Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The most interesting aspect of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, particularly given the iron fist Lucasfilm has wielded over the spinoffs, is how long a leash Rian Johnson has been granted to tear apart the phonier, Original Trilogy-lite aspects of The Force Awakens.
The resulting problem is that the areas where he’s evidently inspired are very good (almost anything Force related, basically), but there are consequently substantial subplots that simply don’t work, required as they are to pay lip service to characters or elements he feels have nowhere to go. The positives tip the balance in The Last Jedi’s favour, but they also mean it hasn’t a hope of attaining the all-round status of IV and V (still the out-of-reach grail for the franchise, quality-wise). Which is a shame, as thematically, this has far more going on, handled with greater acumen, than anything in the interim.
I get the impression Johnson thinks the First Order is a fundamentally crappy idea, hence the delight he takes in trashing its Supreme Leader – one of several truly inspired decisions in the picture – and leaving it in the hands of a couple of squabbling teenagers. The resulting problem with this is that, while Ben’s arc in respect of the Force, the Jedi and the dark path is never less than fascinating, anything relating to his vying with Hux for control of the First Order has no potency.
You simply can’t count the First Order as a force to be reckoned with – ultimately – when its lead general is constantly mocked and undermined and its new Supreme Leader isn’t even sure what it is he wants to do. Consequently, while the take down of the Resistance is devastatingly resounding – far more so than in The Empire Strikes Back, to the extent that the sum of their forces now fits snuggly aboard the Falcon – there’s equally little doubt that it wouldn’t take a whole lot of effort to eradicate the First Order for good.
In that regard, it doesn’t help that we have little real sense of the First Order’s reach (an opening crawl can’t make up the difference). In contrast to the Republic and the Empire, the canvas of this new trilogy is pretty much limited to skirmishes between two rival gangs, as if no one anywhere else in the galaxy is very much affected by them either way (arms dealers supplying both groups rather emphasises the point).
If that isn’t the intention, it’s a fault in execution. Which wouldn’t be a surprise, as much as I like The Force Awakens, JJ Abrams left a whole lot of wrongs to be righted, and there were only so many Johnson could deal with. He also has to cop some blame for creating a good few himself, though. He succeeds in locating a character for Abrams’ “let him live” afterthought Dameron Poe, to the extent that he’s probably the one here given coherent progression.
Unfortunately, the bottom has entirely fallen out of Finn along the way, Johnson casting around to find something for him to do and in his desperation foisting on him the movie’s least-effective character, Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), designed as an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary happenings off the back of her Finn fan-worship. Or so the idea went (it seems everyone in these movies is a shit-hot pilot when called upon). In reality, Rose delivers a succession of mawkish platitudes, foisted with a shrug-worthy backstory about her lost sister that’s determined to make you invest in her but has exactly the opposite effect. She’s Johnson trying too hard, a clingy embodiment of the trite optimism of positive affirmations.
Structurally, the detour to Canto Bight is incredibly ungainly, failing to evoke the relative elegance of the Empire’s locale hopping – the holding pattern of the Resistance’s main ship being able to maintain its lead on the pursuing First Order takes some swallowing – and even more so for the content of these scenes, amounting to an ineffectual hurrah for animal rights (as these things go, Chewbacca being shamed into not eating his roast Porg does a similar job much more effectively and amusingly, and in a fraction of the time). The extended fathier chase felt worryingly as if it would have slotted seamlessly into the prequel trilogy. And, while it’s at least different that the mission is ultimately in vain, it rather goes to underline how inessential it is dramatically.
DJ: It’s all a machine, partner. Live free, don’t join.
So too, Benicio Del Toro’s less than scintillating mercenary/hacker – Del Toro’s tics and stutters take the place of a personality and leave him not so far from Poe in The Force Awakens – turns out to put money genuinely first and feels like a missed opportunity to parallel his disinterest in taking sides with Kylo’s attitude to the old arbiters of the Force. You can see why Johnson felt the need to give Finn a rematch with Captain Phasma, but the sequence only serves to highlight how thin this antagonism was in the first place (maybe, if Phasma’s back next time, they’ll finally make good. Maybe). And honestly, giving Finn endless knowledge of the First Order, its systems and tech, would be funny if it wasn’t so groan-worthy.
Contrast this with the manner in which Poe – called “Flyboy” at least one too many times – is consistently hot-headed and impetuous, to the point where he mounts a mutiny against Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo, and there’s a clear gulf between how well these characters are served. Poe really needed to justify his existence after The Force Awakens, and does so, and Oscar Isaac is consistently engaged and engaging, but there’s a nearly-not-quite aspect to this too. Johnson’s message seems garbled. By the final scenes, Poe is shown to have taken on board the better judgement of his superiors and it’s suddenly all okay; he’s proved himself and is ready to lead the rebels.
It doesn’t sit right; Poe’s been rather indulged with maternal affection of the “Oh, he is a one” variety by Leia and Holdo (even given they arrest or shoot him), possibly not such an appropriate reflection of the severity of his actions and the destruction it indirectly brings on the remains of the Resistance.
That said, he isn’t the only one to suffer from this messy plotline; Holdo’s reticence in filling him feels unsupported – she doesn’t necessarily need to tell him everything, just enough – and leads her to provoke someone she knows is inclined to rash action; as such, she’s just as unsound in her judgement (Leia too), and it’s probably the reason her death has no great impact (other than visually, and lack-of aurally).
A good writer can make obvious or dubiously motivated actions appear seamless, distracting through sleight of plot, such that our attention is drawn away from deficiencies. Too many times in The Last Jedi, the “I have an idea” development pops up unvarnished, not least when Holdo suddenly has the brainwave of turning the Resistance ship against the First Order command ship – if only she’d come up with that brilliant idea twenty minutes earlier. You know, around about the point the Resistance escape ships came under attack!
But, if Johnson shows he’s got some way to go in the script department, it’s impressive how unrelenting he is with the Resistance’s debilitating losses. It very nearly brings us to a honed-down point where the next movie (at least before JJ gets to muck it up with his ideas) can only be about the fate of Force users, rather than the First Order vs Resistance (which is a boring conversation anyway).
I’ve little outright negative to say about the use of the Force in The Last Jedi, or of the arcs of Luke, Rey, Snoke and Ben. It consistently makes the movie stand out from the pack. But there are a couple of instances. Leia is awarded an impactful Force moment, but it’s one that feels ridiculous for lacking precedence, smacking of inorganic attempts to make Organa more classically heroic/gifted. I might be easier to argue the lost opportunity of Fisher’s passing for the intended larger Leia role in Episode IX, except that the character in this new trilogy has lacked anything challenging or distinctive to make her actually interesting; stately wisdom doesn’t really cut it, not when before she was formerly best identified by sass and sarcasm).
I’m also probably in the minority in that I’m wary of the Force kid with the broom in the last scene; it felt a little too pat, coming from the same unfiltered place that gave us Rose. Otherwise, though, Johnson’s decisions add new layers to the presentation of the Force.
Sure, on one level I’m disappointed that Hamill (prospective Force Ghost aside) has left the series, even though I was kind of expecting it, as it was just plain interesting to see him inhabit that character again in a way that hasn’t been true of either Ford or Fisher. Thematically, it only makes sense, however (Johnson straight up admits the place Abrams located Luke at the end of The Force Awakens backed him into a corner with what he could do with the character, and he’s right). Plus, he gets to bow out having pulled off the ultimate Jedi mind trick (the Force, and its possibilities, become exciting again in this movie, a sea of levels and potentialities, in a manner not suggested since Empire).
Luke: Yeah, that’s pretty much nowhere.
Yes, there are repeated beats that echo Empire – everywhere in the movie, let’s face it, not just in terms of the Force – but with a sufficiently different spin not to feel like slavish copying per The Force Awakens. Thus, Rey’s vision quest finds her encountering doppelgangers when she asks after her parents, redolent of Luke’s in the tree; however, the reflection of oneself is instead used to subvert the Original Trilogy’s parental question, revealing that hers are nobodies (again, Johnson flips a JJ Mystery Box copout, giving an answer that undoubtedly isn’t the one Abrams would have chosen). It’s a similar reneging on “important comes through birthright” theme to Blade Runner 2049, and this trope backlash isn’t before time.
I might complain that Luke’s dilemma, and being convinced otherwise, is the stuff of a less wise man than he ought to be (the same with him placing value on the Jedi temple), but producing Yoda to impart this knowledge, along with a genuinely solid bit of teaching (“The greatest teacher, failure is”) that seems like the first such nugget there’s been since about 1980, rather papers over that particular crack (and he had shut himself down from the Force to boot).
While I don’t think we needed Rey telling us his death was peaceful – for all that Johnson flourishes visual acumen and compelling stakes, his dialogue choices can be surprisingly clunky, and need a polish to sound as if they’re in the right galaxy, far, far away – it makes sense that the tearing down of the old that Ben has enacted through killing Snoke should be mirrored, and that it comes via his own frustrated inability to overcome Luke himself (the confrontation on Crait is a masterpiece in jumping the tracks of expectation, right down to Luke’s “See you around, kid” sign off).
The different perspectives on Luke’s fateful semi-decision to deal with young Ben and the growing rapport between Rey and Ben are fascinating, the former having understandably provoked outraged feelings of betrayal from some sections of fandom. Which is kind of what you need to keep this series from becoming a redundant facsimile of earlier glories.
Johnson shows himself as dab a hand at action as he is philosophical rumination, ensuring Ben’s slaying of Snoke and his and Rey’s subsequent slaughter of the Supreme Leader’s guard is a triumph. There’s a dual servicing here; it works for Ben’s virulently unfettered purpose (wherever that leaves him subsequently, as long as it isn’t aimless, has potential; he doesn’t much care for being evil incarnate), but it also enables the removal of a half-cocked villain, a CGI character that didn’t need to be CGI who amounted to a sub-Sidious manipulator of fates (Andy Serkis is fine in the role, but it’s still a character that only ever felt derivative; Snoke does at least, in another nod to Johnson’s feelings on Abram’s inventions, tell Ren to remove his silly helmet).
Luke: Amazing. Every word that you just said is wrong. The Rebellion is reborn today. The war is just beginning. And I will not be the last Jedi.
The question now – and I don’t trust JJ to develop it with any depth or insight – is whether this will turn out to be circling a subject just to end up back at the same place. After all, Luke leaves the mortal plane reaffirming the value of the Jedi; everything he voiced about the flaws with the old order was entirely reasonable, so then to come around so swiftly to using that word (whether or not it’s for want of another to suggest opposition to Ben’s path) smacks of unearned backtracking and inconsistency.
Rey’s predilection towards seeing the good in Ben maybe sniffed a little too much of Luke/Vader, but like Snoke’s manipulation of her – the same kind of manipulation that brought Luke to Cloud City –there were enough other elements to make the interactions feel fresh, including Ben subsequently being genuine in asking her to join him, rather than a self-gratifying means to cement power.
That said, they really need to find a different spin going forward, as repeating “There’s some good in you. I sense it” throughout IX will smack of Return of the Jedi stir and repeat. There might also have been an extra beat or two too, to make her connection to Ben seem stronger than her initial loathing, but I think that’s an area where one can read between the lines.
Random observations. The Porgs are great, of course: cute, funny and most decidedly non-irritating. The film is frequently very funny (Luke with the blade of grass, drinking green milk, winking at C-3P0, brushing dirt from his virtual shoulder), and only occasionally in an intrusive or jarring manner; that opening call from Poe to Hux is a little too contemporary (and as I said above, if you make the bad guys too silly, you have to recognise that you run the risk of neutering them).
Was that a Usurian in the casino on Canto Blight? A little bald guy with bushy eyebrows in a place devoted to making money. I’d like to see more of Justin Theroux’s codebreaker (Theroux would have been much more interesting as DJ than Del Toro). They killed Admiral Ackbar! Kudos to making Yoda a puppet again (even if the puppet wasn’t quite as good; perhaps bloat is a side-effect of joining the Force) and giving him that goofy hermit sense of humour not seen since Empire.
C-3P0 and R2 are very much peripheral characters now, but maybe that’s as it should be (Chewie is likewise not in it very much, but is surprisingly well used when he is). BB-8 has taken over the heroic R2 role, and even gets an Imperial-liveried adversary (I started getting The Black Hole déjà vu at this point). Williams score is solid but unremarkable. The opening crawl seemed like irrelevant waffle (if you can’t do them well, just don’t do them). Mark Lewis Jones’ Captain Canady – more please. Maz Kanata – less please.
The Last Jedi is the longest Star Wars film, but it really needed a watertight structure to support that indulgence. Its peaks, though, surpass its troughs. Nevertheless, Johnson appears to have left Abrams as difficult a task as Abrams left him (one might even regard it as payback). Some serious hard work will be needed to make Finn (and Rose) relevant to Episode IX.
There are numerous potential pitfalls ahead; The Last Jedi sufficiently imparts a sense that an unexpected course awaits the series, and it will be disappointing if IX finds Abrams retrenching. Johnson appears to have cast off the shackles of obeisance to the Skywalker clan in one fell swoop, both in story arc and in a meta sense, rejecting indebtedness to the old ways of doing things that resulted in failure, recrimination, regret and withdrawal, crap prequels and slavishly indebted opening chapters to new trilogies. But it would be a mistake to begin setting up baby Jedi schools (or we’ll get Buffy Season Seven, God forbid), and Abrams somehow needs to find a conclusion to the Rey-Ben standoff that is distinctive and satisfying.
Generally, the concluding chapters of the trilogies have eschewed thoughtfulness for action and spectacle. The best thing Abrams could do would be to digest the superior elements of Johnson’s contribution and consult him on how to effectively make good on them. Of course, there’s also the factor of audience response. There has certainly been a vocal fan backlash to some of Johnson’s choices; already there are those holding out for Abrams course-correcting the “mistakes” of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. If a significantly slimmed-down final gross for the picture can be connected to that contingent, Lucasfilm might even begin to rethink Johnson’s golden-boy status.
Addendum 27/07/22: This review will obviously now come across as overly generous to The Last Jedi, particularly in terms of Rian Johnson and Lucasfilm’s more overtly revealed woke credentials, how Johnson left the “trilogy” dangling, and the suggestion he gave Poe a coherent character (the movie gave him a character, which doesn’t mean it was coherent). Still, there are things about The Last Jedi I like, even now. Just not so much how it dealt Star Wars a death blow.