Back in December of 2015, I exited my viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and lauded it with critical praise. I thought it was everything I wanted and more and I was quick to tell everyone that they NEEDED to see it.
As that opening weekend progressed a few of my other friends saw the film and while there was similar praise from some, others were quick to tell me that I needed to see it again because they just didn’t see it along the lines I did. They were quick to point out its flaws but I was strong in my opinion of the film. I thought it was great and nothing would convince me otherwise.
I ended up seeing the film again the following weekend. Prepared to love it just as much as I did the weekend before but sometimes we can get caught up in the hype and a lot of my initial praise subsided a bit once I approached the film from a more critical perspective. If we were grading it on a 1-10 scale, my first viewing was a 9. My second viewing then became an 8 and once I saw it for a third and final time in theaters I probably dropped it down to a 7.5. It has sat in that range since then and while it’s by no means a bad film, I think it’s more solid as popcorn entertainment rather than being a substantial entry of the franchise. It’s funny how your mind can change. I had to go to those friends who saw its flaws right away and simply say “yeah, you’re right about some of that.”
Let me be clear. The Force Awakens gets a bit of criticism because it feels like a rehash of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. I actually agree with this sentiment but it shouldn’t be viewed as a detriment. That film isn’t a bad model to follow especially when the stench of the prequels is still potent even today (unfortunately Revenge of the Sith gets lumped in with the dreck as well). I think it was smart in a sense to play it safe and not really make waves with The Force Awakens. I think that’s why my first viewing was so positive. It was miles ahead of what the Phantom Menace did back in 1999 that how could you call it anything else but great?
That being said, by playing it a bit safe it didn’t allow the film to achieve true greatness. The film seemed more about giving us the greatest hits of the franchise rather than embarking on a new story that needed to be told. Some have said the story concluded with Return of the Jedi. That’s where George Lucas wanted to wrap it up and that anything that comes now, is merely a cash grab. Perhaps it is a cash grab. When Disney acquired the rights to the franchise for $4 billion dollars we knew we were getting more installments not because they were necessary, but because there was more money to be made. Not all cash grabs are cinematic abortions. You can make a film with the most greedy intentions and still make something compelling to see. For example, did we really NEED Rogue One: A Star Wars Story? No! However, despite being made more for financial gain, it’s still, in my opinion, the best of the latest offerings from the franchise.
So that brings us to Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It comes blasting into theaters on December 17 with high expectations and near-universal critical praise. The critical response was hailing it as the best film of the franchise since The Empire Strikes Back (with some saying it was just as good) and suddenly it felt like it was 2015 again. I was ready to view a masterpiece but was going to go into this one not just being consumed by the same amount of hype that accompanied me when I saw The Force Awakens.
Getting one thing out the way is that Star Wars: The Last Jedi doesn’t play it safe. There are some bold choices within the narrative that actually do work but a lot of these choices seem to be the reason the response to the film has been so divisive. Whether you call them “fanboys” or “marks,” a lot of people have been critical of the film because it didn’t align with of the theories they had about the film since the release of The Force Awakens in 2015. Just because the narrative didn’t go the way you predicted, doesn’t mean it’s a bad film. That just means that you feel a bit silly that you saw things going one way and the film didn’t do any of the things you spent two years anticipating it would do.
While I can defend the bold choices and a big budget film of this nature taking those chances, my problems with this latest entry have nothing to do with that. When I left the theater after seeing the film on opening day, I felt largely underwhelmed. I thought there were some great isolated moments but the sluggish pacing and a disconnect with some of the characters just left me wanting more from it. I don’t go into any film wanting to dislike it. In fact, most will tell you that I try to find the good in almost every film I see. When I exited The Last Jedi I remember being completely quiet. Then I realized my buddy was completely quiet as well. We walked from the theater to a restaurant to grab food and it took about 5 minutes before we even mentioned anything about the film. He was the first to say something when he almost reluctantly said: “that wasn’t that good, right?” I didn’t share his growing disdain. I thought it was entertaining for the most part but I think the underlying issue I had isn’t that this is a bad film but it’s a mostly average one. Star Wars should be more than average and while the franchise has certainly seen lows (the first two prequels being a shining example of this) there is just too much talent involved in these projects now that simply being average isn’t acceptable. With Rian Johnson at the helm, I was expecting something more than average. With films like Brick and Looper, Johnson has proven to be a director with extraordinary talent. A lot of his technical skill is on display here. Despite the familiar nature of the space battles, there is a bit of visual expertise that he brings to the project that J.J Abrams may have missed with The Force Awakens. The problem is, despite all of Johnson’s talent, the franchise is bigger than him and I know some will view this differently, but I don’t think he quite escaped what the bottom line of this franchise is: to make billions of dollars at the box office. A lot has been made about the director’s who have been let go from the newer entries of the franchise. They seemed to have a vision that would stray a bit from what has worked for the series. Producer Kathleen Kennedy is a force to be reckoned with and there are simply things you don’t do when making a Star Wars film. So even with all of Johnson’s talent, he still falls into line and the end result is a film that doesn’t really break the mold. It’s a bit business as usual and sure, the razzle-dazzle of special effects (and they are beautiful here) can be exciting, but sometimes they can serve the purpose of hiding a film’s shortcomings. The Last Jedi is big and epic in scale but narratively it feels very flat and small.
When we last left Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Rey (Daisy Ridley), they were standing atop a mountain sizing each other up. The latter was earnest as she held out a lightsaber to its rightful owner. The former looked intrigued but mostly peeved that he was about to embark on this journey again. In The Last Jedi, Luke may look like Obi-Wan in A New Hope, but he’s not much interested in teaching Rey or returning with her to play the role of the heroic icon.
While Luke and Rey are playing their game of will he or won’t he train-her, the Resistance is in trouble. There aren’t many ships left in the fleet and, after the First Order catches them fleeing their latest hidden base, there are destined to be fewer of them. Still, ex-Princess-now-General Leia (Carrie Fisher in her final performance) is nothing if not determined. When hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) disobeys an order, it results in massive losses in service of a major victory. But the Resistance is trapped and the end appears nigh, especially when Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, in his usual motion-capture glory) shows up in person to confer with his minions, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Meanwhile, back with the Resistance, injured hero Finn (John Boyega) wakes up and embarks on a filler quest accompanied by newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and BB8.
The Last Jedi is a series of great moments strung together with a so-so narrative. The film is at its best in two sections: When Rey is training with Luke and when Rey is in a cerebral battle of light versus dark with Kylo Ren. The former gives us a withered Luke Skywalker and this ends up being a bold choice that works. Whether or not you believe Skywalker would mentally end up here (Even Mark Hamill has made choice comments about the character’s direction) there is no denying that it leads to some compelling work from Hamill himself. He may be more likable in the original three films but he displays dimensions here that he never quite reached in those films. Daisy Ridley plays the eager apprentice with a sense of earnestness and strength that makes her the film’s biggest asset. Her character is the most developed and she has certainly shown growth since her star turn in The Force Awakens.
In her scenes with Kylo Ren, she brings the best out of Adam Driver. It’s a concrete embodiment of the Dark Side/Light Side conflict that we haven’t previously seen in the movies and offers the possibility of differing paths existing for each character. Rey hints at seeing a future in which Ren stands with the forces of Light; conversely, Ren envisions a darker road for Rey. It’s a bit of mental sparring at its finest and it’s really when the film pops. Had I felt the emotions I felt when these scenes were on display during the entire film, I would’ve been completely pleased with the final product.
The film’s problems become evident when these scenes aren’t the focus. I felt largely underwhelmed by the first 45 minutes or so of the film. In fact, I would go as far to say that a lot of that first 45 minutes was a bit boring. Again there sporadic moments of heightened interest but the pacing had issues and the focus on the supporting cast becomes a bit of an issue because I’m simply not invested in any of them. I want to root for Poe and Finn because I love their characters, not because I enjoy the actors playing them. Oscar Isacc, in particular, has a lot more to do here in comparison to The Force Awakens but his character trajectory didn’t interest me all that much because he doesn’t really seem to have a compelling arc. This is more true of Finn. He had a solid introduction in The Force Awakens but his scenes felt more like filler here despite eating up significant screen time. His scenes with would be love interest Rose mostly fall flat because I simply didn’t see the chemistry. John Boyega showed more spark with Daisy Ridley in The Force Awakens. This new union doesn’t really have me rooting for their future.
Another problem is that the cast itself, particularly our heroes and heroines, feel largely disconnected. In The Empire Strikes Back Luke spends a bulk of the movie separated from the rest of the crew yet I still felt a connection between these characters. Luke had his own compelling story in that film while the supporting cast had sequences that were just as memorable. This is the difference between a narrative having a solid direction rather than coming off as filler. I would never call the events on Cloud City filler. The action is those sequences are just as important as Luke’s training sessions with Yoda. We know that these characters will converge again eventually but that’s something I never really felt during The Last Jedi. When the film would cut from anything involving Rey, I kept hoping they would just go back to that rather than focusing on anything else. There is a strength in her narrative that is absent from the rest of the film.
I also still have an issue with Kylo Ren as a villain. Adam Driver is a capable actor and I’ve decided I don’t blame him. This is a more of a writing issue and rather than coming off menacing, he comes off as a child throwing a temper tantrum. He’s a child who’s simply not getting his way and there is nothing compelling about an arc like that when his main source anger seems to be that he’s a guy with major daddy issues. Kylo is strong in his scenes with Rey and I personally dug one pivotal moment involving him that gave me my only genuine gasp in the theater, but on his own, he’s more whiny than villainous. He’s not quite on the level of Anakin Skywalker in Attack of the Clones, but there are definitely shades of it his performance. Maybe this is the direction they want for the character and perhaps it’s enough for fans who think his motivations are strong enough, but it simply doesn’t work for me. Honestly, I’d take the scenery chewing of General Hux over Kylo Ren.
Then again there are those moments. The question is, do a few great isolated moments make a film worthy of your viewing? I’ll admit that it was emotional to see Carrie Fisher share one final scene with Mark Hamill. The scene is especially poignant considering that Carrie Fisher’s death was nowhere in sight yet it plays as a goodbye for the characters, as well as the actors. This is just another example of when the film grabs the soul and imagination of the audience. The problem is these moments are too scattershot. There’s enough artistry here for me to give the film a slight recommendation but I would caution viewers not to expect greatness along the lines of The Empire Strikes Back. I admit that I was disappointed by aspects of the scope and scale of the narrative, especially considering the high regard in which I hold Johnson (can we agree that Looper is one of the best action/sci-fi films to come out in recent memory)? Signature scenes make for moments of great viewing power but they simply can’t hide the flaws of an untidy, overlong story.