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 a massive success in 2015, yet the attributes that reignited the fandom-- callbacks, returning characters, story beats-- were the same reasons that some dismissed it as a slick rehash of the original. 2016’s Rogue One tweaked the formula slightly, but most of its appeal came from how neatly it tied into previous events. The same will likely be true for next summer's Han Solo prequel. It seems that for all the warm nostalgia these movies provided, they've led to a growing fear that Star Wars is no longer interested in taking risks or delivering something to the level of The Empire Strikes Back. A sequel that dared to do so 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 installment that whipped the new trilogy into shape and leave a massive, Empire-like impact on modern 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 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 indie talents to the blockbuster format, it makes for the least essential episode in the franchise (prequel trilogy notwithstanding).
Jedi's premise is a reconfiguration of Empire’s with newer characters filling in for the old. Again, there is an aspiring Jedi who must undergo training on a desolate planet. Again, there is an aging Jedi Master in hiding. Again, the rebellion is being pursued by baddies. Again, there's a trip to an unknown city in the sky and a betrayal. Listing each parallel would equal that of the film's whopping 152-minute runtime, and that’s not even mentioning a second act break that’s blatantly lifted from Return of the Jedi. Given that we were promised something fresh, these parallels should be inherently damning on their own, but even more problematic is how little the characters develop within them. There was excitement to learn more about Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her Jedi lineage, Finn (John Boyega) and his transition to rebel soldier, or even Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his hotshot antics. Instead, we get a messy pile of subplots that barely break the surface, and strand the 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 unique arc in The Force Awakens, punctuated by his overcoming cowardice in crucial moments. Here, it seems, Johnson takes one too many trips to the well, relying on Boyega’s charm to carry the role rather than giving him something of interest to do. The addition of newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) doesn’t help, as the duo’s mission to the planet Canto Bight feels less like a clever plot thread and more like an attempt to hammer in political agendas and justify having these two onscreen between important scenes. 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. They bring the goods in nearly every scene, 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 emotional 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 in 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 are gone? 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 instances where Johnson manages to break through the focus-group aesthetic are extraordinary. The telepathic exchanges between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) crackle with tension, teasing out unspoken emotions and blurring the line between the dark and light side of the force like never before. Both actors are wonderfully cagey here, as we never really know who is swaying the other. Their climactic lightsaber duel is another showstopper, offering up an action scene for the ages, as well as proof that more attention should have been given to them over Canto Bight or the humdrum "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 plenty written about The Last Jedi, and the sizable divide between critical response (very high) and audience response (very low). Whichever side of the argument you fall on, consider this: one could easily skip the events of Jedi, and jump from episodes VII to IX without missing an emotional or narrative beat. That is not the kind of film that'll stand the test of time. There are good moments, dare I say great ones, but as a whole, The Last Jedi is too long in runtime and too short on originality.