actors critically into the story. This is truly more of a Mark Hamill film than a Daisy Ridley film. The movie positively delivers on the desire to see Luke Skywalker be an all-powerful hero and a total badass.
The movie also looks great. It’s landscapes move from Luke’s jagged village island to the casino world to the salt desert and they all look gorgeous. It’s beautifully shot with minimal Star Wars Wipes and a few odd touches (like Rey in the island core). It’s almost as epic sumptuous visually as Blade Runner 2049.
The Last Jedi is a movie that works in individual moments, but not quite as a whole. It will play great while flipping around cable channels and landing on certain parts, but not being required to watch the whole thing. We get some galvanizing cool set pieces here, but the movie has to bend over backwards and contort itself – shrinking time, space and movie universe distance – to get to it. Everything is just a little too convenient for our heroes or over the top difficult when time comes to raise the stakes. Some stuff is set up and paid off (Rey’s training) and some stuff comes in out of nowhere like the entire 3rd act set at a spontaneously appearing rebel base or BB-8 increasingly used as a literal deux ex machina when the day needs saving.
These films have always been more eye-candy and creature building than actually generating emotion and excitement so an early bomb raid involving a remote detonator on the top of a ladder is a inventive bit that feels very Rian Johnson, milking a small moment for the most effective bit of suspense in this movie and several others. Johnson’s touch ends there and Disney takes over. The film has hollow characters with minimal dialog limited to either pure exposition or cute one-liners and a script that noticeably repeats it’s stakes and plans for the cheap seats in the back row. It pays off things set up in the Force Awakens anti-climactically. But the biggest issue with Last Jedi is it’s pacing and structure. It feels not like a full movie itself but a grossly extended climax to another movie. How could a franchise that is as protected as Star Wars put out something as shoddily put-together and halfway scripted as this?
The film picks up immediately after Force Awakens and follows Rey on Luke’s isolated island (populated by porgs, yes, but an even better creature – a group of devoted, pious Jedi-history caretakers that snap into action when something goes awry) begging him to return with her and teach her the ways of the Jedi. Here Last Jedi has the most effective and beautiful explanation of what The Force is yet. It also completely side-steps Luke’s aversion to it’s legacy and the past deeds of the religion. It’s crooked, we guess. That would be too much conversation and this thing needs another action scene, right?
Elsewhere we sit on the rebel ship, commanded by Leia (Carrie Fisher), that is trapped out in space with a ticking clock of it’s power draining and a First Order battleship (commanded by Domhnall Gleeson in full Nazi mode) on it’s heels and somehow able to track it through FTL travel. The premise is somewhat like the Battlestar Galactica episode “33” and the entire movie follows this single battle, sling-shotting back and forth between all the players: wildly impulsive pilot Poe’s fights with command, Finn (John Boyega) being forced back to the Storm Troopers he deserted, mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran, who feels like a fan won a walk-on role and never left), Kilo Ren’s attempts to prove himself to Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Kilo and Rey’s converging powers pushing each to the other’s side.
All of this business is fine on paper, but the way Johnson puts it together, cutting back and forth between things like they’re relevant to each other and slamming together set pieces is rushed to the point of becoming completely disengaging. It is structurally a lot like (here we go) Independence Day: Resurrgance. Like that film, Last Jedi follows the latest seemingly big budget tent-pole trend of simply not having a proper 2nd act. This thing instead has an extended first act, an endless third act and crashes them both together somewhere in the middle. Instead of following a traditional structure as a guide to creating real investment and tension, it goes straight up. It all comes together about an hour and a half in, hits it’s most logical and emotional climax (you’ll know it when you see it) and then keeps going for another 30 or 40 minutes at a new rebel base set-piece trying to wrestle all of it’s loose ends and flailing tentacles into something bigger and bigger still. I was tuning out in the final stretch, completely removed by the sheer numbing ludicrousness of it all. At the end, I was left wondering what parts of these storylines actually moved the story instead of just re-arranging the players for more screen time. Reviewers who go further into the “character arcs” will have a better bead on this, but at first glance, it’s not clear that the Finn/Rose/Poe plots do anything to advance anything.
I did appreciate a lot of the individual moments here as well as Johnson’s attempts to steer Star Wars into a different direction story-wise and – it shouldn’t be understated – the movie looks great, conjuring up memorable individual set pieces sure to be turned into memes. But I also found myself longing for J.J. Abrams finely tuned skills as a filmmaker, his ability to measure out a movie pacing and deliver satisfying little moments that make the big ones work. The Last Jedi is going to win fans and enemies amongst the Star Wars nostalgia, it will be debated and re-assessed for years to come (particularly when episode 9 comes out). Standing alone from a creative and technical level it’s a mixed bag of studio assembled ideas and techniques that are all over the road. Some hit, some miss. It’s awesome one minute and cheesy the next. It’s gorgeous and empty, action-packed and a mess. Different and yet the same. And for all the talk of “spoilers”, The Last Jedi hardly has a surprise in it. It plods along from A to B to C exactly as you’d expect with each turn and revelation proving predictable, painfully literal and obvious. Spoiler alert: there aren’t any.