Fresh take? Just a bit off? Both, maybe?
Of all the mixed feelings and thoughts raised by The Last Jedi, I am unreservedly amazed by John Williams’ score. The music is perfect from start to finish, and magically threads together into a seeming whole a collection of scenes, moods and ideas which feels less than cohesive.
Episode VIII promises to break out of its own conventions, but ultimately doesn’t do so in any meaningful way.
I’m a fan of Rian Johnson‘s writing, and even more of his direction. Each of his previous films (Brick, The Brothers Bloom, Looper) is enjoyably well-crafted in its own way. The announcement that he would write and direct a new Star Wars film was, to me and I suspect others, surprising but exciting. I personally expected the result to feel… tighter than this.
If it was the work of The Force Awakens to rebuild fan confidence by playing safely within the nostalgia sandpit, then it was Episode VIII‘s job to push things forward, to expand on familiar ideas and introduce new ones. It’s difficult to tell, at least after first viewing, which of the new ideas and twists on old ones feel off because they’re different, and which because they’re just… off.
There are some truly exciting moments and striking visuals in The Last Jedi. The thrilling attack on the Resistance ship culminates in a final lightspeed move that is breathtaking (and possibly game-breaking?). The image of a menacing, murderous Luke is terrifying (and the way his story with Ben / Kylo unfolds in three parts is a particularly Rian Johnson move). Snoke’s red room is stunning, a scene straight out of Hero (but why oh why did they show Snoke walking? The CGI technology is still not there yet, guys), and the moment when that red wall first catches on fire, despite being in the background and out of focus, was for me as big a “We haven’t seen this in this universe before” moment as any.
As for the Kill Bill-style dispatch of Snoke: is it cool that it’s so unexpected, or a cop-out response to the “mystery” surrounding his introduction in the previous instalment? I’ll add that to the list of things in The Last Jedi I have to sit with for a minute.
The Last Jedi introduces themes of growing beyond established ideas – of good and evil, of the force, of destiny – but backs down from exploring them.
Certain moments feel like twists for their own sake, flipping imagery from Empire – often literally – without adapting, inverting or even commenting on what those images represent. Instead of a tree, it’s an… inverted tree? Instead of Luke meeting himself, Rey meets… multiple selves – and to what end? Even this movie’s Hoth battle scene – placed toward the end, rather than the opening, of the film – uses salt instead of snow, because… why? In Empire, the ticking clock is Luke’s training versus his friends’ entrapment; in The Last Jedi, “fuel” is mentioned more times than “force”. On the island, Rey doesn’t really learn from Luke, and we don’t learn much about him.
I’m still yet to process my feelings on the Finn and Rose side-adventure (again: was it odd because it was a little different from what we’ve seen before, or because it wasn’t told as well as it could have been?), Po Dameron’s general gung-ho-ery (Oscar Isaac‘s charisma may have tricked me into finding Po more likeable than he actually is), and Leia flying through space (more on that shortly). I’m all for Jedi powers and “Force-sensitive” abilities we haven’t seen before (I really enjoyed Luke’s new tricks, which were also a genius solution to the problem of how to match old Mark Hamill to young Adam Driver), but shouldn’t the story benefit from such new ideas more substantially?
Flying-through-space aside, Princess Leia’s near-death scene had me really worried – less about her fate, and more about the film’s handling of Carrie Fisher.
We’re watching a film that, as far as we know, features her final film performance – and every moment with her onscreen feels poignant at least for that reason. From the moment we realise we’re possibly watching her character die onscreen, wondering “Is this how they write her out?”, to the moment we see her body floating in space, I found to be perhaps the most agonising few minutes (seconds?) I’ve spent worrying about a film’s good taste. And now, of course, the question remains: how will they address Leia/Fisher going forward?
The Last Jedi introduces themes of growing beyond established ideas – of the force, of good and evil, of destiny – but backs down from exploring them. The island scenes waste opportunities (and certainly time) where Luke could introduce ideas to Rey, as Yoda did to him (does he even teach her the third thing he kept threatening?). Kylo and Rey’s relationship introduces an interesting crack in the Star Wars universe’s good-versus-evil paradigm; yet the Snoke red room scene, which climaxes by being literally burned down, ends with the two characters reverting to that binary paradigm, virtually unchanged. Even Benicio del Toro‘s DJ, there to show Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) the moral and economic hypocrisy of war (literally, in a handy holographic powerpoint presentation), is ushered out of the film without even kicking up dust which might slightly cloud the established moral code. Episode VIII was perfectly set up to break out of its own conventions, but ultimately doesn’t do so in any meaningful way.
Further reading & watching
Sidenote: years ago, Red Letter Media released their long-form video dissecting Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. ‘Mr Plinkett’s Review’ spawned an entire generation – an entire industry – of video essays discussing pop culture. Many of the channels they since inspired took entirely the wrong lessons from their work, and unironically evidence the kind of nasty, entitled, miserable approach to pop culture that is less about actual conversation and more about rabid consumption. Red Letter Media remains more intelligent, but not always less entitled, than their whinier offspring – so it’s interesting that even they seem to misunderstand The Last Jedi‘s story about failure as The Last Jedi‘s failure at storytelling.
And finally – because if you’re not talking about the cultural response (or backlash) to a Star Wars film, you’re not really talking about a Star Wars film – this humble writer’s thoughts on the toxic “fandom” which abused and hounded actress Kelly Marie Tran off social media for the crime of Being Asian in Star Wars, cried “SjW aGeNdA!”, and called for the blood of the film-makers: