Star Wars: The Last Jedi (PG-13)
07/01/18 23:47 Filed in: 2017
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Starring: Daisy Ridley
What follows is the full-length review based on comments that were originally tweeted in Real-time from the back row of a movie theater @BackRoweReviews. Though efforts were made to tease rather than ruin this movie’s memorable lines and moments, some spoilers may exist in the following evaluation. For concerns over objectionable content, please first refer to one of the many parental movie guide websites. Ratings are based on a four star system. Happy reading!
The first post-Lucas, Disney owned Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens (2015), was a smashing success. J.J. Abrams, a self-proclaimed diehard SW fan from his youth, did more than just direct the film; he established the look, feel, tone and style for the new trilogy. Awakens was reverent to the original trilogy (although it tapped the tropes, themes and events of A New Hope with abandon), and carved out its own unique corner of the SW universe. With such solid footing and a literal handoff of the baton (lightsaber) from Abrams to the new director (the barely-established, virtually unknown Rian Johnson), Star Wars: The Last Jedi was destined to be a surefire hit. However, even though the movie will make bank at the box office (as all SW movies do), Last Jedi is a galactic disappointment. To temper that caustic contention, let me first say that the film’s production elements are stellar across the board. Sets, costumes, FX, makeup, sound, etc. are all top-notch and should be serious contenders come awards season. Although we get some occasional stiffness (acting arthritis) from Mark Hamill and the sadly departed Carrie Fisher, the performances are solid enough, especially from the younger actors, to service this action/adventure space opera. So where did the movie go wrong? There’s only one area of the movie, indeed only one person, that made this movie fail…Rian Johnson. Whereas Johnson’s directing choices are satisfactory (save for the scene where a frosted over General Leia (Fisher) floats through space like Mary Poppins without an umbrella), his writing reveals a significant lack of understanding regarding pacing, structure, tone and especially dialog. Last Jedi features an extremely simplistic and straightforward storyline. For nearly half the movie, the rebel fleet crawls along at sublight speed (a term borrowed from Star Trek), and the plodding plot perfectly matches its pace. Much of the story goes absolutely nowhere. Even worse, it goes in circles without achieving anything at all. Case in point, when the story becomes mired in a series of scenes involving Star Destroyers taking potshots at the rebel flotilla, Johnson has Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) take us on a side trip to a resort planet (Canto Bight). This boomerang subplot, which includes a couple of action sequences, a herd of animals, a handful of kids and a new side character, achieves absolutely nothing since the two rebels end up in the clutches of the enemy. It’s utterly laughable that Finn and Rose are actually surprised when their new friend, DJ (Benicio Del Toro), turns out to be a scoundrel (shades of Lando’s betrayal in The Empire Strikes Back), even though they never make contact with the rebel spy they were sent to meet—the code breaker with the red flower brooch (Justin Theroux). At the heart of the movie’s narrative ailment is a profound and pervasive identity crisis. What’s its theme? What’s its message? What’s its objective? One of the major problems with the story is that it has no MacGuffin, save for survival. With no overarching goal or purpose, the plot casts about in search of some kind of meaning, but since it never finds any, the movie settles for a string of action sequences just to keep the story moving forward. Ironically, the film is a reflection of its own weaknesses: conflicted characters mirror a conflicted story. Johnson clearly intends to keep the audience guessing as to the loyalties of the main characters, but while attempting to psych us out, he muddles character motivations and muddies the narrative waters. Ultimately, the joke is on Johnson since we’re way ahead of him (I mean, Rey actually being tempted to join the Dark Side? C’mon!). The story works overtime to depict the inner conflict of several characters. Is Luke (Hamill) good or bad? Is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) good or bad? Is Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) good or bad? Johnson exerts so much effort on these questions that it becomes exhausting, doubly so since the answers are so painfully obvious. The mutiny subplot, where Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) defies Holdo and does what he thinks is best for the survival of the rebel remnant, is utterly distasteful and only provides momentary tension in the plot. Dissension in the ranks doesn’t really suit SW …it’s more of something you’d see on Battlestar Galactica (2003). Holdo’s character arc is particularly vexing due to her vacillating likeability and consistently illogical command decisions. Though she makes the right choice in the end, Holdo should’ve taken action much sooner, before so many of her people were killed (plus, a quicker reaction would’ve moved the story along faster and shaved off a few minutes of the film’s too long 2 ½ hour screen time). At least something good comes from Holdo’s desperate act; besides providing a momentary escape for the rebels, we’re treated to the film’s finest visual effect—a weaponized hyperspace jump. Speaking of FX, two of the mo-cap characters from Awakens have returned here, with less than impressive results. Again, we can’t fault the performers or the visual effects artisans for their efforts; the blame lands squarely on Johnson’s shoulders. The story beat where we get glimpses of Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) fighting some far-off war via a choppy video transmission is a total throwaway scene which is shamelessly shoehorned into the story just to remind kids to buy action figures with her likeness. The bigger disappointment is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who was portrayed as a towering, malevolent shadow lord in Awakens, but actually turns out to be far less physically intimidating and even less sinister than we were originally led to believe (and what’s with that bland, red background in his throne room?). Johnson wrote stilted, simpleton and self-aggrandizing dialog for Snoke, and one wonders if Snoke’s characterization here is a thinly-veiled dig at President Trump. Snoke is far too overconfident in his abilities in the Force (and who trained him?) and loves “dialoging” (The Incredibles). Besides plagiarizing the Emperor’s (Ian McDiarmid) talk track wholesale, Snoke also enjoys playing with his captive (like a cat toying with a mouse) a little too much. Plus, even though he claims to see everything, he can’t even sense a threat sitting right next to him? Weak! Like Boba Fett and Count Dooku before him, Snoke is dispatched far too easily. Snoke is a poor man’s Emperor. He’s all bluster with none of the menace. In short, Snoke is a joke. Snoke’s Ninja guards are like highly trained Imperial Guards from Return of the Jedi (1983). This is just one of many callbacks to the original trilogy. Judging from Johnson’s rigid insistence on rehashing themes, settings and dialog from the earlier SW films, it could be argued that the entire narrative of Last Jedi is one giant pastiche. Here are just a few examples… The rebels have to evacuate their base and get past an Imperial blockade (Empire). Ships that engage in evasive maneuvers to avoid capital ships because they can’t enter hyperspace (Empire). Luke trains Rey, just like Yoda trained Luke in Empire—and it’s amazing how well Rey fights after just a few lessons. Near the middle of the movie, Rey enters an obsidian land anus to learn the identity of her parents. Disappointingly, Rey steps into a celestial fun house where she sees countless copies of herself in mirrors that taper to the vanishing point—an utterly superfluous sidebar, and more wasted screen time. This sequence is similar to when Luke sees his face in Vader’s shattered helmet inside the Dark Side cave in Empire. Gigantic walkers on a white plain (this time it’s salt, not snow) and rebel troops in trenches defending a base (Empire). The image of a kid holding a broom like a lightsaber closes out the movie, and he stands in an archway that’s shaped just like the one inside the rebel medical frigate at the end of Empire. These instances are just a few of the many allusions found in the story. This doesn’t even include the many shots and lines of dialog that were lifted right out of the seminal trilogy. Strangely, the ubiquitous gag line in every SW film: “I have a bad feeling about this,” isn’t uttered here. The oft-repeated opening crawl phrase “spark of hope” is an insipid bromide that’s too reminiscent of A New Hope. Another area of the film that’s derivative is John Williams’ score, which is a Greatest Hits compilation of his music for the original trilogy. The quality of the music is predictably excellent, but it’s unacceptable that only about half of the score contains original music. The post-crawl piccolo solo is identical to the opening of New Hope and signals the banal plot to come. Though the movie’s shortcomings are many, perhaps the greatest is the horrendous depiction of Luke (I can’t fault Hamill’s acting—he does the most he can with a poorly conceived and written part). For his ham-handed handling of Luke, Johnson should be taken out and tarred and feathered. Actually, Disney should be baptized in Bantha poodoo for green-lighting this hack script in the first place. Johnson’s characterization of Luke is an abomination. Luke is a jaded bully in most of his scenes. He isn’t likable in the least and is a far cry from the hero we once knew. Look no further than the Jedi Academy flashback sequences for evidence of this. First we see the events of that fateful night through Luke’s memory and then through Kylo Ren’s (back to when he was still Ben Solo). Aside from wasting precious screen time on Rashomon (1950) style he-said-she-said sequences that contain only minor variations, these scenes feature a flawed aspect of Luke’s character. Let’s apply some logic to these fallacious back stories. Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader committed countless murders (including the slaying of an entire school of kids, as seen in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith) and yet his son, Luke, can still sense good in him in Jedi. An older Luke senses evil in Ben Solo, who, at that point hasn’t killed anyone (that we know of). As such, how can we reconcile the fact that young Luke’s steadfast objective is to redeem his genocidal maniac father, while old Luke’s first instinct is to kill his innocent nephew? This is an emotional knee-jerk of epic proportions. How could a Jedi Master act in such an irrational manner? Since he was able to restore his father (Vader), shouldn’t Luke be able to prevent Ben Solo from going down the dark path and becoming Kylo Ren? Have his powers become that weak? Or his mind that feeble? Although Luke finds redemption in the end, the fact that he doesn’t “physically” come to the aid of the rebels cheapens the multigenerational dual and is a significant cheat on the part of Johnson (despite the dramatic mileage and plot twist he gets out of the climactic battle). The much anticipated showdown between Luke and Kylo Ren features gaps in logic large enough to march a fleet of walkers through. As someone adept at using the Force, shouldn’t Kylo be able to sense that Luke isn’t quite what he seems when peering down at him from the bridge of his ship (or to put it a different way, shouldn’t Kylo be able to detect Luke’s life force/energy, or the absence of it)? Further, when face to face with Luke on the battlefield, shouldn’t Kylo question why his old mentor looks exactly as he did while teaching at the Jedi Academy (an estimated 10-15 years earlier)? Luke’s black beard should be a dead giveaway, to Kylo and the audience, that Luke looks younger than he really is at present. Also, Kylo knows Luke’s lightsaber is green. And yet, during the confrontation, Luke is wielding a blue lightsaber, which also has a hilt that looks just like the one Kylo and Rey recently ripped in half during their Force tug-of-war. With all of these visual clues, it’s inexplicable that Kylo could’ve fallen for Luke’s chicanery. Again, Johnson’s inexperience shows through during this sequence because his attempt at misdirecting the audience backfired with the creation of these major nitpicks. Another of Johnson’s mishandled moments is the brief cameo by Yoda (voiced by Frank Oz). At first we’re elated to see the diminutive Jedi master and then we’re puzzled when he displays an antagonistic attitude toward Luke. Then we’re befuddled when he calls the sacred Jedi texts a dull read and condones Luke’s desire to burn them. Yoda is completely out of character in this sequence (as is Luke). Not only does this sadly superfluous scene fail to significantly advance the plot, it squanders the appearance of one of the most beloved characters in the SW mythos. Plus, it wastes even more screen time and seems positioned just to sell another toy version of Yoda. Another character that was planted in the movie just to sell toys is new droid BB-9E. The black robot has less than two minutes of total screen time and only has one pivotal scene. Though not nearly as annoying as the Ewoks (Jedi), the puffin-like porgs are shown squawking far too often in the film and are included here only to generate laughs from the kiddies so that they’ll run out and buy the toy version of the birds. The porgs, which hail from planet Ahch-To (gesundheit), are certainly cute, but they’re overused in the movie. In fact, the film is overloaded with creatures, including the large horse type creatures (fathiers) from Canto Bight and the crystal foxes (vulptex) on Crait (again, you can bet that each of these animals will be included in their own toy play set). You would think that a movie so geared toward kids would be non-stop fun, but such is not the case. In actuality, the movie has very little humor. Most of the jokes, like Luke tossing a weapon over his shoulder in a screwball comedy flourish, are forced and fail to strike anywhere near the funny bone. Worse still, the movie has no heart. There are very few genuine emotions in Last Jedi. Also, as absurd as it sounds, the only natural acting in the entire film is when the rebel officer touches the white surface and dabs the substance on the tip of his tongue and says, “Salt.” Everything else is hyperreal and put on for effect. To be fair, the film succeeds in a few key areas. Mentioned earlier, the cataclysmic hyperspace jump represents the film’s creative zenith. The hyperspace tracker, though pilfered from New Hope, is a clever piece of technology that adds some much needed dramatic tension to the film. On Crait, the red dirt under the surface of salt sets up some brilliant visuals when the rebel ships and walkers engage in combat—the vehicle movement patterns are like an elaborate Etch A Sketch drawing. One clever character device is the Jedi Link (my appellation), which allows those with Force abilities to establish mental communication over vast distances of space. The concept does have precedent in New Hope, when old Obi-Wan senses the deaths of scores of people on Alderaan, and at the end of Empire when Luke responds to Vader’s mental projections. Though unsettling at first, the way one character can engage in a casual conversation with another person who’s standing in front of a contrasting background, is extremely effective visually. These sequences are well executed and add a psychological dimension to the scenes between Rey and Kylo Ren (and are they related, since their connection is so strong?). From the outset, it seems as if Johnson’s main objective was to confound the audience at every turn. However, the employment of a constant string of plot twists for the sole purpose of catching the audience off guard can make a story not only tangential, but ultimately, inconsequential. As the movie’s sole scribe (and why no assist from a veteran, proven screenwriter, like Lawrence Kasdan?), Johnson proves to be too slick for his own good by focusing on surprise over substance. Unfortunately, the biggest surprise in the movie is how spectacularly Johnson failed. In the final analysis, Last Jedi is a parade of disfigured character portraits, haphazard and hackneyed writing and plot holes big enough to fly a dreadnought through. If Last Jedi was converted into a mathematical proof it would be: flawed characterizations plus a flawed narrative equals a flawed film. After this middling effort, there can be no doubt that the Force is in flux. Will the series pull out of its tailspin for the trilogy capper or will it continue its precipitous descent into the Sarlacc Pit of movie mediocrity (like the prequels, which Last Jedi resembles in many respects)? That brings up another burning question…is this the worst SW movie ever made? Actually, does Last Jedi even qualify as a SW film since it feels more like a high budget fanboy film than an authentic entry into the mythos? Perhaps, due to some cosmic mix-up in The Twilight Zone, we ended up with an alternate Earth’s Last Jedi and they got ours. Whatever the explanation is for Last Jedi’s myriad missteps, one thing is abundantly clear…the Force is not strong with this one.
Rating: 2 ½ out of 4 stars