Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

SW-TLJ1

Director/Screenwriter: Rian Johnson

By Roderick Heath

Here there be spoilers…

Although primed as the eagerly awaited follow-up to a hugely successful blockbuster and instant pop culture fixture, Star Wars: The Last Jedi had a daunting job of work ahead of it. If J.J. Abrams’ franchise-reviver The Force Awakens (2015) proved as tepid as often as tantalising in its effort to give fresh impetus to George Lucas’ canonical science-fantasy series, it did at least manage the task of introducing a new, appealing selection of heroes, and set them up as focal points for a grandiose cosmic drama, conveyed in lovingly produced and crafted cinema. But these exciting qualities weren’t particularly well-served by a new plotline that seemed determined to scrub the series blueprint down to its most simplistic outlines, and recycle familiar and comfortable looks and sounds from Lucas’ first trilogy without bringing any fresh ideas or conceptual zest to the table.

New helmsman Rian Johnson took on the challenge of dragging this new trilogy, laden with expectation and the inertia of franchise property protection, into richer, more novel, more genuinely epic territory. Johnson, a very talented filmmaker, turned heads with his 2005 gambit Brick, a film with the memorable conceit of having high schoolers play the protagonists of a noir film, a unique way of mediating the thrilling intensity and melancholy of teenage life. His second two films, The Brothers Bloom (2008) and Looper (2012), were entertaining but flawed attempts to expand his palette, radically different in tone and style but linked by efforts to blend his love of bygone ephemera and old movies with authentic efforts to tap the wellspring of emotions they stir in him, and his delight in telling tales of labyrinthine cunning. His best work post-debut was actually on several episodes of the TV series Breaking Bad, including “Fly,” a memorable instalment regarding its antiheroes’ efforts to catch a dogging fly in their underground meth lab, provoking all their festering anxieties to hatch out, as well as the pivotal episode “Ozymandias” where their lives actually fell to ruins. The Last Jedi actually takes on themes similar to those episodes, as it puts the Star Wars characters old and new in a pressure cooker and slowly but surely forces them to make choices regarding their lives, their beliefs, their loyalties, whilst their world topples.

In the wake of the briefly operational but catastrophically effective Starkiller’s destruction, the pulverised remnants of the restored Republic government and their Resistance warriors are forced to flee base after base, pursued by the First Order, the ruthless renascent offspring of the old Imperial forces led by the malformed but immensely powerful Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Famed Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) leads a determined attack on a formidable First Order warship of a “Dreadnought” class, sporting giant energy weapons, to give time for Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the rest of the Resistance leaders to flee. Poe ignores Leia’s commands to abort the mission, and instead calls in a flight of heavy bombers to pound the Dreadnought until the determined, self-annihilating efforts of one bomber pilot, Paige Tico (Veronica Ngo), succeeds in destroying the craft. Poe is put on the carpet and demoted for wasting too many good fighters and ships by Leia, and the Resistance fleet eventually finds itself crawling through deep space with the First Order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), in close pursuit.

Desperate to come up with a way to get the First Order off their tail, Poe and pal Finn (John Boyega), who’s just awoken after spending months in care having terrible wounds repaired, team up with Paige’s low-ranked, hero-worshipping sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who has a brainwave about the method the First Order is using to track them, and decides they need to sneak aboard their command ship and shut it down. Together, Finn and Rose take a fast, small ship to a nearby planet, Canto Bight, a playground for the super-rich, to find a codebreaker who might be able to penetrate First Order security recommended to them by Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o). Thrown into prison for a parking violation before they can make contact, they encounter in their cell the scruffy, nefarious DJ (Benecio Del Toro). DJ casually breaks them all out of their cell to demonstrate his own talents at subverting authority, and soon they form a pact and flee the planet after raising some hell. Meanwhile, budding Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) is trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to leave his hermit existence in a remote Jedi temple on a lonely island and return to breathe new hope into the Resistance cause. But Luke is filled with regret and self-recrimination after his failure to revive the Jedi order and loss of young Ben Solo to Snoke’s influence and the mantle of his assumed evil guise as Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Rey finds herself dogged by unexpected moments of psychic connection with Kylo, whose conflicts after killing his father Han seem to be boiling over.

If the most interesting subtext of The Force Awakens was its “tell me a story, grandpa” angle in contemplating chains of storytelling and their personal meaning, be it old war stories in the context of the on-screen drama and in meta terms the movies and other artworks you loved as a kid, The Last Jedi makes it clear that ardour for things wrapped in the comforting lustre of legend and period glamour must yield to a new and often dismaying reality. So Johnson commences with a mischievous assault on Abrams’ nostalgia, as he returns to the momentous final gesture of the first film, with Rey holding out to Luke his old lightsaber, that technocratic Excalibur: Luke takes the weapon, gives it a cursory look, and then tosses it over his shoulder in contempt. This is a great moment that signals Johnson’s theme, worked on several levels in the movie that follows, that his characters and their hopes can no longer be sustained by stale myths and old paradigms, and must jettison all that baggage to start again from scratch, to cleanse their temples and reinvent their institutions. It’s an intelligent and appropriate and, dare I say it, timely theme. It’s also, unmistakeably, a message aimed at the franchise itself. If Lucas’s prequels chased the ye-olde-timey ring of courtly sagas and his original trilogy evoked ‘40s screwball spark in their romantic scenes, Johnson’s dialogue and humour style here bring the series to a more definitely current, fashionable style. A joke early in the film sees Poe mock Hux by pretending to have him on hold on a speaker phone.

This is a funny moment that also signals, a touch annoyingly, that the Star Wars universe is being more exactingly annexed by a certain glib contemporaneity. Star Wars is no longer a legend of dreamtimes past; it’s a wing of modern pop culture founded by the likes of Joss Whedon. I suppose that’s inevitable to a degree, given that Lucas’s shift to set his tales entirely in a pseudo-historical zone with the prequels was the most fascinating and most ruthlessly rejected of his efforts. The opening sequence with the bombing raid is both thunderous spectacle but also rather senseless – the series has long been sustained by the unlikely notion of WW2-style aerial dogfights in space, but Johnson takes that here to a perfectly improbable extreme by reproducing that era’s style of bombing, with bombs dropped straight down with the use of gravity that doesn’t exist in space. On the other hand, the film’s central movement involves the agonisingly slow chase through deep space between the Resistance and First Order fleets, the latter maddeningly unable to catch the former at subspace speeds but only seeming to fend off the inevitable, in a plot motif bizarrely reminiscent of Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) in imposing clear physical limitations and cold equations upon the spacefaring (there are many yawning plot holes in the story, but I won’t carp on those). After Leia is almost killed in rocket attack on her ship, tensions mount in this agonising situation. As there doesn’t seem to be any way out save his friends’ risky plan, Poe feels provoked to rebel against acting fleet commander Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) when she seems to be intending a dangerous evacuation upon shuttle craft.

Star Wars has always been a bricoleur’s assemblage, defined by the ingenuity with which it mixed and matched classic film and pulp literary genres and a trove of mythological motifs. Abrams clearly worshipped at the altar of Lucas’ 1977 series foundation, but that seemed to be the limit of his referential frame. Johnson, on the other hand, is the sort of creative hand hip to Lucas’ method, at least to an extent, as Looper spliced incongruous motifs – time travel and psychic powers, gangster and hitman melodramas, old Hollywood and Anime – into an impressive if lumpy chimera. His preferred modes are classic noir and expressionist dramas rather than the swashbucklers, war movies, westerns, and sci-fi flicks Lucas took most inspiration from – screwball comedy is one significant overlap in their lexicon. This new influence is immediately apparent in the scenes on Canto Bight, where the grand casino inhabited by the smug-ugly has a veneer of ritzy glamour that proves instead to be a den of iniquity in a manner reminiscent of something like Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941) or Howard Hawks’ The Big Sleep (1946). A pivotal incident in the past that caused Luke and Kylo’s break and the destruction of the fledgling Jedi renaissance is seen three times in revised flashbacks, a touch that echoes many a noir film’s sublimation of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), and Kane and Welles are more clearly echoed in a sequence in which Rey attempts to confront her own nature as a creature of the Force and instead finds herself confronted by an endless hall of mirror selves, threatened like Welles’ antiheroes with mistaking her own ego for the state of the universe.

Johnson also emphasises the inequality and sleaziness pervading corners of this universe. Lucas’ vision for his future-past was always one of a society with a cynically profiteering sector – witness Han’s travails with Jabba the Hutt and Anakin’s lot as the slave of businessman Watto. Johnson tries to indict the forces at the centre of the Galactic community and their willingness to make money out of war. DJ highlights for Finn and Rose that the fortunes of Canto Bight’s denizens have largely been made selling arms to both the First Order and Resistance. The visit to Canto Bight finds Finn and Rose observing the brutality towards both animals engaged in racing, and the young human thralls used to prop up the lifestyle of the rich and famous, and the plucky Resistance warriors make common cause with both. The sequence in which Rose releases the racing animals is both fun but also a little too Harry Potter-esque for this imprimatur, whilst Johnson’s attempts to work up some of the sort of resurgence-of-the-repressed drama Lucas was so fond of – see THX-1138 (1971); Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) – manifests in offering up a few waifs straight out of ‘30s Our Gang shorts making gosh-jeez faces. Johnson wants these kids to represent the notion that the Resistance instils hope and the basis for future resurgence, blended once again with the notion of loving this fantastical material as a viewer for its uplifting and dream-stirring cache, and the film’s very ending points directly to this process taking root in the minds of these young people.

This notion doesn’t land nearly as strongly as Johnson intends it, however. He wants us to feel the illicit rush of this rebellious spirit in his tale and also the daring in his lack of cool. Given that Lucas was flayed alive by the modern cool police by his choice to move entirely into the imaginative realm of kids on The Phantom Menace (1999), Johnson’s efforts feel only crudely calculated and tacked-on in skirting the same territory. Where the film is on surer ground is Rey and Luke’s tetchy, mutually frustrated relationship, which evokes but also revises Luke’s encounters with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Luke is a shambolic, self-exiled husk of his former self, detached from the Force and subsisting with hopes the Jedi way will die with him. Confronted by Rey’s raw natural power, he’s both impressed and terrified, as he’s already seen the same abilities in former pupil Kylo. Rey attempts to prod the Master back to action provoke scorn – “Did you think I was going out to take on the whole First Order with my laser sword?” Luke questions in derision. Hamill, whose performance is often taken as a weak link in the original trilogy, nonetheless matured into an excellent character actor in the course of his spotty career. He’s very good here, better indeed than Harrison Ford’s much-hailed equivalent turn was in The Force Awakens, as he invests his aged and haggard Luke with glimmers of his old, dreamy romanticism even as the damage his life failings have done to him gnaws incessantly at his core being. Of course, the question as to whether Luke will return to the fight isn’t really a question, only how and at what suitably dramatic juncture of the story.

One sharp failing of The Force Awakens was Abrams’ neglect of coming up with any genuinely inspired new technology or alien species. Johnson is more vigorous with the aliens, particularly on the temple island where Luke takes milk from giant, lolling walrus-like creatures to drink, and the Porgs, a race of small, furry, but relatively aware critters who object with memorably abject horror when Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) proposes to eat one of their fellows. But there’s still a notable failure to do much that’s interesting or properly, dramatically engaged with the new alien characters. Even Chewbacca, who has long stood vitally on the divide between sci-fi grotesque and beloved supporting character, is marginalised here, and his reunion with Luke is a paltry scene. Johnson does offer up one lovely dollop of fan service as Yoda (Frank Oz) appears to Luke when he’s determined to destroy the last of the Jedi’s founding texts. Rather than try to stop him, Yoda brings down a bolt of lightning to do the job for him, and patiently instructs him in the film’s theme, that faith has to be in the living avatars of the creed rather than relics of the past. Kylo, confronting Rey, makes the same point, encouraging to spurn her past and claim the future as her rightful possession.

This endlessly reiterated message feels as much like a poke in the ribs to cranky old fans like me as a dramatic imperative, and it might have had more impact if the film wasn’t trapped resolutely within the resolutely unimaginative framework Abrams and Lucasfilm-Disney provided. The new series has not just paid attention to all the criticisms aimed at the prequel trilogy but taken them so deeply to heart it’s caused creative rictus, in stripping things back to essentials: although there are little flourishes in the margins here, it’s still basically just an extended chase movie. The First Order, whose resemblance to a Khmer Rouge, Taliban, or Daesh-like force of fanatical opportunism has faded to leave them purely as Empire wannabes, represent the biggest failure in this regard. There’s still no inkling given of their aims, their credos, other than being the Bad Guys. Snoke is the Emperor without Ian McDiarmid’s wit and relish in instilling dimensions of Machiavellian smarts and rancid perversity in his character; Hux and Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) are still just sneering snobs. One quality that distinguished the Star Wars series under Lucas’ hand was the way it steadily evolved, accumulating lore, complexity, and emotional heft, even whilst maintaining an open, light touch for the broadest possible audience. Yes, the original film was a fleet, glib space western, but it laid groundwork quickly and deftly to suggest greater dimensions to everything we saw and felt, and then each of the following five films added something new. But in spite of Johnson’s calls to bring something new to the table and forget the past, he resolutely avoids the hard work of actually doing this.

Johnson indeed seems plainly impatient with much of the infrastructure he inherited from Abrams and Disney’s focus groups – very early in the film, he has Snoke mock and Kylo destroy the incredibly uninspired mask Kylo wore in The Force Awakens, and the path Johnson’s storyline cleaves through the set-up he was stuck with is similarly dismissive. One great task always facing Johnson was to try and come up with a twist as memorable as Darth Vader’s great reveal in The Empire Strikes Back. Johnson does provide a twist; several in fact, but not only do they not approach the momentousness of the model, they don’t really add up to much, in large part because they eventually cancel each-other out and leave the story precepts pretty much what they were at the outset. Much like Rey in her hall of mirrors, Johnson falls into the trap of merely deflating or offering slight tweaks on familiar moments. The flight to battle in rickety spaceships proves a tragicomic joke. The bad guy who becomes a good guy proves then to still be a bad guy – not once but twice. The pivotal scene here involves Kylo’s assassination of Snoke, a gleefully nasty if not total surprise, and one that concedes Snoke was just a ranting placeholder in the role of ultimate evil. Johnson’s staging of this sequence, and Rey and Kylo’s subsequent battle with Snoke’s bodyguards, is definitely the highpoint of the film, one that seems finally to engage with the sheer swashbuckling verve and operatic swerves of human nature of the series. And yet Johnson quickly undercuts its impact by having Kylo prove to be merely calculating rather than complex, and he ascends to the status of unchallenged bad guy, one who is apparently still enough of a sucker to not notice the difference when someone is projecting themselves on the astral plane.

The major subplot involving Poe’s clashes with and eventual mutiny against Holdo is another potentially intelligent story thread that doesn’t quite work, particularly as its raises a worthy and legitimate new theme about types of leadership. Poe, used to command and chafing against his reduction, becomes increasingly angry with the taciturn Holdo, and both fail to a certain extent in arguing for their positions. Johnson seems to be pitching here to launch a thousand think pieces on female leadership and male intransigence, which feels in a way a bit treacherous to the series’ comfort with women as leader figures (Leia, Mon Mothma, Padmé Amidala), which means ironically he’s had his talking point theme at the expense of this creative universe’s established, blithe indifference to contemporary gender politics (none of Padmé’s soldiers questioned her commands). Dern also feels rather miscast in the role, too, as it seems to demand someone with thorny hauteur and icy-eyed determination along the lines of Kristin Scott Thomas. That said, Holdo’s climactic act of vengeful self-sacrifice, ramming her space ship into Snoke’s at high speed, shattering the First Order fleet to smithereens, is a great piece of spectacle, made more effective by Johnson’s removal of all sound, simply observing the surge of pulverising energy and splintering metal. Here he really grips the quasi-Biblical scale of action and destruction matched to grandiose human will in the series forebears by the throat. And yet, again, Johnson doesn’t follow through with any clear depiction of the effect this has. Indeed, it has none on the First Order hunt and core villains.

Ridley and Boyega are still real finds for this series, and both of them display a developing touch in making their roles effective audience stand-ins who nonetheless have properly defined characters. But the way Finn and Poe are handled here makes them feel increasingly like fifth wheels. Finn is proved a dupe who flits about the margins and Poe’s struggles lead him into a position of new authority by the end that feels more accidental than earned. Finn’s final battle with Phasma aboard a disintegrating Star Destroyer is effectively melodramatic, but proves a little scanty. Johnson sets up a romantic triangle of sorts between Finn, Rose, and Rey – or rectangle if one counts Rey’s fleeting if finally extinguished attraction to Kylo. But it’s a long way from the smouldering love-hate of Han and Leia or the guilty, transgressive passion of Anakin and Padmé. Now we’ve got the adorkable pairing of Finn and Rose, which does lead into a gripping sequence in which Rose performs a staggeringly risky manoeuvre to save Finn from his own kamikaze gutsiness, but otherwise feels entirely too cute. Lucas’ characters were archetypes and naïfs, but they were also solid adults who had sex and dashed and dazzled. Everyone in this seems restricted, repressed, stymied. Part of what made The Empire Strikes Back as beloved as it is in spite of its nominally downbeat narrative of calamity and mutilation, was because it was the most authentically dreamlike of the original trilogy. The cavernous spaces and hovering beauty of Cloud City, dragon-riddled asteroids, haunted swamps, and spaceships roaring through twilight skies burned with ardour in authentic fantastical horizons. Nothing here even approaches, at least until the very end when Johnson evokes Lucas’ crucial images of setting suns and dissolution of the flesh, such a state of transcendental beauty.

Rey was and remains the best new character – I’ve heard many invocations that hold her as the sole real achievement and best reason for loyalty to the new series from fans both casual and hardcore – and The Last Jedi does drag her evolution to interesting new places. She’s the voice of a new and ardent breed who craves leadership and direction, appealing to a crusty old warhorse in the form of Luke in a manner that feels true to a real-world context today where the young have looked to older voices of undiluted radical vision. Rey is also beset by her mysterious bond with Kylo, with glimmers of erotic interest and tactile communion as they try to connect psychically (including Rey being distracted by the sight of Kylo sans shirt, a funny moment that also conveys a blessed note of the erotic, otherwise desperately missing from Disney Star Wars) coexisting with fierce antipathy. The film’s ultimate solution to the raised mystery of her parentage feels like another dodge, as her parents were just wastrels who sold her for coin, and her abilities are purely her own provenance. This is neat on a symbolic level, as it underlines Rey as the embodiment of the new and of re-founding rather than legacy, but it’s also rather, well, lame and anti-climactic. Luke reiterates a belief that the Jedi must end, but what exactly what might take the creed’s place, and what Rey in particularly could bring to it, again isn’t given any thought.

The Last Jedi does give Fisher a strong last go-round as Leia, who stands alone as a figure of stature and authority for the first time, running the Resistance cause with a sinking heart and guttering fire of determination. Leia gains some appropriately great moments, including one in which she utilises Jedi gifts surprisingly to save herself from a seemingly inevitable death. She also has a funny exchange with Holdo as they both admit their simultaneous irritation with Poe but also common love for his kind of bad boy. A running joke about Rey’s belief that the Force is the ability to make rocks float builds to a punch-line at the end involving her do just that. That’s about it. And this moment crystallised the way Star Wars has been vampirised by those pretending to reinvigorate it. There’s painfully little wonderment or fantastical beauty left in this universe. Johnson’s film looks good in a way, chasing a quality of desolate, dusky beauty, but too often it looks rather too often grey, dusty, and more than a little dolorous. Compared to the astounding opening sequence of Revenge of the Sith (2005) with it monumental, intricately staged, kaleidoscopically colourful space battle, Johnson’s paltry fleets slowly chugging through space are clunky and dully pseudo-realist. Of course, The Last Jedi is supposed to be set in a different, more run-down and wearied age, but that only covers a genuine paucity of real layering and ingenuity in effects and world-building so far.

The mantle of the Jedi no longer carries with it the scent of green bamboo shoots they inherited from their wu xia and samurai epic models nor the red petals of chivalric romance, and with them goes the very element that elevated Star Wars above its rivals in the modern special effects cinema arms race. And as dynamic as these cinematic inheritors try to be in filling its place, this absence of an elevated plane to the drama, a yearning for higher ideals and the resonance of myth, never mind Lucas’ attempts to encompass his ideas on history and society and the linkages of both to identity, depresses me deeply, as does the refusal to engage in the creative universe beyond the immediate survival drama beyond canards like some of the rich are bad. I might seem to be castigating The Last Jedi more harshly than it perhaps warrants: it’s still easily the best of the three entries (which also includes Gareth Edwards’ mediating one-off Rogue One, 2016) in the reinstituted series. It boasts a handful of powerful sequences, and although it features a finale that goes on a few scenes too long and tries playing the same hand over and over again, and builds to a properly momentous confrontation of Luke and Kylo, it’s only to, once again, reveal itself as a kind of a cheat, failing to deliver Luke to a consummation even close to what he (and the audience) deserves. The universe should shake to its foundations when Luke Skywalker dies. Instead, Johnson merely has him run out of puff. The new series has closed The Last Jedi tells me the series has plateaued in terms of what it can accomplish and how it’s going to do it, and that reasons why I’ve loved this material in the past are slowly but surely being neutered. Where the prequel trilogy has only doggedly and insistently earned my admiration for their achievement over the past decade or so, these new films lay all their cards on the table instantly.

14 thoughts on “Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

  1. Natalie

    Great review as always… I hated almost everything about this. Not only was it bad Star Wars movie, it was mediocre filmmaking at best. I know RJ had to deal with JJ’s idiotic mystery box but it seems he didn’t even try much. Things were left unexplained (like Luke’s lightsaber) or deal in the worst possible way (Snoke, Rey’s parents, Ben’s turn to the dark side). Mark gave a good performance (given his well known objections, being angry wasn’t hard for him), everyone else was forgettable. The story was a mix of Empire and Jedi with an entire subplot ending up being a waste of time. The humor fell flat most of the time, the visuals were ok but nothing innovative. There wasn’t even a decent lightsaber duel. The galaxy felt extremely small, the entire Resistance fit on one ship by, are you kidding me? Even at the height of the Empire, Rebels had more presence. Fans complained about midichlorians – well now apparently a nobody can have more powers than a Skywalker, sure made Kenobi and Yoda made stupid when they thought Anakin’s kids were their last hope. Speaking about the little green alien… his scene just made me scratch my head… The worst offense was the treatment of Luke. Young Luke had his faults, but cowardice wasn’t one of them. He also had an example of Obi-Wan and Yoda wanting him to be a Jedi despite of his parentage. So his behavior was completely out of character. And then he just runs out of the mana points and dies. Even when RJ comes up with some potentially interesting storylines (like Rey/Kylo’s connection) they don’t go anywhere. I also don’t understand why the cinematography was so boring. Now I don’t expect the color of The Phantom Menace but I feel the OT (particularly TESB) was very romantic and dreamlike. This is just drab and flat. You really don’t want to go and explore this version of the GFFA. I could go on and on but I really didn’t like anything about this movie. Abrams is back for the next one so I think I’ll write off the sequel trilogy as a loss.

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    1. Roderick

      Hi Natalie. You put me in the odd position of actually liking this more than you whilst still not thinking that much of it. Whilst the film was unfolding, I admit to having been riveted, mostly because of anticipation — would Kylo turn good? Rey turn bad? when will Luke join the fray? — but then as I thought about it driving home I began to realise I’d been sold a beautifully crafted bill of goods. We’re definitely agreed that the dreaminess has been sucked out of the series along with the colour. I don’t agree that Johnson wants us to see Luke as cowardly; I think he wanted Luke to come across as a damaged and severely humiliated person, and the scenes between him and Rey were very reminiscent of the scenes between Willis and Gordon-Leavitt in Looper as the voices of youthful intransigence and rueful elder regret. But that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate to this character, as you say. You’re also dead on about the lack of a decent lightsaber duel — there’s all that great build-up to that scene of Rey and Kylo fighting together, but the staging of it is entirely flat, one-dimensional, lacking the kind of physical bravura the Jedi can wield. As to plot holes and swerved opportunities — since when can one Jedi really fool another (or whatever the hell Kylo is) with a mere projection of himself? Since when can Jedi do that sort of thing at all? Wasn’t it really just a glorified pinch of Loki’s projections in the Thor films? This isn’t the only aspect of Johnson’s storyline that felt filched from other recent, popular fantastic film properties. I don’t mind the notion that Rey has as much power as a Skywalker, but I felt Johnson missed many opportunities there, particularly the possibility that she might have been, like Anakin, a kind of engineered virgin birth, especially as Snoke suggested that she was the Force’s way of balancing out Kylo. And that motif annoyed me, because it clarified how much Rey suffers from Harry Potter syndrome — she’s the remarkable beneficiary of forces beyond her control, mandated by powers beyond like the balance of the cosmos and the demands of screenwriting contrivance, rather than honed ability.

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  2. Moose

    I am with you in that I a feel great sadness for the removal of the fairy tale/mythological aspect of the series. In Episode VII I thought that aspect was missing due to a misunderstanding as to what made Star Wars different. Now that I see that the removal is done on purpose and in an explicit manner I am beside myself.

    In addition, this felt like what George Lucas would call a “talking head film” with lots of close-ups of actors’ faces, as opposed what he calls “pure cinema” where visuals, sound effects and music (amongst other things) are emphasized as much, or more, than just the actors talking.

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  3. Roderick

    Hi Moose. Yes, you’re perfectly right about the talking head film thing. TV style dramaturgy has become so deeply ingrained in expectations of how these sorts of things should unfold that people think this is good epic filmmaking. Not that I’m allergic to conversational cinema but this is just banal stuff. Star Wars is now owned entirely by those who fetishised the technocratic edge of the first trilogy. Even when Johnson tries to get a little mystical there at the end it doesn’t feel right.

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  4. Moose

    Roderick – I am with you on the end’s mysticality – either too little, too late or just another lame “shout-out” to the original trilogy.

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    1. Roderick

      As the end of Revenge of the Sith proved, Moose, the setting twin suns is indeed the lynchpin motif of the series. So why did it feel so strained and unemotional when Johnson tried it? For one thing, his scene grammar felt off – he couldn’t match Lucas’ compositions for one thing, and he didn’t seem able to connect with Hamill’s emotions in the face of it. That on top of the fact that all I was wondering then was, “Wait, so, this planet has two suns too? My, that’s a coincidence.” Also, after killing Han off so casually and wretchedly at in The Force Awakens, it just felt by this point like someone wiping another name off the chalkboard.

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  5. Moose

    Well, we’ll always have Paris.

    I just wanted to mention that your transcendent reviews have helped me understand why I originally loved the Prequels and Return of the Jedi (in addition to A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back) and have allowed me to appreciate them even more. I thank you for that.

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  6. Cannon

    George Lucas’ six-part saga was ultimately always subservient to the bigger picture that is life in general, translating through 20th century pop-art forms many age-old truths and universal wisdoms cultivated from myth, history and psychology altogether. The mythology of Disney/Lucasfilms’ Star Wars however extends no further than as a meta-commentary on Star Wars itself, particularly as a multi-generational franchise. It feels smaller now as a result, insular. Almost entirely self-reflexive. Self-absorbed. Talk about a movie that’s at war with itself… Forget Episodes II and III; The Last Jedi easily outranks them as the angstiest installment of the franchise. Virtually every theme, no matter the weighty pronouncements, is really just a stand-in for reconciling the very continuation of this ‘galaxy far, far away’ past the point of circular closure; all fits and plights about, well, consciously or subconsciously, the baggage of Star Wars eight movies in, forty-years on.

    That’s not to say such themes are bankrupt, for there certainly is a bit of insight to the notion that all tings familiar and sacred must yield to the promise of the living and ever-changing future. The problem is that this Sequel Trilogy only seemed aware of this notion two movies too late, and even then merely skirts its possibilities instead of fully committing. When Kylo Ren proposes to Rey a unity that would turn away from everything Sith and Jedi, First Order and Resistance, letting such constructs fade into oblivion, the part of me engaging the franchise on aforementioned terms was ready to fist-pump such a bold and auspicious transition into uncharted territory. Alas, it was but lip service, ringing hallow, and the movie with only a mildly appetizing series of reiterations and fandom placations.

    Johnson carries on with the current ‘OMG!’ sensibility where nothing in a populace movie counts as “dramatic” without being dialed up to an 11. Scene after scene here is replete with hushed pauses or gaspy reaction shots. The younger cast literally shake about in much of their collective performance while the older actors are set to default forlorn. Someone’s always agitated, tearful or downright sobbing. I just go numb. Without the mannered formalism of the PT or the OT’s at once sophisticated-naiveté, we’re left with little more than the kind of camera-mugging postures routine across the board of modern blockbusters. Where the earlier films communicated story-point dispositions with clarity, this new batch is prone to merely priming audiences with much expected sentimentalism; where once Star Wars was deeply emotional and classically romantic, now it’s just all about the feels.

    Still, Individual actors — Hamill, Driver and Del Toro — make the most with isolated moments of genuine hammy relish: DJ’s antihero self-amusement and needle-skipping speech impediment, the way Kylo’s powder keg physicality often dovetails into contrasting grace, like sliding into a First Order corridor Breakfast Club-style, and Luke pole vaulting cliff edges and drinking green milk from alien udders with a hearty grimace. The dramaturgy overall is fine, I suppose. It’s just a bit jading to witness yet another eccentric feature of the franchise old omitted in favor of something characteristically commercial and commercially uncharacteristic.

    And, yes, the same goes likewise for the reductions in visual grammar… as you and Moose point out, those goddamn close-ups. Rian Johnson and Rogue One‘s Gareth Edwards both have the capacity to manifest artful imagery of the advert kind (Abrams, considerably less so), where in this case one might just as easily expect a Lexus to be speeding alongside the rusty Resistance fighter-crafts across a salt desert leaving streaks of red yet, as a price, is oddly less lyrical or even straight fanciful than it is chic. The Last Jedi is never outright ugly and certainly looks “nice” when it wants to look “special”, but lacks the storytelling strength as can be provided by finer architecture in visual grammar. Not enough has been said of Lucas’ compositional discipline and consistency — from story structuring to actual on-screen staging — while the majority are still to quick to dismiss him as a “lousy director” simply due to his stiffness with actors. I mean, forget the fact that he’s one of the best fucking editors, like, ever; ‘three-take-limit’ dialogue and some soapy teen romance = hack. Whatever. Anyways, check out this Youtube link:

    Lucas made motion-tapestries. Yet even the most unassuming shots under his direction (or the direction subsequent to his established oversight) can stand on their own with graphic-design ease. You simply could never gleam as much from the new films in question. The coverage and shot-flows therein are too fragmented, boxed-in or wasted on tiresomely excitable camerawork i.e., swish-pans and imitation Spielberg push-ins. I’ve an appreciation for Johnson’s aim to visually reconsider the working metaphysics of this fictional universe that’s curbed by how derivative it readily comes off, such Rey meditating the Force via montage of island nature happenings steeped in discount Danny Boyle/Darren Aronofsky imagery or her mind-trip into a mirror realm that is like something Tim Burton would concoct for one of his children’s storybook adaptations.

    And then there’s the whole ongoing Force relay between her and Kylo Ren. A thematically broadening idea of Jedi potential? Hold that thought. Step back for a moment and consider just how lazy of a narrative gimmick it is. Kylo’s on one side of the galaxy with the First Order, Rey’s on the other side training with Luke. But a relationship arc between the two must be further developed through repeated interactions, challenging one another in purpose, loyalties and whatnot. Sooo… the Force does it. Granted, such proves to be a scheme implemented by Snoke, except Snoke soon after proves inconsequential therefore this conference that spans the film’s entire midsection is really just a jury rigging of the Force into some kind of mystical Skype chat. It’s kinda lame. I’m sure a case could be made in how it establishes that which is later revealed in the method of Luke’s final intervention. However, that very conceit is one you yourself mocked for its hokey-Loki dopiness. Thus, I’ll let someone else try and square it. Moving on…

    The set-pieces. C’est la vie in the absence of Lucas’ virtuoso motion mini-narratives and the abstract qualities they expressed. Finn and Rose’s fathier stampede through Canto Bight, for example, is plain clumsy in execution next to, take your pick: Anakin’s carefully systematic pod race, the precision in outer space geography that was Obi-Wan’s starfighter pursuit of Jango Fett through a ballet of orbital asteroids, the blitz speeder bike chase through the forests of Endor’s moon etc. The Falcon’s flight through a cavern of red geodes was, on the face of it, admittedly dazzling, until I realized it was mostly just a repeat in choreography of the previous film’s getaway through a Star Destroyer ruin with but a change in backdrop.

    But I’m crapping too much on Johnson here. I did overall enjoy the final aforesaid showdown between AT-ATs on steroids and an old Rebellion stronghold, as repetitive of Hoth as it was. I also dug the opening raid-on-raid between Dreanought and bombers. Johnson maybe plays too heavy a hand in this sequence by literalizing the nameless tragedies of war (note: Lucas’ approach in such matters was always more interestingly askew with absurdist-surrealism) and it, too, cribs from yet another Abrams reboot, being the sacrifice depicted in the opening of 2009’s Star Trek, but remains a handsome gesture nonetheless that picks up where Rogue One left off with an earnest recognition of Star Wars heroes unwritten, and the geek in me thought those bombers were pretty cool looking.

    The lightsaber fights are acceptable. Richard Marquand didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel with his Luke & Vader duel. The results were utilitarian in staging, but also rightly focused on the accumulated dramatic conflict between the characters, while the shadowy, black-on-black setting offered just the right accent in visual motif between light and dark struggles. Johnson’s fiery red storm that brings down the house around Rey and Kylo as they cut down Snoke’s guards matches an intent in tradition to aestheticize these space opera sword melees, yet the actual story content just isn’t quite there, more assumed than it is earned. In turn the whole sequence comes off a bit overcooked. The privileges of Star Wars production/iconography aside, Johnson has managed a sleek sci-fi actioneer no more particularly outstanding than, say, what director Wes Ball achieved with The Maze Runner series.

    And yet The Last Jedi is resoundingly better than its predecessor. The best thing I as a Star Wars fan can say about The Force Awakens is just how much I don’t think about it — how little I have to say, period; a superficially accomplished modern blockbuster, nothing more — which is also maybe the worst thing I can say about it. This latest sequel is at least frustrating. Zigzaging aspects of it bit and small I liked and didn’t like. I won’t go into any further details, suffice to say, Force ghost puppet Yoda was vaguely bullshit (“Look! It’s not CG Yoda! It’s puppet Yoda! Remember puppet Yoda?”), the end scene is easily the worst of the entire franchise, the FX are mostly stunning, another Williams score is always welcome, Hamill brought his A-game in the spirit of aging dads who are delightfully corny… and some other stuff.

    I couldn’t care less about the Solo spin-off. Abrams is coming back for Episode IX—unfortunate. Bring on Alita: Battle Angel and Ready Player One.

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    1. Roderick

      Moose, thank you; much appreciated.

      Cannon, your enthusiasm as a commenter always knocks me out even if it’s so plentiful I can only engage with some of it. At least we’re in general agreement. What a lot of discussions I’ve seen in the past few days seem to totally miss about the many twists Johnson offered is that they basically all cancelled each-other out, to leave a status quo, only minus Snoke. There’s nothing new or radically revised or surprising about Kylo or Rey; in fact they arguably leave the trilogy in a worse position because now we’ve only got this space emo dude and the trailer park girl who sounds like a prefect as our protags. Our understanding and dramatic expectations weren’t upended, merely sidestepped. I wish I was more enthusiastic about Del Toro’s contribution, but I thought this was a part he could do in his sleep; he urgently needed so badly to have been a proper, major hero or villain (he’s one of those dudes who could do either in style) instead of this sub-Peter Lorre part. Driver is growing on me as an actor and in the role, but the series has fatally wounded itself in leaning upon this character as its big bad. Jesus H. Christ, he’s fooled by a mental projection of Luke at the end.

      I don’t feel that much like bagging Johnson’s visual grammar, which, although certainly not Lucas’s fluid expansiveness, often achieved a sense of stature; like you I admired that stalking line of ATATs and the confrontation of Luke and Kylo was shot in an epic fashion that made me forget this whole sequence was a bit of a steal from the Minas Tirith battle in The Return of the King. There was so little conceptual and illustrative elan to what he was filming that how he filmed it wasn’t at the forefront of my thoughts. Yes, the Canto Bight scenes with the stampede really does summarise a lot that went wrong here — the depopulated streets, the scant cast of waifs, the sub-Harry Potter look of the CGI. I still can’t believe Poe spent almost the entire fucking film arguing with Laura freaking Dern about tactics, and that we staged that entire laborious scene with the old ships purely to illustrate that he was now wise enough to break off an attack. I see you also thought of Aronofsky during the meditation scene; I almost said aloud, someone’s been watching Noah. And I’d give him points for that, if the film demonstrated some more of Noah’s madcap improvisation on a mythical theme. Also, that bit where BB8 saves Finn and Rose was sillier in many ways than anything Jar-Jar does in the prequels.

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  7. Natalie

    Roderick,
    yes, Kylo/Rey had potential, but, like everything else in the movie, it went nowhere. I didn’t subscribe to any specific fan theories but I feel that many of them were more interesting than the actual film. I.e. Kylo doesn’t go to the light. Rey doesn’t join the dark. They don’t end up together. Luke doesn’t have an epic showdown with Snoke (or anyone, really). The Republic doesn’t start a war with the First Order. As someone said, it’s very wishy washy or dualistic. Kylo thinks he can attack his mother but then he doesn’t. But she gets struck anyway. She seems to die – but no, she does not! Kylo seems like he can join the light side but then he doesn’t. Luke seems to go face Kylo but he’s not really there. So he can’t die – but yes, he dies. The Jedi books are burnt – but wait, maybe they aren’t. WTF is it what passes for storytelling in Hollywood these days? Instead of subverting the expectations of the characters to build an original narrative it’s now more about subverting the expectations of the audience – and not in any meaning way.

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    1. Roderick

      Natalie, you make me realise what might have made a great model for Kylo/Rey and the series in general perhaps — The Bride with White Hair. That did love and hate and superpowers entwining so well. Of course, you’re perfectly correct about all these heavy and consequential possibilities that go basically nowhere. With a great deal of fan furore now arising about this one, it struck me a likeness for this episode might be The Transformers: The Movie, with its anarchic disregard for settled fandom, but if the new series really wanted to shake things up, they should’ve done it in the first movie. They’ve left themselves with an awful lot to do in the last episode.

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  8. Natalie

    Roderick – adding The Bride with White Hair to my list 🙂 Speaking of the martial arts movies, one of the rant videos on YouTube compared Finn/Phasma fight to the fight scene from the indi production Kung Fury https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PFa3XnV1Rvw which of course meant to be a parody of the cliched fight scenes.

    The online backlash is the most entertaining thing that came out of this disaster of a sequel trilogy. It actually started after The Force Awakens, especially after the initial honeymoon period was over and a lot of fans realized that nostalgia alone does not have a lot of rewatchibility. But a lot of fans were in wait and see mode and now the gloves are off.

    Disney is now in the full damage control mode: someone hacked Rotten Tomatoes scores or the angry fans are all white supremacists or we simply don’t understand the genius behind the cheap twists. Personally, as someone who admires the artistic effort in the prequels, it’s pretty ironic to hear how I’m mad that the flick did not meet my expectations or that just like Lucas (!) Rian Johnson is not obligated to listen to the fans. Especially funny when it’s coming from the same media outlets (probably on Disney’s payroll) that used to habitually bash Lucas for failing to meet the fans’ expectations before. Some even dare to blame Lucas himself because Luke in exile was, apparently, his original idea for the seventh episode. I’m glad Lucas walked from all this so he doesn’t have to deal with the same crap all over again.

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  9. To me, the film was mediocre, not very good, not very bad. It may end up as the plateau of the sequel trilogy in retrospect, but for the most part it sits like a lukewarm stagnant pond.

    Surprisingly, the biggest problem of The Last Jedi is not that it’s overstuffed (the crowdedness is largely aesthetic), but that the story is spread way too thin, much like its main inspiration The Empire Strikes Back. The battle over D’Qar en route to Crait (the early scenes of which were the most fun parts of the whole film) could have easily been compressed into a single scene analogous to Palplatine’s “rescue” in Revenge of the Sith: setting up the character motivations through direct actions, leaving plenty of room for further development before everything explodes (both literally and figuratively) in the story’s climax. Instead, Poe and Finn’s arcs feel forcibly protracted, disappointingly stale and predictable, and clumsily juxtapositioned against Rey’s struggle to motivate Luke (and with not nearly enough dissolve wipes).

    Cleaning the slate regarding the First Order villains was a big mistake, and one that felt crudely (mis)calculated as a “Shyamalan twist” without regard for context and consequences, especially considering that we still don’t really know who and what the Order wants, how and why, and where they get their funding.

    Johnston promises to take Star Wars into uncharted territory, but refuses to let go of cinematic past – the cannibalistic The Last Jedi feels storyboarded from screencaps of other nostalgic hipster properties dabbling in juvenile existentialism (i.e. the mirror scene invokes Neon Genesis Evangelion, the Canto Bight casino is straight out of Cowboy Bebop). At this point, though, it’s so expected in Hollywood that it’s more mildly annoying than infuriating.

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    1. Roderick

      Jason, you inadvertently clarify one real schism in viewer reception to this film, the split between those who have seen anime influences and those who see classic Hollywood influences (notwithstanding the probably layers of influence too); I’m definitely more one of the latter, although Johnson certainly signalled his anime fandom on Looper. You’re perfectly right about the scattershot staging and pacing – in fact, Johnson signals no gifts whatsoever for mounting complex action. And undoubtedly, Poe and Finn are really left holding the bag, narrative-wise – dude, Han was technically the second string hero on Empire and he was getting frozen in carbonite and spirited away at the end – where the play for that kind of narrative suspense and big emotional gesture? Almost literally everything that happens in the film’s climax is a kind of cheat and deflation. That said, I didn’t mind so much that Johnson killed off Snoke relatively early – it was the best scene in the renewed series so far, and could have set up a nicely madcap finale. But the problems are obvious – Kylo and Hux just aren’t intimidating enough villains to sustain the series on their own. I’ve never been quite as doolally over Empire as others tend to be precisely because of the thin story, but in addition to the qualities I mentioned, it did the job of focusing on the heroes’ emotional peril. Whereas by the end of this they’re all in a relatively snug place.

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