Spoiler-Free Observations on The Last Jedi
Some thoughts on The Last Jedi, after I’ve had a night to chew on it. These thoughts are spoiler-free, because I am not a dick.
1. I enjoyed it and it was a solid entry into the canon, which means that Disney has now made three solid Star Wars films in a row (The Force Awakens, Rogue One, The Last Jedi) which is a thing George Lucas never managed to do. Disney puts a premium on entertaining you, and it shows.
2. But I think the reviews I’ve seen for the film might be generally a smidgen overhyped, possibly because reviewers simply still aren’t used to Star Wars films being consistently solid, and possibly because The Last Jedi is getting extra credit for not being just a rehash of any one particular Star Wars movie, like The Force Awakens was clearly Star Wars (I continue my cranky old person refusal to call it A New Hope) right down to a Death Star trench run. Extra credit as in, “Hey, look! It’s not The Empire Strikes Back Again Once More! Three thumbs up!” The Last Jedi is a good and enjoyable film, but I think people should be wary of expecting the best Star Wars film ever. It’s not that. Which is fine! “Good and enjoyable” means it’s well worth watching if you’re a Star Wars fan, a term which encompasses most of humanity at this point.
(Also, don’t confuse “not exactly Empire” with “there are no obvious callbacks to the original trilogy,” because there are — whoa baby there are — just not tied so specifically to a single film like TFA was with Star Wars.)
3. I’ve noted before that the way I intellectually handle the egregious science and logic fails of Star Wars is to think of the films as mythology, i.e., stories presented through such a deep filter of time and oral tradition that to expect logic is almost aside the point. You don’t expect logic from Star Wars any more than you expect it out of, say, Jason and the Argonauts. With regard to The Last Jedi, let me just say it’s a very good thing that I already have this as part of my world view. Because, whoo boy, it is, shall we say, super-mythy. There were a couple of scenes where I was all “Wait, what? That thing happened, and we’re all just going to… be okay with that?” And apparently the answer was, why, yes, we are, both the characters in the story and the audience in the theater.
4. What it does share in common with Empire, and what I think is not surprising given we know it’s a middle film in a trilogy, is that the film is more low-stakes than the previous installment — no Death Star to blow up, just the rebels desperate and on the run, as they so often are. So we spend more time with the developing characters emotionally, which works to a greater or lesser extent depending on the character. Interestingly, the character I think has the most complete character arc, or at least, most obviously shows it, is Poe Dameron. His through-line, not Rey or Finn’s, feels like the spine of the movie to me. This is kind of… odd, given the general concerns of the film and the title, but I’ll take it.
5. The Last Jedi is the longest Star Wars film, and director Rian Johnson packs it full of story, so you’re unlikely to be bored, and even the laggy parts move along. With that said, there’s so much going on in the story and we’re keeping track of so many characters (Luke and Leia and Rey and Kylo and Poe and Finn and Chewie and BB-8 and R2D2 and C-3PO and Hux and Snoke and Phasma and oh look there are new characters too and what the hell are these porg things anyway?) that it can feel thin, and some bits are clearly contrived simply to give beloved characters things to do and/or give us new merchandising yes Porgs I am looking at you (I bought a porg stuffed animal at the show last night so, uh, I fell for it). I think I would have been happier with a sharper focus on fewer characters, and also I’m worried that Episode IX will be three and a half hours long and have five different endings, a la The Return of the King.
6. One thing that is notable about The Last Jedi is that to me it’s the first Star Wars main sequence film that feels cinematically divergent from the others. The first six films in the Skywalker family sequence are of a piece because of the presence of George Lucas, who directed and/or wrote and/or produced and/or was hovering about in the editing room for each of them. The Force Awakens was handed over to J.J. Abrams, who appears to specialize in mimicking the cinematic feel of particular 70s-era directors (See: Super 8, with Abrams in Spielberg mode) and who Lucas’d up TFA like he was supposed to — and, to be clear, in a way I think was necessary to assure fans that the new Disney version of Star Wars was going to give them that certain Star Wars feeling.
But now comes Rian Johnson, who wrote, directed and brings in his own backend crew, and the vibe is different. The story structure is a little off from previous episode. The design is of a piece but certain set pieces are handled differently (one scene in particular reminded me of nothing so much as a Star Trek original series fight scene, done on the stage of an MGM technicolor musical). The editing of the film feels very different to me. The emotional beats don’t land in the same places they would in previous films. The humor in particular is very different; these are not Lawrence Kasdan jokes, they are Rian Johnson jokes.
The Last Jedi is definitely a Star Wars film — but it’s a Star Wars film that’s definitively moving away from the Lucas model and sensibility. I think it helps that Rogue One, the first non-sequence, non-Lucas Star Wars film, came out last year and got audiences used to films in the universe with different beats and approaches than Lucas or Lucas pastiche (and indeed Rogue One was marketed as being a step away from the usual, despite the appearance yet again of the friggin’ Death Star).
I don’t want to oversell this divergence, for two reasons. One, there’s only so much “innovation” the Star Wars universe will take — note that Lucasfilm head Kathleen Kennedy is happy to fire directors she feels are lost in the weeds or are not giving the films enough of a Star Wars feeling, and that pastiche master (this is not an insult) JJ Abrams will be back for Episode IX. But the divergence is there, and its worth noting that Lucasfilm and Disney approve of it enough that they’re letting Johnson scope out a whole new trilogy of Star Wars films. The Lucas mode of Star Wars seems to be coming to an end (probably with Episode IX) and the Johnson mode of Star Wars may — may — be on the way. And that’s very interesting.
7. What about Luke? I will say this: I don’t think I’ve seen Mark Hamill ever give a better onscreen performance than he does here (he’s been a great voice actor for a while now), and no, that’s not damning with faint praise. Hamill’s a solid actor when he has a good director and a good part, and he’s got both in this film. Luke is older and tired and cranky and has had his fill of being a legend, and Hamill nails all of that. Ironically for an actor whose career was for a very long time overshadowed by the character of Luke, this iteration of the character is one I think could finally show to casting directors that Hamill has the chops for non-genre roles. I’d be happy to see Hamill get a career bump from this.
8. And Leia? Well, we’re all going to miss Carrie Fisher, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.
9. Others have noted that this film continues the new (and welcome) Star Wars tradition of diversifying roles in the universe; the new important characters are all not white dudes, and the background characters are also suitably all over the place. I’m gonna be honest and note I didn’t give this any sort of thought while I was watching the film, which I think is the one of the points of diverse casting. I will note that I don’t hear the outraged wailing of infantile white dudes about it as much this year, but then 2017 has not been a great year, culturally, for wailing infantile white dudes. Which I don’t mind at all.
(Update: Turns out they are indeed whining about it, and I had just missed it. Oh, well.)
10. In terms of ranking The Last Jedi, I’d tie it with Rogue One, which puts it above Return of the Jedi and every one of the prequel films. It’s, again, solid, fun and points toward a new direction for the Star Wars universe. I enjoyed it! And I want to find out what happens next — in the story, and in the real world development of the Star Wars films.
(Comment thread open. Warning: I’m going to allow discussion there to include spoilers. Avoid the comments if spoilers are not a thing you want.)