Saturday, December 16, 2017

This Is Not Going To Go The Way You Think

Year: 2017
Director: Rian Johnson
Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill
Run Time: 1 hours 32 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Here it is, the reason I've come out of retirement. I decided to stop reviewing current movies shortly after Rogue One, but I've always had a worry gnawing at the back of my mind that that meant I wouldn't be able to weigh in on the next chapter in the Star Wars canon. Well now the veil has been lifted, and he reviewer has been loosed upon the world once more. Let's dive into it, shall we?

Cue applause.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi picks up more or less immediately after the events of The Force Awakens. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on the galaxy's most absurdly gorgeous island (and the characters keep using the term"galaxy" as if that term encompasses the whole of creation, and it bothered me slightly less than in Guardians of the Galaxy, but still a lot more than it should) to solicit the help of legendary Jedi hermit Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) int he fight against the First Order and maybe learn a thing or two about this Force business in the process. Meanwhile, in a very Empire Strikes Back fashion, while Rey has a space-Buddhist adventure into the inner workings of life itself, her friends are fighting for their lives out in space.

A battle between the dwindling Resistance forces - led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, in her final appearance as the character not played by a horrifying CGI specter) and purple-haired Vice-Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) - and a First Order fleet - led by the rogue's gallery of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), his apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) - has reached a brief standstill, but things aren't looking hot for the good guys.

While Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) chafes against authority due to his insatiable and potentially dangerous drive to be a hero, Stormtrooper ex-pat Finn (John Boyega) teams up with maintenance worker Rose (Kelly Marie Tran, the newest star to be scooped from obscurity to light up screens worldwide) to find a master codebreaker to help them yadda yadda science fiction words. Look, there's a ticking clock and they're trying to save the Resistance and preserve hope for the galaxy.

A whole galaxy! It's, like, really important!

What's most striking about The Last Jedi is how small-scale everything really is. We do visit some spectacular new environments (and one that's mostly just Hoth 2.0), but the bulk of the story takes place within a couple square miles, or whatever the space term is for that. That's not in and of itself a bad thing (the original Star Wars only has a couple settings it switches between), but I think the reason I felt claustrophobic is that the main battle is stuck in a holding pattern that sucks out every bit of narrative tension like an industrial vacuum. It kind of prevents any sort of real action, and all the participants are content to just kind of sit and wait for the important characters to figure things out, while sitting around discussing their differing philosophies over tea.

OK, I may have exaggerated a bit, but really not by that much, and that's probably the biggest flaw in a movie riddled with flaws. To be fair, it's also riddled with triumphs, but The Last Jedi is audacious, conceptually and visually, and that bold ambition comes with a willingness to take risks and stumble that The Force Awakens was not willing to indulge. And that's probably why the latter was a whole lot better as a popcorn spectacle when all is said and done.

The Last Jedi is full of these contradictions, which is why it has been so hard for any reviewer to wrap their head around it. It very clearly has a better director, and Rian Johnson (of Brick and Looper) delivers images of such pure, magnetic beauty that it's impossible to dislike the movie as a whole. From the set design (a Resistance bomber ship in an early scene is an impeccably crafted space with lived-in functionality) to the costume design (a new set of storm troopers that are basically blood red samurai) to the space warfare (one key moment is literally breathtaking; every process in your body will briefly stop to appreciate the sheer beauty), The Last Jedi is a sublimely accomplished visual work. But as a story, it falls apart like a ham shank left in the crock pot for too long.

Maybe I shouldn't be writing this review right before lunch.

For a movie with such a generous run time, the story fails to find room to develop most of its dramatic beats, shoehorning in scenes of grand import that weren't properly established and thus have the impact of a handful of cotton balls being thrown at your face. It doesn't help that the dialogue in these scenes is brutally clunky, and relies on aspects of the Force and Jedi lore that have never made an appearance in the film canon and frankly made no sense to begin with. Fans of the extended Star Wars mythos may find a lot to dig into here, but as someone who has never found the struggles of the Jedi and their philosophies anything but hokey, it's hard to find any emotional stakes in the proceedings.

I suppose this is just a symptom of a problem Star Wars has always had. The divide between the Dark Side and the Light is written as the malleable, porous line that can be crossed all too easily if you're not careful. But basically every one of the franchise's villains is a scarred, sneering mustache-twirler in all black, obliterating whatever shades of grey the plot wants you to imagine there might be. So whenever a character struggles with being pulled toward the dark, it's hard to see what could possibly be so tempting about it.

Seriously, who's looking at this guy and thinking, "He looks like he'd be a good boss."

Honestly, there are moments here that are just lame. In addition to what it pretty objectively objectively the most idiotic scene to ever grace a Star Wars picture (you'll know it when you f**king see it), there are a handful of sequences that exist exclusively as fanservice, and they're exhausting to suffer through.

Looking at all these flaws, I should honestly be infuriated by this movie, but I'm not. There's the trouble with The Last Jedi. What's good is so damn good, and even if more than a good half of the movie was dull and overwrought (the actual number is probably closer to 35%), it would be enough to shift the scales toward a positive score.

For one thing, the wacky humor that has secretly always been present in the Star Wars franchise is back in full force, and although anything Poe does is ripped straight from the mouth of Star-Lord and frankly doesn't work all that well, there's a sense of kiddie matinee fun that runs through the whole thing. The biggest and maybe not best example of this is the Porgs, this episode's answer to the Ewoks. They're these cute little rodents that only exist for comic relief, and I'm deeply upset by how much I loved them.

I KNOW this only exists to sell plushies, but damn it it's working.

OK, the Porgs are bound to be divisive, but they really are a sterling example of the register The Last Jedi shoots for, and  more often than not hits on the mark. For instance, BB-8 continues to be the best new character in the franchise, and his every exploit continues to bring me unending joy (He's also allowed to get a little bloodthirsty when push comes to shove, and it's rad as hell).

Another good thing (there are more than I've been letting on, because the bad things can be so loud) is Rose, an entirely charming new character who might feel more at home in a spin-off like Rogue One but really holds her own against the more established ensemble. I don't know where they plucked her from, but they need to keep returning to that well.

Plus, when The Last Jedi goes big it goes big. The action sequences are pretty stellar, and occasionally even surprisingly gory (at a "family-friendly" Indiana Jones level, not a The Prowler level, just in case you were worried), and the universe-building is as weird and charming as the franchise fans should have come to expect. 

In short, it's a water cooler popcorn movie that's definitely worth your time, even though it has some massive holes to patch up come Episode IX. This is a step down, but it's not quite a stumble. Even though with a worse director it certainly would have been. 

TL;DR: Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is a beautiful, stunning popcorn adventure with some really wonky storytelling over a terribly indulgent run time.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1504
Reviews In This Series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016)
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard, 2018)


  1. Argh. I've gotta go see this. And The Disaster Artist. And Justice League. (And Ingrid Goes West, although I think it's out on home video now.) At least you know how I feel about Coco.

    I just have NOT been able to get to a theater in a little while. But I need to go see this.

    So, yeah, I can't justify it--not by your review, not by anyone else's review, at least not by anyone worth trusting (Matt Zoller Seitz? oh, please)--so is it just awful fannishness that I'm going into The Last Jedi with a 10/10 attitude?

    1. Honestly, I can see you giving it a 10/10. A lot of people I'm watching love it, and your meter on late-franchise entries is totally unpredictable so I can see it going that way ;). And there's certainly enough to justify it, though I wasn't able to do so.

      And Ingrid Goes West is definitely on Redbox! That's how I saw it.

  2. Well, Tim hated it, so, yeah, I'll love it?