I’ve often wondered what it was like to watch The Phantom Menace in the cinema. Sitting down after so much build up, only to face two hours of VFX fetishism, awkward dialogue and downright bad filmmaking. At what point would people realise? Would they simply marvel in the spectacle and ignore the flaws? Or would they head home sadly, wondering what went wrong?
I think The Last Jedi is the closest I will ever get to that experience.
That isn’t to say that Rian Johnson’s first foray into the Star Wars universe is as bad as The Phantom Menace, or any of the prequels for that matter. It’s just not an especially good film either.
The Last Jedi begins shortly after The Force Awakens, with the Resistance evacuating their base, under pursuit from the First Order’s fleet of Star Destroyers. Our heroes must evade the evil forces of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), or face the end of the resistance. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to coerce legendary Jedi Master, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) out of exile, so that he can return, and shift the tide of the galactic conflict.
From a purely technical level, The Last Jedi is phenomenal. Cinematography, production design, music and sound design are all astounding, as has come to be expected from a tentpole Star Wars film. In fact, many of the segments of this film that work do so because they are, well, Star Wars. It’s clear that Rian Johnson is a fan of the franchise, and respects the mythology and grammars that surround the cultural behemoth.
That said, it’s clear that Johnson took on board the criticism that The Force Awakens was too similar to Star Wars (1977), so tried extra hard to differentiate The Last Jedi with what had come before. The plot, for example, is unique; none of the previous films used a pursuit as the primary plotline. But perhaps this was for a good reason – it isn’t hugely compelling for a 150-minute runtime.
Recognising this, Rian introduces contrivance after contrivance, in order to artificially create drama. The result: a poorly paced, meandering and messy script, that simultaneously underutilized existing characters like Finn (John Boyega) and introduces new ones like Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) with no real development or defining character traits to speak of. It’s frustrating, especially since the existing cast of characters are so iconic and beloved. Do we really need a Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), when Carrie Fisher’s Leia has such a similar role?
The Last Jedi is also the most overtly political instalment since Revenge of the Sith. Not that this is an inherent flaw; if done correctly, it adds an additional layer of depth and intrigue to the narrative. Indeed, science fiction is able to reflect and critique society in a way few other genres can. This film features a perfect embodiment of white male entitlement as a primary antagonist, so the film seemed primed to provide interesting commentary on power dynamics in modern western society. That said, The Last Jedi often lacks subtlety, making points that are muddled at best, and downright dangerous at worst (yes, the Space Fascists are bad, but the Resistance use weapons too, so maybe both sides are wrong?).
Much of this is to serve the film’s exploration of what it means to be a hero, and the balance between good and evil. For the most part, this conflict works well, especially between Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), as it develops their characters beyond the archetypical ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, moral ambiguity is a questionable theme to invoke when the villains are literal Galactic Nazis.
Thankfully, Kylo Ren remains a compelling antagonist throughout, with complex motivations. His unpredictability makes him a terrifying villain, and his crusade to purge the old from the galaxy resonates in the core of the film; whilst The Force Awakens was a celebration of Star Wars old, The Last Jedi is about letting the new generation take over. Or, at least, it tries to be. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite commit to this enough; whilst most existing characters face major narrative consequences, others are seemingly forgotten about.
There is also an issue with tone. Despite the film’s dark themes and looming threat, the dialogue is full of quips that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Marvel film. That isn’t to say that Star Wars should be devoid of humour, far from it. However, previous films used more comedic characters like Han and C3PO carefully, providing levity where necessary, and allowing dramatic moments to remain impactful. On the other hand, The Last Jedi treats almost every character as a conduit for one-liners, to the extent where it becomes difficult to judge how serious the film wants to be taken. This culminates in a scene that is clearly intended to be dramatic, yet is so ridiculous that one can’t help but laugh out of as sort of perverse nervous shock and bemusement at the sheer absurdity of the situation.
A lot of this would be easier to forgive if it wasn’t a Star Wars film. But take away that license and those characters and all that’s left is a poorly plotted, messily structured genre flick, with vague attempts at comedy and hollow action. It’s a spectacle, sure, but little else. Which is frustrating, mostly because The Last Jedi isn’t so much a bad film as it is a heavily flawed one. It’s flashy, stupid and entertaining, and I have no doubt that children will love it. Ultimately though, it feels like expensive fanfiction, when it could have been much more.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in cinemas nationwide now. Image source: Finance.Yahoo.com