Movie: Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley
Director Rian Johnson ushers in Round 2 of the new Star Wars trilogy, and while the returning cast - both old and new - give it their all in an admirable showing, the strange pacing, weak side-plots, and generally off characterizations of some beloved franchise staples dull the enthusiasm a bit, with only its intelligent deconstruction of the Star Wars legacy to lift it above mediocrity.
The Star Wars brand has seen a lot of ups and downs since The Force Awakens was released two years ago. The loss of Carrie Fisher was a tremendous blow, which will obviously leave lasting reverberations for the films to come. Meanwhile, though the new trilogy’s first film was largely a success - or at least, silenced fears that Disney would completely wreck the franchise - there was still heard the faint sounds of fan grumbling over the supposed stark changes it brought to the beloved series. A female lead, a black male protagonist, and the surprise death of arguably the franchise’s most popular character all left die-hard saber-swingers floundering in the dark side on to what to expect in the future. And now, The Last Jedi brings everything full circle, for while the first movie teased at changes to come, this one nearly deconstructs, or at least questions, some of the standard tropes that have been endemic to the enterprise since Luke first stepped out into the Tatooine sunset. Everything from heroic machismo, to the pedestal treatment of “legends,” to even the notion of a “chosen one” all get a pretty bad spanking throughout the film. Fine, fine, you might be saying. But is it any good? Well, yes and no. But mostly, yes.
Unlike previous films, The Last Jedi seems to pick up almost immediately where we left off - an odd pacing choice, admittedly, though it doesn't rattle the cage too much. The Resistance, lead by iron lady General Leia Organa (the late, great Carrie Fisher) is forced to evacuate their base before a First Order fleet lead by General and all-around slimeball, Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Ace pilot Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac, leads a successful but horribly costly counter assault on a First Order Dreadnought before jumping to hyperspace. Meanwhile, Rey (Ridley) has finally caught up to the elusive Jedi Master and living legend Luke Skywalker - played, as always, by the incomparable Mark Hamill - only to discover, to her horror as well as ours, that the former hero has become a burned-out cynic, closed off to the Force and unwilling to resurrect anything resembling the Jedi. As Rey struggles to overcome his walls and learn more about her gift, first film favorite Finn (John Boyega) wakes from his coma to discover that the Resistance escape ship was being tracked, ushering a deadly cat-and-mouse game with the First Order. With Leia out of commission during a surprise attack and the Resistance leadership in confusion, Finn joins forces with his old friend Poe and new ally Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) to find a way to break free of the Order’s grip. And all the while, the ever-conflicted Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wrestles with murdering his father and his tenuous place beside Supreme Leader Snoke, and in the process, forms a link with Rey as they work through their common concerns of belonging and destiny. Where all of these ambitions collide will witness both the rise of a new power, and an altered course for the destiny of the Jedi.
Compared to most other movies in the franchise, the Last Jedi really plays fast and loose with its many inherited tropes. No doubt a huge part of Star Wars’s monumental popular appeal lies in how it modernized ancient mythic archetypes and braised them in a cool, sci-fi coating. The traditional hero - his (and it’s almost always “his”) call to adventure, the escape from the belly of the beast, the final apotheosis as the hero realizes he’s the Chosen One and redeems the world - have all been staples of the traditional Star Wars order, and indeed, remain the source of its undeniable power. The Last Jedi pushed open the cracks in this formula left by the Force Awakens: Poe’s hot-headed heroism causes more harm than good; the last-ditch Indy ploy dripping with macho adventuring fails spectacularly; and the “Chosen One” seems, at this point, anything but. Even the idea of the conflicted young villain is mercilessly deconstructed, and provides the film with its most effective sense of suspense in its entire run. This is a controversial element for some fans, but for me, at least, it shows a great deal of creativity, and enhanced my experience quite a bit.
Even if you're not a fan of Disney taking a swipe at a few Campbellian sacred cows, the A-list cast goes along way to sweetening the pill a bit. With this being their second go around, the actors by now have all settled into a comfortable groove with their characters, and it shows. Ridley and Boyaga are the real stand outs, with Rey and Finn stealing the show in this new leg of the franchise. Rey has bloomed into a more nuanced character, with a smaller chip on her shoulder and a more appealing vulnerability born of recognizing her link to the Force and her desire to learn more of her past and her place in the grand scheme of things. Finn’s delightful oscillation between practical cowardice and flashes of the utmost heroism marches on, and he even forges a distinctive edge over the course of the film, culminating in an epic battle against his own personal nemesis. Finn’s everyman quality had been my high point in the preceding movie, and while much of his screen time was spent floundering in a bloated arc, he was still a delight through every moment of it. Though Kylo Ren has been a divisive character since his introduction, I’ve always liked his take on how a young man can slip into evil through a muddled mixture of fear, ambition, and insecurity. And of course, we must all bow to the great Carrie Fisher in her final performance - even if she spent about half of it in a virtual coma.
Still, even with all this praise, some bizarre narrative choices result in a somewhat lopsided showing for the story as a whole. One drawback to taking a deconstructive turn in a popular series is that everything comes together in a more intentional - and hence, calculating - fashion. The humor felt too pressed upon and unnatural at times; the “twists” were beaten to death by foreshadowing; and all the many plot points came across as blatantly calculating, and not as organic as the original series or even its decidedly mixed-bag predecessor. This is the underlying rot under every shaky foundation of the movie, and explains quite a bit of its other follies. The need to intentionally break open the hero archetype laid down by Han Solo has warped Poe into an intensely unlikable figure - hot-headed for no good reason, secretive, and resorting even to mutiny to enforce what he wrongheadedly believes to be the “right thing to do.” More frustrating is that despite this, and the fact that he is directly or indirectly responsible for about half of the deaths for the Resistance (no, really), his actions are waved away in an oddly enforced status quo.
But perhaps the most devastating change for many fans is where they left the Skywalker legacy. Now, granted, I can’t fully jump on board with this; the central aspect of the Force, after all, is that it should belong to everyone, and wrapping everything around one bloodline makes a mockery of that lesson. But reducing Luke Skywalker to a shell of who he was off screen can seem a lot like character derailment, and it doesn’t help that the film grants relatively few positive depictions of masculinity. While I was ultimately satisfied with Luke’s character arc and understood (and appreciated) the lessons he imparted to Rey concerning a balanced view of the Jedi legacy, seeing him morph into a bitter cynic and viciously dismiss Jedi history as one of “failure, hypocrisy, and hubris ” with very little in canon to back it up can feel quite jarring without deeper reflection.
There are a couple of other things to pick at, if you’re really looking for it. Finn’s side plot to find a hacker for a harebrained scheme to break the First Order’s tracker was a bloated and unpleasant affair, and not even Finn’s charm could surmount its plodding pace. A major part of that objectionable little detour was new character Rose, who was a bit of a mixed bag in general. While her initial scenes and sad loss of her sister at the very beginning lend her some potential and pathos, she quickly loses my interest as the subplot drags on and she fades increasingly to the background - relegated, it seems, to the slum of last-minute love interests and potential romantic plot tumors which come out of freaking nowhere. Even beyond the sideplot, though, the film seemed to drag on longer than it needed to; there were several points before the finale where the film could have ended but didn't. Instead, it just ambles on, diffusing the tension and making me check my watch every five minutes.
And yet, despite these flaws and their seeming gross weight on the scales versus the Last Jedi's more positive attributes, this was still a worthwhile film. While I understand that flirting with genre deconstruction can be quite unnerving in such a beloved series, I believe it was handled tastefully as a whole. We don’t know what the next film will hold; Fisher’s demise put the ultimate monkey wrench in any plans Disney had for her and the film. But Star Wars now stands at the crux of a cinematic crossroads: will it continue down the arduous road to deconstruction, or will it rebuild itself into something more akin to the original series? Either path can be fraught with difficulty, but as long as it keeps its balance, it may be worth the effort.