STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Directed by Rian Johnson, 152 minutes, 2017, USA)
BY CHRISTOPHER MALENEY FILM CRITIC What do we like about Star Wars? We love the science fiction saga about the struggle between impoverished good guys and ultimate evil. A visually enthralling spectacle of sound and fury with one of the best scores in cinematic history. A timeless tale set in a fascinating other galaxy that mimics the politics and struggles of our own world. We love being assured that even at its most hopeless, good can triumph over evil. It’s that little-kid response, the joy of seeing the bad guys brought down at the last minute by the good guys. But how many times can we watch the same thing before it gets stale?
Look, I’m a Star Wars fan. You’re (probably) a Star Wars fan. If not, I doubt you were going to see The Last Jedi anyway. But, if your holiday season plans include taking in the eighth installment of the most chronologically-confusing blockbuster series, don’t set your hopes too high. The Last Jedi is, at the basic level, a rehash of The Empire Strikes Back that forgets all the things that made The Empire Strikes Back good in the first place.
When The Force Awakens came out, we all knew it was just A New Hope redone. The desert orphan who comes to understand their Force-sensitive powers and their role in a galactic rebellion culminating in an eleventh-hour strike on a planetary superweapon — it was familiar, but it was fun. I remember telling myself that with footing firmly established, the rest of the series would branch out to explore original plots. And yet, here we are, and nothing has changed.
Think of the basic plot of The Empire Strikes Back. It’s considered by many to be the best movie in the Star Wars franchise, but why? It presents a journey of enlightenment in two distinct storylines. As Luke slowly learns the true power of the Force, Han and Leia realize both that they love each other and that their friends are not always who they seem to be. Now swap out the names, stretch it out for another act, pour in a few contractually-obligated cute aliens and jokes, and you’ve got The Last Jedi.
Our new heroes: Rey, Finn and Po are all fun to watch, but none of their storylines are given the proper room to develop into something meaningful. There are just too many characters, too many plotlines vying for attention that none of them feel anything more than nominally worthwhile. None of the Bad Guys feel that bad, which means that the Good Guys don’t come across as all that good. There’s even a line of dialogue that tries to point this out, that good and bad are just points of view. Except there aren’t even shades of grey — the boundaries between good and bad are clearly drawn through imagery, colors, even the warmth of the light, but barely in any of the meaningful original decisions the characters make. One side bombs escape pods, and the other frees alien ponies. That’s all there is.
Take, for example, one of the most important moments of Luke’s journey in The Empire Strikes Back, when he goes into the dark cave and confronts the awful shadow of his evil enemy, Vader. When Rey takes her turn to go down into the dark cave — this time a Lovecraftian seaweed-covered hole only revealed at low tide that is one of the coolest images of the movie — she sees first an infinite reflection of herself, and then nothing. The ultimate, horrible truth is not that her enemy and her idol are one and the same, but that this movie — and by extension, the whole latest trilogy –is a fabricated, self-perpetuated vision with absolutely nothing at the center. And when Rey eventually snaps out of it, she is somehow totally unchanged by the revelation.
And all of this would be okay, I would be fine with all of this, but for the jokes. It almost feels like an unfair critique, because Star Wars has always been funny. Yet, in past movies the jokes always felt in character. They felt like realistic comments and witticisms the characters would make. Here, something about so many of the one-liners breaks the suspension of disbelief. Why, when Leia first re-meets her lost brother does she open with a quip about her hair? This isn’t Leia. That’s not Luke. It’s the same names, even the same actors, but these are vastly different characters.
I think that this movie doesn’t have a soul. Everything about The Last Jedi feels Disney-fied, and not in a good way. It seems like before writing anything, a committee planned which toys and sets and LEGO machines to package, and then wrapped the plot of Empire around them. And it’s a damn shame because it felt lame. Not in the un-cool way — though that is true too — but in the shoot-yourself-in-the-foot meaning of lame. It limps towards an unsurprising, uninspired fourth act, taking no chances along the way, running no real risks, and ultimately proving nothing.
Of course, it doesn’t matter much what I say, does it? You’ll go see The Last Jedi because, like me, you love science fiction and you love Star Wars. You’ll laugh at the jokes and cheer at the epic moments. VIII will be a smash hit at the box office, and I hate that because I want this to fail. I want every calculated move by the studio to woo an audience with platitudes of morality to crash and burn like a TIE fighter. I want them to make a Star Wars movie with heart and soul and cleverness that gives us something original, something worth enjoying, because this really isn’t that.