Directed by: Rian Johnson || Produced by: Kathleen Kennedy, Ram Bergman
Screenplay by: Rian Johnson || Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benecio del Toro
Music by: John Williams || Cinematography: Steve Yedlin || Edited by: Bob Ducsay || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 152 minutes
Like fans of any storied, established franchise, followers of the Star Wars saga are hard to please. When intellectual properties reach this level of popular culture reverence, respect, and yes, controversy, heated debate from casual fans to general audiences to super-fans are to be expected. It is difficult, if not impossible to please everybody, but I believe that is part of the fun of it all. Whether you love the brand or think it became overplayed thirty years ago, Star Wars and the cultural phenomenon it spawned are anything but boring. Many were happy “the old-school Star Wars” returned for this age of super-franchises, however much hyperbolic Internet backlash criticized the new direction of the franchise under Walt Disney as “too safe” or formulaic. I mean, has anyone sat through the 1999, 2002, and 2005 Prequel films (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, respectively) recently, with the benefit of hindsight? I’ll take a million Marvel Cinematic Universe cookie-cutter films over that shit.
More to the point, Kathleen Kennedy and fellow Disney executives seeing fit to bestow writing and directing credits onto a talented but inexperienced director, Rian Johnson (see, Looper ), for the second act of their flagship series was astounding. Add to that Johnson’s freedom — or risk, depending on how one sees it — of working within a storyline that was not pre-planned. I believe Mike Stoklasa’s observation during Red Letter Media’s analysis of the film best illustrates my thoughts:
” … to my shock, the end credits say ‘Written and Directed by’ [Rian Johnson]. Disney gave the second film of this major franchise to ‘some guy’ instead of ‘the committee,’ and to me, that was shocking. You can complain about The Force Awakens (2015) being too safe and committee-like and think-tank, and basically being a retread of A New Hope… and you can complain that they did that, but here, they did the opposite! They gave the movie to ‘some guy’ and said, ‘Make a movie, and just do whatever the fuck you want… ‘
“So, nobody has the right to complain now if you complained about The Force Awakens!”
The Last Jedi is as different from The Force Awakens as The Empire Strikes Back (1980, henceforth, ESB) was from the original Star Wars (1977, henceforth, SW); given the aforementioned contrast in production strategies between The Force Awakens‘ (henceforth, TFA) committee-run, market-research project and The Last Jedi’s (henceforth TLJ) auteur vision, this is to be expected; what was not expected was how different TLJ is from ESB, given how similar SW was to TFA. In many respects, this is refreshing given how stale blockbuster formula has been in the Star Wars franchise alone, even counting the bizarre Prequels. TLJ is nothing if not unpredictable.
Unpredictability in a Hollywood blockbuster is admirable in theory, but how does TLJ’s uncanny storytelling hold up in practice? Johnson’s execution of his idiosyncratic space opera is a subversion of not just typical popular filmmaking narratives, but specific Star Wars mythology. This strategy is on the whole, successful, yet inconsistent. TLJ’s unconventional approach to developing both new and old characters deepens them in satisfying, dramatic ways, all while making sense with respect to their established legacies. That being said, TLJ is bloated, messy, and exhausting at 152 minutes (the longest Star Wars film yet), with questionable subplots and confusing supporting character motivations. All this material is encapsulated within staggering production values, special FX, and versatile action, the sole predictable element of this latest Episode.
Let us start with the good: As intriguing as both Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver) were in TFA, they are deepened that much further with the help of an ingenious telepathic Force plot-device (more on that in a second) and the added ingredient of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. The latter is a bitter, cynical, disillusioned old man this time around. His embittered distaste for all things the Force, the Rebellion/Resistance, and yes, the Jedi, clash with Ridley’s desperate search for answers for all the above, as well as her mysterious parentage. Driver’s petulant, untamed wrath evolves from his fireball performance in TFA to an even more tortured, conflicted character frustrated with the entire First Order, not to mention Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) demise at his hand. Johnson establishes a psychic link between Ridley and Driver throughout TLJ, which is both justified within the story and allows for dramatic character growth upon which the entire narrative depends. I cannot overemphasize how critical this plot-device is to Ridley’s, Driver’s, and even Hamill’s character development, how it propels both plot and relationships between otherwise geographically distant individuals. Without this dynamic, the movie doesn’t work.
Moving beyond TLJ’s principle characters, the film is far less consistent and engaging. The secondary plot concerns the Resistance’s ambush by the First Order after establishing the latter can track enemy ships over light-speed travel. Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron clashes with both Carrie Fisher’s Leia Organa and newcomer Vice Admiral Holdo (a purple-haired Laura Dern) over various battle strategies, which generates a decent arc for Isaac despite confusing actions on the part of Dern.
The weak link of TLJ concerns the side adventures of John Boyega’s Finn and fresh face, Kelly Marie Tran. Their subplot develops with Isaac’s, with all three coordinating efforts to disable the First Order’s tracking capabilities so as to allow the Resistance to escape their ambush. Though Johnson writes a clever “ticking clock” out of this situation, whereby the Resistance ships must stay out of range of First Order fire while constrained by limited fuel, the misadventures on which Boyega and Tran embark are goofy at best and downright boring at worst. The stupid casino-country club planet they visit is sprinkled with cheesy, heavy-handed social inequality metaphors that would make Elysium (2013) or The Purge movies (2011, 2013, 2016) proud, and feels reminiscent of the CGI-saturated Prequels. This subplot descends into Oliver Twist (1838) references, weird chase sequences atop alien-horseback, and eye-rolling asides to animal cruelty seemingly at random.
As inconsistent as TLJ’s B and C-plots are, however, its A-storyline, that of Ridley’s personal quest on Hamill’s lonely island, as well as her confrontations with Driver, are so interesting as to overcompensate for all the film’s weaknesses. Ridley and Driver are even better than they were in TFA, bolstered by strong dialogue, clever staging, and unorthodox editing.
These conflicts come to a head in TLJ’s memorable action sequences, whose buildup and aftermath are often as riveting and beautiful as the fantastical violence within. Ryan’s use of John Williams’ score is far superior to J. J. Abrams’ in TFA, while choreography of hand-to-hand combat, aerial dogfights, and various shootouts are also improved from the previous film, which were considerable in their own right. Of particular note are Hamill’s confrontation with Driver near the end of the film, prefaced by a touching scene with Fisher and set against a haunting backdrop of monstrous AT-AT walkers at sunset; my favorite sequence of the film, featuring Ridley, Driver, and Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke, is a throne room-showdown for the ages, and sports one of the better twists of the Star Wars saga yet, in my opinion.
All things considered, The Last Jedi is a messier, riskier, ballsier sequel than The Force Awakens, and that is not without good and bad consequences. It’s not wholly predictable like its predecessor, yet not as consistent or well paced. Its highs are arguably higher than The Force Awakens‘, and yet its low points are without a doubt lower. For me, Rian Johnson’s use of action, music, and drama, particularly with regards to the film’s best three characters (Rey, Kylo Ren, Luke Skywalker), supersede its weaker subplots. The Last Jedi is, in a way, everything I wanted from this new trilogy’s second act — a somber, dramatic, more character-focused piece that took chances like The Empire Strikes Back, but was not a clone of that film. Sacrificing narrative clarity for thematic boldness will never please everybody, but it gives the franchise room to breathe.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The emotional core of The Last Jedi, the three-way dynamic between Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, and Mark Hamill, is satisfying and dramatic, and thus the film works. Rian Johnson’s use of editing, dramatic staging, music, and action choreography are stellar, producing the most unpredictable, intense Star Wars film since 1980.
— However… An entire subplot (about 30 minutes of the movie) is lacking in excitement, creative set-design, and lines that aren’t cornball. Various supporting character motivations are nonsensical, and several plot developments defy internal logic.
—> RECOMMENDED. The Force Awakens succeeded more at what it was trying to be, which was a straightforward, throwback blockbuster, but I prefer this film and may remember it longer. Time will tell.
? We are what they grow beyond. That is the true burden of all masters.