REVIEW: ‘STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI’ KILLS OFF THE FRANCHISE’S RESURGENCE IN ONE FELL SWOOP
To paraphrase the famous saying of how evil men prosper, perhaps the only thing necessary for the triumph of bad films is that critics do nothing. Or, in the case of the latest annual Star Wars extravaganza, they write sycophantic reviews of a film which is far closer to the franchise’s deep nadirs than its seemingly insurmountable heights. As I come to write this review, I am genuinely struggling to equate the wave of favorable sentiment emanating from authority sites across the web with the irreverent mess I witnessed in a theater last night.
Let me be clear, I cannot recall enjoying a Star Wars movie less on first viewing than The Last Jedi. Not since The Phantom Menace has a Star Wars movie been more superfluous. Not since Attack of the Clones has one been so misjudged. Not since Revenge of the Sith has one seemed so determined to undermine the Star Wars mythos.
We’ve been before, of course. While the reviews of George Lucas’ misshapen prequels have been neatly retconned on sites like rottentomatoes.com to reflect the subsequent animosity directed towards that particular trilogy, at the time of their release there was a similar disparity between glowing reviews and the wretched nature of the films themselves. Even employing the logic of treating the Star Wars franchise as a law unto itself when it comes to assessing the individual entries, this bizarre habit of embracing a Star Wars movie unconditionally upon release is starting to bear all the hallmarks of a fan-fearing, studio-enforced Stockholm Syndrome.
You may wish to dismiss this review as contrarian click-baiting, but I assure you I take no pleasure in having to disseminate The Last Jedi in this manner. It would be neglectful in the extreme as a lover of both genre cinema and the Star Wars franchise itself to not illustrate the many failings of Rian Johnston’s first foray into a galaxy far, far away.
I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This
We start, as always, with the opening crawl and the blare of John Williams’ horn section. Traditionally, the scrolling text has been employed to recount the unseen events after the previous episode but The Last Jedi picks up almost immediately after The Force Awakens which renders this neat expositional device as little more than a recap of Episode VII. However, it does serve as a great example of how little The Last Jedi understands about fulfilling its role as Star Wars’ eighth episode.
The opening scene concerns a stand-off between The First Order and the remnants of The Resistance, focusing on an intergalactic tete-a-tete between Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron and the villainous noob, General Hux (the kind of sniveling authority figure Donald Trump Jr. probably sees in his mind’s eye when he reaches sexual climax). The tone struck in these aggressive negotiations is an immediate cause for concern as it tries to lay the humor on thick and one may feel as if they’re suddenly watching Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 rather than a terse exchange befitting of rival forces in the Star Wars Universe.
A standard space battle ensues where there are more noble sacrifices among The Resistance than in a colony of lemmings who have just discovered seppuku. This sets up the main “cat & mouse” plot for The Last Jedi which draws a direct comparison with an early episode of the Battlestar Galactica redux, except without any of the tension and claustrophobia of that notable BSG chapter. It is a narrative arc that was presumably employed to illustrate the inner turmoils in both of the warring factions, and while those are present, TLJ has a frustrating lack of focus as it butchers other intercutting plot threads in the exact way that the original trilogy didn’t.
Starballs II: The Search for More Money
We also pick up directly on from The Force Awakens‘ (literal) cliff-hanger as Rey and Luke meet for the first time. Luke’s line in the trailers “This isn’t going to go the way you think” is particularly pertinent here as Skywalker’s immediate reaction instantly punctures this solemn moment with a flick of his wrist. It’s difficult to know whether to laugh or cry at this juncture because it will certainly provoke much giggling, but it’s also disquieting to see Star Wars being played this blatantly for laughs. Yes, The Force Awakens likewise reveled in moments of mirth; however, the humor there was emergent whereas in TLJ it has an unerring feel of being at the expense of the very nature of the franchise.
The sentiment of “If you were expecting to take this seriously then you’re shit out of luck, nerds” from Rian Johnson seems clear as visual gags come thick and fast – most of which wouldn’t have been out of place in an actual spoof. So perhaps this is good news for Mel Brooks’ retirement plans because, on this showing, Johnson has saved him the bother of making the oft-mooted Spaceballs II. And there is perhaps no bigger casualty of this borderline disrespectful tone than Luke Skywalker himself.
The re-appearance of the ever-earnest Luke from the original trilogy was always going to be unlikely, given his failure to rebuild the Jedi Order since Return of the Jedi, but did he have to be such a dick about it? What seems to have taken place is a weird fusing of Luke’s character and the irreverent public persona Mark Hamill has built since RotJ and, boy, does it get old fast.
Some may approve of this deflating of the inherent Star Wars pomposity, but it fatally robs the film of the operatic sweep that has defined the series to date (yes, even in the prequels). Even more unforgivably, the knowing post-modern tone makes The Last Jedi tow the line of modern blockbusters. While it can certainly withstand the aforementioned parallels with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, when certain moments start reminding us of studio stablemate Pirates of the Caribbean then we have to accept that something has gone seriously awry. Captain Jack Skywalker, anyone? Thought not, but that’s what you get here.
The fates of returning and new characters seem to be have been cast with all the care and forethought of an opening roll in a game of Yahtzee. Initially, it is a welcome return for John Boyega’s Finn but he soon picks up an unwelcome sidekick in the shape Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran). I warn you now, Rose is likely to be unwittingly seized upon by the kind of miscreants who rant about SJW agendas on 4chan thanks to Tran’s Asian heritage. Of course, it will be yet another case of them mistaking correlation with causation, but Rose is kind of tokenistic spunky female character that Star Wars has so far avoided. Worse is still to come, however, with the two characters’ excursion to an intergalactic casino which results in a childish CGI set piece that wouldn’t have looked out of place in some studio exec’s cheese dream about setting J.K. Rowling’s works in space.
Speaking of childish CGI, the cutesy factor that has plagued the franchise before returns with a vengeance here. The Porgs are initially charming, though they soon outstay welcome (much like the Ewoks did), and anyone hoping that the crystal fox from the trailer was a one-shot deal will be sorely disappointed by their ubiquity in the final act. Fair play for expanding the ecology of Star Wars’ species roster, but the CGI is often found wanting in portraying them – no more so than on some camel-like creatures that result in the previously mentioned set-piece nadir for Star Wars.
Elsewhere, Rey and Kylo Ren begin to explore their rivalry through what can only be described as the Force’s equivalent of Facetime. Admittedly, their toing and froing across the galaxy constitutes the most compelling aspect of the story, so it’s even more disappointing when it reaches its denouement that Rey makes the least interesting decision. It was this predictably resolved pivot which proved to me that Johnson’s attempts to re-invent the franchise are merely superficial since this was a glaring opportunity to send the trilogy in a whole new direction to its predecessors.
Finally, we do at least get to see much more of Lord Snoke (Andy Serkis) this time around. He still looks like a rejected character design for Voldemort and carries only a modicum of Emperor Palpatine’s loathsome menace, but he makes for an engaging sounding board for Kylo to express his inner turmoil and ruthless ambitions. Adam Driver continues to excel as the former Ben Solo, though because Rian Johnson has clearly decided we can’t have nice things, Kylo’s screentime is unreasonably scant given the film’s exorbitant running time.
Fishing for Compliments
Despite its many, many missteps, The Last Jedi isn’t entirely without merit. Carrie Fisher is a perpetually reassuring presence whenever the late, great Hollywood stalwart graces the screen (I will excuse the preposterously twee way Leia escapes a certain tight spot purely because it ensured her participation throughout proceedings). Laura Dern is a welcome (if brief) addition to the cast, doing a hell of a lot more with the tight-ass Vice Admiral Holdo than the stock character deserved.
Also, Rian Johnson’s regular cinematographer, Steve Yedlin, works in some beautiful images that are truly worthy of the franchise, particularly the sight of the new AT-ATs emblazoned against a sun-soaked horizon and some striking uses of color in the throne room scenes. Unfortunately, such highlights are few and far between and the fault lies squarely at Johnson’s feet.
As writer and director, the Looper auteur will have few excuses if a fan backlash does deservedly emerge. The screenplay is bristling with ideas but rarely are they deployed in a satisfactory manner. His direction, however, is questionable at best with his TV roots showing far too often and it regularly fails to build the requisite excitement that Star Wars demands. Overall, his approach is reminiscent of an unsupervised kid in a candy store: sure, he’s having a lot of fun, but someone’s gonna have to clean up this mess after him.
That duty will fall to J.J. Abrams – who has already had to wrangle this franchise back into shape once – but given the dead-rubber ending of The Last Jedi, it’s difficult to anticipate his upcoming episode with little more than idle curiosity.
THE MOST DISPOSABLE ENTRY INTO THE STAR WARS FRANCHISE SO FAR. A FRANTIC, OVERLONG MESS OF A FILM THAT STRUGGLES TO FIND PURPOSE OR PROVIDE PROMISE OF BETTER THINGS TO COME.