STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)
DIR.: RIAN JOHNSON
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a rejuvenating breath of fresh air for the Star Wars franchise, as though the Lucas-helmed prequel trilogy made tons of money at the box office, it was critically divisive and generally believed as lower quality than the main trilogy of films that spawned one of the biggest multimedia franchises of all time. It introduced new characters that all had worthy plot integration, and it used a basic but open format that borrowed elements from the original Star Wars film to kickstart a new trilogy with gusto and heft. Many people were subsequently excited for The Last Jedi, the second film in the planned trilogy, as the second chapter in trilogies such as these often contain dark elements and grim despair for protagonists. There are indeed some raised stakes in this film, but it's no Empire Strikes Back, neither in story structure, nor in quality of filmmaking. This is the most disappointing Star Wars entry since Attack of the Clones, with complete plot lines dropped, scattered performances, an unfocused structure, inconsistent pacing, and overall an unconcealed, blatant disregard for the lore of the franchise or even the previous film that set up the characters for this film. Whether it is director Rian Johnson's fault or Disney's, it remains to be seen, but this film is a colossal misfire for multiple reasons, and I'm frankly surprised how many of its flaws have been overlooked by mainstream critics. I won't be so lenient here. I love Star Wars, and I hold it in high regard, and I will judge it based on this fondness. Time for some tough love.
I discuss narrative initially in my reviews, and for this film, I could write a multi-page essay on the different plot holes in this film, and why they diminish the enjoyment of watching it, but they would mostly involve spoilers. I'll keep this review spoiler free and just say that there are several plot lines, both contained in this film as well as carried over from The Force Awakens, that are either completely dropped, denied previous significance, or even in some cases given the middle finger through curiously pretentious artistic choices. I love Rian Johnson as a director, and he has made several great films in the past, as well as directed some of the best Breaking Bad episodes, and I could not believe he sanctioned some of the decision making involving some of the characters and story arcs. There is a complete sub plot involving the character of Finn and a newly introduced character named Rose that goes on for far too long and ends up with absolutely nothing accomplished, with no significance to narrative. There is a lack of care with pretty much all of the villain characters other than Kylo Ren, and the other First Order characters are either brushed aside or written like complete morons, when The Force Awakens established them as powerful, menacing and worthy adversaries. Most importantly and most curiously, however, is the fact that the villain side of the narrative is so weakly developed, and the Rebel side is so poorly written, BUT the actual training and Force subplots involving Luke, Rey and later Kylo Ren are actually really cool and interesting. Even though this only takes up about 30% of the film's total screentime (at a colossal, far too long for the content, 2 hours and 40 minutes,) some of the concepts introduced and some of the Force-focused scenes are highly compelling and gripping. Why the film showed such clarity and focus in these scenes, and no focus at all and obligatory, half-baked shenanigans in the rest of the various plot threads, I have no idea, but the slice of narrative involving the Force does present one diamond in the rough of the rest of the amateur writing.
The writing shows that either the film production was rushed, and proper care could not be given to the film's characters and lore, or that the director or studio just did not care, and threw away tons of good will established in the previous film in an attempt to surprise the audience. I like surprises in narrative, and I actually do appreciate that a franchise film could take risks...when these risks make narrative or thematic sense. The main theme in this film, without spoiling it, is basically that "you can come from nothing and accomplish great things," and it deliberately flies in the face of one particular narrative consistency involving lineage. The case this film makes for this statement can be compelling, when it focuses on this theme. Unfortunately the film is far too preoccupied with trying to shock the audience and failing, and struggling to find things for characters to do, whom are not named Rey, Luke or Kylo Ren. Lastly, there are scenes involving a space casino, a cruiser, and a base with a gigantic wall that make no sense, and show both Rebel and Empire higher ups acting like complete short-sighted imbeciles. This film is infuriating to think about, which does not bode well for its longevity. After the naivety of the new Star Wars film being in theaters wears off, I believe many will realise this. It makes me long for Rogue One, which I didn't like mostly because the pacing was horrible and the characters were all unlikable, but here, the sins of the narrative and character development are for more egregious because we know these concepts were handled well previously. Finally, the ambiguity involving "the Jedi ending" proved to be far more simplistic and not at all as ambiguous as trailers implied. Knights of the Old Republic II this film is not.
I could go on for much longer, but hopefully I've made my point above.
Other than for actors such as Harrison Ford, who are so charismatic that most of what they act in is entertaining, the acting of this franchise is never a highly regarded merit among fans or critics. With this being said, this film contains both some of the best and simultaneously some of the worst acting in the franchise. Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver all provide compelling arcs for their characters, and there were scenes involving Hamill that I thought contained some of the best live action acting I've seen from the man. Ridley proves that yes, she can act this character, despite some complaints on her casting from the previous film. Johnson seems to direct her better emotionally than Abrams did, especially in scenes involving her communicating with the other two men. Finally, Adam Driver continues to prove to be one of the best young character actors working today, as he provides further depth and complexity to the heartache of Ren. Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher and John Boyega do the best with the material that they are given, and Isaac even has some compelling debates with a new character that show how great of an actor he is, but other than these standouts, the rest of the performances are par for the course...except one.
There are several new characters introduced. Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro's characters were welcome additions to the franchise, with the latter providing a much more different kind of outlaw than Han Solo, and not quite Lando either. However, the film curiously chooses to focus a significant portion of its runtime on a new character called Rose. Kelly Marie Tran, an up and comer known for indie films, is absolutely atrocious in this film. Her character is implied to be this technical wizard, yet her character by the end of the film accomplishes nothing, and is still valued as an important part of the Resistance. Since Rian Johnson couldn't figure out anything for Finn to do, he basically writes the two characters together on a sort of covert op that ends up never applying to the rest of the film's story. Other than meeting del Toro's character and giving Finn one singular confrontation and fight sequence, nothing of note to the universe or the conflict on screen happens from their journey...and the film focuses about 40% of its screentime on this stupid, ill contrived subplot. I feel sorry for Tran as Rose is destined to become the Jar Jar Binks of Disney's trilogy. Her performance, and the fact that so much of the film is focused on her and pushes Finn to the side, significantly diminishes the rest of the film. Rose is annoying, her struggle is impossible to sympathize with (Johnson tries to make the case that she had a family member die to the enemy and tries to pass this off like it's a new concept) and she overall felt like a fan fiction avatar, self-insert character that had no purpose in a major Hollywood motion picture, but might be alright in an episode of Masterpiece Fanfic Theatre.
If nothing else, this film works as a great showcase of Johnson's technical direction, if not his lack of writing skills for an established universe. If you've looked at the images I've posted from the film in this review, the most recurring visual theme in the film is derived from Ozymandias, which is also the title and a reference to the episode of Breaking Bad that he directed, and one of the greatest episodes of television of all time. Each of the three main Force-wielding characters is made to "look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair." Their contemplation and various inner struggles are visually and auditorily represented extremely well. From a cinematography standpoint alone, this film and Rogue One both share extreme precision and care to the physical aspect of the source material. Sound editing in some unique conversations between Ren and Rey also proves unconventional yet effective, and the score proves yet again that John Williams is a never ending fountain of symphonic mastery. Unlike Blade Runner 2049, however, this film does not have the same level of execution in cohesion between physical form and written composition. That particular film had some problems of its own, and some other significant plot holes to be sure, but not even on the same level as The Last Jedi. Looking purely from a visual standpoint, The Last Jedi is a beauty to behold, but so is Fifty Shades of Grey. One of the year's worst movies, A Cure For Wellness, had some of the best cinematography of the year. My point is that if you film two hours of dogs in the park defecating, and you frame the shots spectacularly...you're still going to spend two hours looking at dogs in the park defecating.
It's sad to say that I think even The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith had more compelling storylines and character development than this film. The prequels, for what it's worth, shared a consistent vision from George Lucas, even if that vision was mired in weird acid-trip level world-building and curious choices. The Last Jedi breaks that narrative consistency and that trust that was built for audiences with The Force Awakens. Those who like or love The Last Jedi may find that this proverbial salad tossing of narrative structure and character placement to be ambitious, and they may be right, but ambition does not always equal success. With curiously weak narrative choices, a lack of character care, a pace that drags when it's not focused on Force users, and an overall lack of cohesion between all various plot threads, watching the film simply for the fantastic Force plotline feels like watching The Walking Dead simply for the good episodes, i.e. not worth the time investment altogether. A Star Wars film should not feel like a chore to get through, nor should it focus on the most annoying characters and abandon some of the most compelling ones, but The Last Jedi commits these sins with a braggart's boastfulness.
But who am I kidding? It's Star Wars. You're still going to go out and watch it anyways. It's still going to make millions of dollars in box office revenue. It's pretty much one of the only franchises keeping theaters alive. What I have said in these text boxes above is not going to change that. What I hope I can change is the fact that so many seem to have been satisfied with poor composition and narrative when most of the rest of the franchise does not contain such bad quality. We as an audience need to hold this franchise to a higher standard, because it's capable of works like The Empire Strikes Back. It's capable of video games like Knights of the Old Republic II and novels like Darth Plagueis. We should not accept such amateur content in our franchise that has shown to be capable of so much more. I can't recommend this film even as a diehard fan. It's a bad film. I just hope that the final entry in the trilogy can make up for these missteps, or that Disney can once again prove to show integrity towards the franchise.