Cinema: 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' Swaps Nostalgia for Inconsistency
For being set a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away), the rebooted Star Wars franchise has had a tumultuous relationship with the past. The Force Awakens was released to rave reviews and gargantuan box office in 2015, yet the attributes that reignited the lovefest-- callbacks, old characters, familiar premise-- were the very same reasons that many dismissed it as a slick rehash of the original. 2016’s Rogue One tweaked the formula slightly, though much of its appeal came from how neatly it tied into (and set up) previous events. The same will likely be true for next summer's Han Solo prequel. But for all the cozy nostalgia these movies provide, they've fueled a growing fear that the franchise is no longer interested in taking risks or delivering something to the level of The Empire Strikes Back, still considered the finest (and darkest) of the Star Wars films. A sequel that dared to break the mold could mean the difference between reboot and true artistic reinvention.
This is precisely what makes The Last Jedi such a disappointment. Poised to be the trendsetter that whipped the new trilogy into shape and leave a massive, Empire-like impact on contemporary audiences, Jedi inexplicably decides to play it safe, and opt for the illusion of originality rather than the real thing. It demands praise for being different, while still leaning heavily on the tropes and story beats of its predecessors. Whether this is the result of Disney’s increasingly formulaic input or a failure on the part of writer/director Rian Johnson to translate his low-budget talents to the blockbuster arena, it easily makes for the least essential entry in the franchise (prequel trilogy notwithstanding).
Anyone claiming the film upends the past is kidding themselves. Jedi's premise is a reconfiguration of Empire’s with newer characters filling in for the old. Again, there is a Jedi-to-be who must undergo training on a desolate planet. Again, there is an aging Jedi Master in hiding. Again, the rebellion is being pursued by the First Order (nee Empire). And again, there is a trip to an unknown city in the sky and a betrayal by an amoral slickster. Listing additional parallels between the two would take the equivalent of the film's whopping 152 minute runtime, and that’s not even mentioning a second act break that’s clearly lifted from the finale of Return of the Jedi. Given that we were promised something fresh, these parallels could be inherently damning on their own, but more problematic still is how little the characters are allowed to develop within them. Heading into The Last Jedi, I was eager to learn more about Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her connection to the Force, or Finn (John Boyega) and his transition to rebel soldier, or even Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his allergy towards authority. What I was given instead was an onslaught of aimless subplots and filler that barely broke the surface, stranding characters at the same emotional point they were at the end of the last film.
Nowhere is this more abhorrent than with Finn. His transition from Stormtrooper to reluctant hero was a compelling arc in The Force Awakens, punctuated by his overcoming cowardice in crucial moments. Here, Johnson seemingly takes one too many trips to the well of goodwill, relying on Boyega’s charm to carry the role rather than giving him something of actual merit to do. The addition of scrappy newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) doesn’t improve matters, as the duo’s mission to the planet Canto Bight feels less like a cleverly-woven plot thread and more like an attempt to hammer in a few political agendas and justify keeping these two onscreen between scenes of relevance. It's an atom bomb of boring from which the film never fully recovers.
The veteran actors, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, fare much better in the roles that made them stars, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, respectively. They bring the goods in nearly every scene in which they appear, particularly Hamill, who plays the fallen Skywalker with reckless abandon (despite his initial apprehension). Though I find it telling that they’re tasked with delivering the film’s emotionally weighty moments by themselves, as if relying on our love of Luke and Leia is the only way the film could think to tug at out heartstrings. It certainly works, as several moments throughout The Last Jedi will leave you devastated (one in particular, with a heartbreaking callback to A New Hope), but it also begs the question: who will be left to carry the weight when all the beloved characters have left the franchise? Johnson and producer Kathleen Kennedy seem weary that such pivotal emotions can be drummed up by the newbies, which doesn't do much for our confidence in them in the meantime.
I will say, the sparing moments where Johnson’s acumen as a storyteller manages to poke through the impenetrable, focus-group aesthetic are some of the best in the film. The ongoing exchange between Rey and the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is packed with tension, bringing out unspoken emotions in both of them and blurring the line between the dark and light side of the Force like we’ve never seen before. Both actors are wonderfully cagey here, as we are never really sure who is swaying the other. The eventual showdown between Rey and Kylo is another unexpected showstopper, offering up a lightsaber duel for the ages, as well as proof that more attention should have been given to their story over the Canto Bight disaster or the bland "rivalry" between Poe and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). As is stands, it's a fascinating kernel rattling around in an otherwise frustrating slog.
There have been much said about The Last Jedi, and the sizable divide between critical response (very high) and audience response (very low). Whichever side of the argument you chose to support, consider this: one could easily skip the events of Jedi, and jump from episodes VII to IX without missing so much as an emotional or narrative beat. That is not the mark of a film that will stand the test of time. There are certainly good moments (unforgettable ones at that), but as a whole, The Last Jedi feels overly long, inconsequential, and frustratingly short on originality. I sincerely hope the franchise and Mr. Johnson bounce back with their next respective outings.