Star Wars Mixtape
Warning: This is an actual review of the movie, not a consumer preview, so contains spoilers. Do not read a word of it until you’ve inevitably suckled from the Disney/Lucasfilm teat. Also, Madam, there’s milk on your beard.
The online critic and philosopher, Rich Evans, of Red Letter Media fame, once posited the terrifying idea – more so since the Disney takeover and their open ended commitment to producing new films – that there’s nothing new under the twin suns of the Star Wars universe.
Rationally, you say this can’t be true. Isn’t there a whole galaxy to play with? Hundreds of worlds, billions of characters? But beyond its abstract potential, one can see what the malaprop-prone pundit had in mind. George Lucas’s behemoth is a modern myth built on a certain kind of story – one that marries the operatic with the war movie, the mythic with the mechanical. The original trilogy’s aesthetic is iconic, its broad character types beloved, and if you change the formula, as Lucas did with his underwritten prequel trilogy, the millions who prop up the brand cry like plucked Porgs.
J.J Abrams, a polished plagiarist, took zero risks when plotting and populating his sequel trilogy opener, The Force Awakens. The big question for Episode VIII was, with goodwill toward the series firmly restored, would Rian Johnson do the same? Is Star Wars now just a nostalgia project?
In fairness to Johnson, whose last genre foray, Looper, showed how good an auteur he can be when given a free robotic hand, Abram’s movie, telling much the same story as A New Hope, left him somewhat boxed in. That sequel, remixing elements of the first two Star Wars movies, effectively reversed the original trilogy’s gains, again putting the Empire, now rebranded the First Order, back on the front foot and relegating the New Republic to the disparate group of rebels that characterised the original films’ central conflict. A force sensitive youngster once again sought out a Jedi master, and the villain of the piece, the hereditary Skywalker, was confronted by their kin, catalysing a moment of peak evil that would, we feared, signal their slow path to redemption.
Handed a set up like that, the greatest and most original filmmakers on the planet might have struggled to avoid replicating middle chapter beats from The Empire Strikes Back. That said, it’s disheartening that Last Jedi contrives to open with an imperial assault on a rebel base and a villain obsessed, albeit less overtly than Vader in the film’s first half, with finding Luke Skywalker. Meanwhile, Rey, who lest we forget accepted the call to adventure from a desert planet following her encounter with a droid containing information vital to the rebellion, attempts to learn the ways of the force while being haunted by a compulsion to confront, and if possible redeem, her enemy, a man with whom she shares a spiritual connection.
So nothing like Empire at all then, but perhaps Johnson, here remixing elements of Irvin Kershner’s movie and Return of the Jedi, decided that variations on a theme were as much latitude as his Disney/Lucasfilm paymasters would allow and a risk averse audience would accept. Whatever it says in the end credits, our wholehearted embrace of Force Awakens derivative architecture and blend of old faces mixed with their next generation proxies, ($938m domestic), might have convinced Johnson that using our knowledge of the established mythos to undercut expectations would do, in place of original storytelling. In effect, you wrote The Last Jedi. Don’t forget to claim your residuals.
Consequently, within the tramlines laid down by Kershner’s 1980 movie and the 1983 sequel, plot points are inverted. Ren kills his master (whom we learn nothing about) but takes his place instead of opting for the redemption teased. Rey learns she’s not a legacy character’s child but a nobody. Luke, presented with a would-be apprentice who’s keen to join the fight against the fascists oppressing the galaxy, would rather cut his losses and end the Jedi order than recreating it. A ground assault by the villains on a rebel base involving iconic AT AT walkers, by far the most memorable bit of tech introduced in Empire, closes the movie instead of opening it. The Last Jedi, then, is built on a series of oppositions relative to one of the best known films ever made. It’s the prisoner of its middle chapter predecessor.
Beyond elemental oppositions Johnson hasn’t added a great deal to the mix. His story’s most assured when focused on a dejected Luke wrestling with his legacy and the responsibility he carries for Adam Driver’s Darth Vader wannabe. Mark Hamill gives the film some gravitas and heart, portraying an older Skywalker as much a captive of what’s come before as the film he anchors. His arc is poignant and affecting while exposing the central weakness in Johnson’s story. Whereas Empire enjoyed a strong and compelling action adventure narrative, bolstered by the mysticism and angst of Luke’s spiritual journey, Last Jedi’s parallel plotline, which like Empire’s dovetails with Skywalker’s in the final act, is flabby.
Johnson’s Act 2 plays like a Pacific World War II movie, with one fleet in pursuit of another separated by an ocean of stars. Great, but nothing we’ve seen in previous Star Wars episodes suggests the Empire/First Order is incapable of closing the gap, even if the rebellion is running low on space fuel and can’t escape due to a tracking tether, the installation of which is never explained. The implausible/inexplicable nature of this central battle is a problem because Johnson’s relying on it to generate both a ticking clock and enough suspense to move the plot forward. Without that momentum, Last Jedi has a pacing problem. The threat to the rebellion is tangible but Johnson’s reliant on technobabble and sleight of hand to convince us a simple solution – fight and escape to hyperspace, is not an option.
That isn’t to say the Last Jedi doesn’t produce moments of excitement or grandiloquent setpieces, but the movie’s lumbered with the stock characters introduced by Abrams and its compulsion to trade on the memories of its unencumbered and fully-focused parent; the 1980 sequel that remains the series’ most assured instalment.
Johnson’s modern add-ons, broad humour, banter, idioms from our galaxy, “God speed”, “big ass door”, “you’re on hold” – the kind of tonal farts, particularly in the first half hour, that we assume got Phil Lord and Christopher Miller the sack from the Han Solo standalone movie, only add to a sense of both director and studio trying to distinguish the film from its most direct competitor, albeit in the least interesting way possible.
With one film remaining, The Last Jedi, though anchored by a fine performance from Hamill and technically impressive, leaves us wondering what this sequel trilogy is about, beyond monetising the fanbase’s most treasured memories. It appears to lack an impetus and focus of its own, which given the creative reversion to J.J Abrams for the final film, doesn’t bode well for an original and universe expanding conclusion.