I was 7 years old the first time I saw the original Star Wars trilogy. I was with my dad and siblings at my uncle’s cottage. We watched all three films in one sitting – and I’m pretty sure my mom was pissed when we didn’t show up at home until well after midnight. It is one of my favorite memories. It’s been quite some time since that night, and the memory is getting considerably hazy under a rose-tinted fog. The feelings I had that night, though, they’re as clear to me as they ever were, and I feel the same childlike sense of wonder every time I go back and rewatch those films.
The past is important in defining who we are. The memories we have, the mistakes we’ve made, our trials and successes, etc. Equally important is what lies ahead. While you can’t remain fixated on the past, it’s important to reflect on it. Similarly, in a fictional universe, it’s important to reflect on the established canon to ensure your characters remain true to who they are so the decisions they make can be reasonably believable in the given context.
“Let the past die,” is a line uttered in a bit of pivotal dialogue, and it’s a sentiment that is stated several times in other expositional exchanges throughout the film. It’s Rian Johnson’s ham-fisted attempt at less than subtle direction toward the audience. The film literally urges you, through dialogue, to let go of the past – to let go of your heroes, to let go of the 40 years of established lore and development, and to embrace this new saga. Unfortunately, it makes little effort in letting go of the past itself while doing an outstanding job of bastardizing it.
I wouldn’t be able to fault Disney for trying something new if they actually tried something new. It’s been 40 years since A New Hope, and this time is reflected in the new films, but there’s an overwhelming familiarity with everything from the First Order and all of their weaponry to the merry band of misfits trying to take them down. Despite the fact that the Rebel Alliance defeated the Empire and established a New Republic, the galaxy as a whole still shares the aesthetics of the original trilogy. The First Order is, essentially, what I suspect the Empire would look like after 40 years. That all holds true in The Last Jedi.
The opening title scrawl informs audiences that the New Republic has fallen – I am assuming that this is because the Republic Senate was destroyed by Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens. This is fairly hard to believe right at the onset – especially given that “The Resistance” was able to deal a devastating blow to the First Order in return by destroying Starkiller Base. However, it’s the setting we are asked to accept, so accept it you will. So, the New Republic has fallen and all that’s left is the dwindling forces of The Resistance – and they’re on the run from the First Order to establish a new Resistance base. This is where the film opens.
The opening scene hits all of the right notes with a highly entertaining space battle that echoes the WWII dogfight films that inspired George Lucas for his original films. Amidst the excitement, there’s the desperate attempt to make a break for it and get out of the First Order’s sights. It attempts to evoke the sense of loss during the scene with multiple on-screen deaths of nameless or off-screen characters, and is fairly effective with the exception of a cheap all-hope-is-lost fake out. It’s a strong opening for what should be a strong film.
Unfortunately, the film that follows is a bloated and plodding mess lacking much in the way of plot and character growth. Exposition is less interested in decent plot progression and character growth than it is in throwaway jokes and divvying out side quests like a poorly written video game. Finn’s bumbling charm is overdone and strays from what made him enjoyable in The Force Awakens. Poe’s opening gag is entertaining and mirrors his introduction in The Force Awakens, but it drags on far too long. Additionally, his actions and decisions this go-round seem antithetical to the character that was established in the previous film. In place of a man who put himself at risk for the good of The Resistance is an impulsive “flyboy” who is okay with executing an ill-conceived plan that will result in heavy casualties.
The damning change in character, however, is in Master Jedi Luke Skywalker himself. Gone is the hero of the Rebellion, redeemer of Darth Vader, and last of the Jedi Order. In his stead is a disappointing, poorly executed analogue for Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi. The resultant character and related subplot makes me wonder if Rian Johnson has, at all, any understanding of what Obi-Wan’s motivations were in his self-exile in addition to question his grasp of who Luke Skywalker is as a character. There are shining moments – Luke toying with Rey when she reaches out to feel the Force oozes with the personality of Yoda on Dagobah and is one of the best light moments of the film, and his role in the film’s climax made me feel like a child watching Star Wars again – but the events that transpired between Return of the Jedi and The Last Jedi (which are touched upon in flashbacks during the film) are far from sufficient for this drastic departure from the established character of who Luke is at his core.
Flaws in characterization aside, the story of the film, as a whole, seems like it would be served better as the first act of a three-act film than as the entirety of a two-and-a-half-hour film. Aside from the Luke and Rey subplot, and a 40-minute detour filled with questionable visual gags and CG characters that would be condemned had they showed up in the Special Editions or Prequels, the entirety of the film follows the adventures of a small band of Resistance fighters looking for a new home base. Where previous Star Wars films were epic and expansive adventures through a previously unseen galaxy, the latest entry is, at its core, a chase scene in the vast vacuum of space.
The film isn’t without it’s merits, however. It is hard, for the most part, to fault the film’s visuals. The use of red and high contrast in certain scenes is absolutely gorgeous. The reds and whites of the climax are visual candy, but this scene is hindered by the fact that it is a poor reconstruction of the battle of Hoth. The throne room is arresting in its oppressiveness, but it is also the setting for one of the most disappointing scenes of the entire film – not because of what happened, but because of how unbelievably anticlimactic it did happen.
Some of the film’s stronger points are not necessarily well-executed. The film plays with the themes of profiteering from war and conflict – an idea that should spawn several post-film discussions. However, the heavy-handed exposition leaves little subtlety and feels jarringly out of place. Unfortunately, that can be said about the majority of the dialogue in the film. There’s a disconnect between the events occurring on-screen and the behavior of the characters experiencing those events.
If this weren’t a Star Wars film, I have no doubt that I would have been able to enjoy it for what it was. But it is a Star Wars movie, and its many sins are unforgivable. It succeeds in evoking a lot of the emotions I have while watching the original trilogy because it does such a fantastic job of emulating those films. But, that doesn’t make it a good movie – and certainly not a good Star Wars film.
Star Wars, to many people, is more than just a series of films – it is something that transcended the idea of what a movie could be. It defined modern cinema and reshaped science fiction. It gave us some of our greatest cinematic heroes – heroes that weren’t infallible, and sometimes weren’t even likeable, but they would go on to have a lasting impact on the audience long after the credits rolled. It gave us some of the greatest large-scale battles in cinema – it gave us Hoth. But, above all of these things, it gave us the Jedi. The original trilogy gave us Jedi as mystical space wizards that are all but extinct. The prequel trilogy gave us the Jedi in their prime – it deconstructed the mysticism and presented them in a way that could be seen as an analogy on corporatist religion in positions of government influence.
The Last Jedi takes 40 years of established lore and character development and discards it in favor of doing “something new” while refusing to actually do something new. It relies on familiar aesthetics and emulates iconic scenarios in a successful attempt to evoke nostalgic feelings of joy. What it doesn’t do is maintain consistency with its previous entry, regard canon, or respect its characters.
As a film, The Last Jedi is enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable. It fails to establish its own identity while urging you to forget the past – meanwhile, it beats you over the head with the past with blatant mimicry. As a Star Wars film, it’s insulting, and I can’t imagine the return of the Jedi in the next film being anything more than another play on nostalgia lacking any kind of originality or respect for the established lore.
1 / 3 – Bad