Letterboxd Review - Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Let's get it out of the way: I really enjoyed The Last Jedi. I think it addresses a lot of the valid gripes that fans had with The Force Awakens, and it takes the series into new, intriguing territory. I do recognize the criticisms of the film, and I would never invalidate anyone's opinion--you know, unless they were being real shitty about it--but whatever reservations are being bandied about the internet in regards to this film, I feel the quality of the entertainment surpasses the flaws.
I wasn't born until 1988. So I have no personal context for how people reacted to the original Star Wars films as they came out several years apart from each other. I can extrapolate that plenty of people loved the mythical, hopeful, magical sci-fi of the first film while others thought it was pulpy trash because the dialogue was silly and wooden, the plot was at times impenetrable, and the characters were all purely archetypes rather than real people. I suspect lots of folks loved The Empire Strikes Back because it took the mythology of the first film and then grounded it in character development and a proper series-wide story arc. I equally suspect that lots of folks thought Empire didn't line up with the first film very well. That some of the narrative leaps taken were odd choices, and that the pacing (due in large part to the bifurcating of the hero squad into two different stories) suffered from inconsistency and dragged in spots. Oh, and that crazy-ass cliffhanger certainly must have angered people in 1980 who were used to movies having solid resolution rather than a staging ground for the next sequel. But lo and behold, Empire is now regularly held in equal or superior esteem as the first film.
This might sound like "whataboutism," especially when you consider how differently blockbuster films are designed and how the Star Wars series has changed since 1980. But being that a big element of these new films is a meditation on the fandom of the originals, I think it's a valid point. Anyway, the review proper...
HERE. BE. SPOILERS.
So, yeah. I saw that Star War. And I feel like the franchise has gotten to a point the James Bond series has been at for decades, where each entry is a comment on the previous films and the audience reactions to them. For every Die Another Day, there is a Casino Royale. For every On Her Majesty's Secret Service, there is a Diamonds are Forever. And for every Moonraker, there is a For Your Eyes Only. The largely well-received The Force Awakens was savaged by a strong vocal minority for being a mere facsimile of Star Wars. A shade. Essentially, that it was to Star Wars what J.J. Abrams' Star Trek Into Darkness was for Wrath of Khan. I think that argument holds plenty of truth, but it didn't bother me. Gods forbid, after a decade of post-prequel flotsam, a Star Wars movie was made to remind everyone what Star Wars was like, and why they liked it back in '77. Was it too safe? Sure. But, come on. On its nose, the very notion of making a Star Wars movie at all is too safe. It was designed to be safe. Before you can explore, you have to find true North.
Now, Rian Johnson has taken the Abrams "mystery box" and tossed it over his shoulder in favor of the very things that made Empire the strong sequel to another relatively safe adventure film: character development, reversed expectations, and a muddying of the morality tale. And it's all there in the dialogue. Luke tells Rey, "This is not going to go the way you think." Kylo Ren advises Rey, "Let the past die," on more than one occasion. But just like the very inevitability and destiny inherent to the idea that the Empire would strike back, The Last Jedi posits that there is some inevitable destiny attached to the end of the Jedi, the Sith, the Republic, and the way the Force is perceived by both the society within the films and the audience watching.
Are you mad that Luke is no longer the bastion of virtue and potential that he was when we saw him last? So am I. So is Rey. So is Luke. Are you annoyed at Supreme Leader Snoke's apparent lack of relevance to the larger story, or his status as just another extremely powerful old crusty guy who preys on insecure young Force users? Yeah, well. Sorry. That's the nature of the Dark Side. It's as hard a lesson for Kylo Ren as it is for us. Rey's parentage might have been some big secret to us, as well as to her, but the fact that it comes to nothing, that her parents are nobody, seems to call out the "mystery box" for what it is...a mystery purely for intrigue's sake, with a solution that comes to nothing. Abrams, who I actually really like, understands that the mystery itself is often the main attraction and the solution is just a release of tension. Johnson is putting the lack of a satisfying solution to work. In short, I like that this film is trying to challenge my fanboy enthusiasm and make me feel ways about stuff. When I walked out, I was extremely forlorn at the loss of Luke Skywalker. Both the hopeful heroic youth who eroded away with time, and the new curmudgeonly hermit who actually eroded into the wind and the Force. It made my heart sick. But it made me think about the movie for days, and it made me...well, this is so corny, but it made me stretch out with my feelings.
As a Star Wars story, I think it says more than anyone is giving it credit. But let me look at it as a film. It's the longest entry in the series to date, and I felt it. Not to say that I didn't enjoy it thoroughly. In fact, I was never looking at my watch, but there were spots where I began to question how much time we had left to go, and if several situations were going to be the big climax or not. Johnson ably leans into the leathery practical effects and dusty, lived-in aesthetic that Abrams established (sorry, "aped from the original because nothing he does is original, and even though we like that about the older films we shouldn't like it when he does it," so on and so forth), including a pension for on-location shooting and natural lighting. I found it smart that the technologically isolated Ahch-To, Luke's ancient Jedi island ruin planet, quickly abandons the verdant grasses and clear waters that ended The Force Awakens and trades them for a perpetual twilight echoing off the monochrome stones of the rain-soaked temple.
Johnson seems heavily occupied by dramatic red swaths cutting through clean white or mirrored surfaces, which works better on the salt-flats of Crait than it does in the minimalist sound stage that is Snoke's throne room. While the sense of scale on display is palpable at the real-world Irish ruins used as the ancient Jedi stronghold, it's the much larger spaces filled in by computer effects (such as the Star Destroyer hanger, opulent Canto Bight casino, or distant crystalline battlefield) that feel slightly choked by comparison. As much more of this film takes place aboard spaceships than the one before, I did feel purpose to this claustrophobia of the frame, even if it felt like a different film at times. It's a darker and more uncomfortable Star Wars, and much of the technical shortcomings are just the cold truth of hiring a director whose production history has never before exceeded $30 million. Much to learn, Johnson still has.
I better talk about some acting. Mark Hamill, with his acidic growls and sly eyes, seems to surprise everyone who only ever saw him as young Luke. His range has been long established in other roles, it's just that he finally gets to employ some of it here in his signature role. Adam Driver gets to expound upon the churlish dichotomy of sniveling rage and calculating dominance that made his character so interesting the first time around, and now that we get to see so much more of his performance he has blossomed into the MVP of the new generation of characters. Oscar Isaac provides plenty of charm and bravado, which is his job, but he's no match alone for both Carrie Fisher and Laura Dern, who both approach the material with a measure of authenticity that is so often unrecognized behind all the bells and whistles. Separated from each other, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega get fewer fun dialogue rhythms to chew on, but Boyega makes up for it by retaining the previous wide-eyed amusement and disbelief that made Finn unique from the beginning. Ridley has a lot more dramatic work this time out, and she shines most when playing off of Hamill's and Driver's much bigger performances. She has a good grasp of her character's fearlessness in the face of a fight or an insurmountable obstacle, as well as her vulnerability in the face of an inner conflict.
By splitting the time between Rey/Luke and the ongoing chase sequence of the First Order tracking the flailing Resistance through space, it's easy to see the parallel with Empire. This is a double-edged saber, if you will, because it also resurrects the unclear time constraints of the older film; Luke's training on Dagobah lacks the urgency of the Falcon's chase from Hoth to Bespin, but now Rey's personal exploration seems to hang a lantern on the slow pace of the Resistance's desperate trajectory. The side quest given to Finn and newcomer Rose is what most folks point to as the odd man out. For the most part, it's true; this unsanctioned mission to trek to Space Atlantic City to find a person who can do a thing that will help to find a way to do a thing that will enable the good guys to possibly escape...it smacks of the kind of overly elaborate plotting with very little narrative payoff that I remember from Attack of the Clones, where one half of the film involved an assassin leaving a dart that leads to a place that reveals a thing that seems unconnected until we follow a guy from there to another place that ends up being where the bad guys are. Without a doubt, it overstuffed a film that already had plenty on its hands, and I suspect it exists largely to give us Kelly Marie Tran's Rose Tico and to give Finn an expanded character arc. Which, hey. Thanks, Rian Johnson. I wanted both of these things, and if I didn't get them I would have felt the film was shortchanging me. The sequence doesn't work as well as it should, nor does Benicio del Toro's cynical scoundrel who becomes much of the reason for the diversion, but it amounts to more for me when Finn makes a personal change later and also when we see the epilogue scene that echoes the ongoing Resistance-based theme of "a spark of hope."
The Last Jedi is not the easy comfort of The Force Awakens. That film made me feel like a kid again. This one challenges me. It has more foreboding texture. It takes the franchise on a lumbering step into the unknown regions that no Star Wars property has seen fit to arrive at since the original trilogy ended. I need to see it again. I need to think about it some more. I didn't need to do that with The Force Awakens. In and of itself, I feel that's what makes this a great new Star Wars movie. It's certainly got some rough edges, but I feel those come as the expense of Rian Johnson being allowed to take some risks with previously indestructible intellectual property.
This review is part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile where you can find more reviews not available here on the blog, including a list of films from his book, Cinema Autopsy, which is now available on Amazon.