The worst movie of Rian Johnson’s career is the best film of the nu-Star Wars franchise.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi is slathered in problems. They range from technical nitpicks to severe hyperdrive failures and fan-fiction mootness. But an improvement is an improvement, and a significant improvement, this is over its nu predecessors.
Granted, progressing past those previous two self-mutilated crack babies The Force Awakens and Rogue One doesn’t take much work. The former is not a film, but a zany, inconsequential two-hour trailer, meta narrating itself into an empty shine box for the projections of the world’s worst, most delusional and entitled modern fan base. The latter takes the scope and omnipresence of a would-be epic and buries it under ten feet of re-shoots, idiotic Easter eggs, and banality.
The Last Jedi doesn’t distinguish itself from those runts immediately. The opening makes haste to do the Battle of Hoth in space, with dreadnoughts, poorly-designed bombers, and a ridiculous attempt at a Saving Private Ryan sacrifice throw by a character we’ve never met before and only learn about later.
But after those forgettable opening fifteen minutes, the film slowly settles into a groove that manages to be occasionally moving in its own right, even if it can’t escape the rest.
Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found Luke (Mark Hamill) to be a shell of his former self. He does not care for her arrival or initial offering, nor does he respond to her request for help. He hikes, collects “milk,” fishes, and sits, crushed under the weight of his failures and fears, and eventually agrees to teach her the ways of the Force mostly just as a way to convince her that the Jedi must end.
Rey’s journey towards an understanding of the Force leads to some clever reveals and pleasant surprises about both her character and those with whom she interacts. Writer/Director Rian Johnson is a proven master with a grasp on what characters need in the quieter moments of reflection given breathing room in his films. He builds her through contrast against both Luke and Kylo Ren, for whom Adam Driver outdoes himself from two years ago. Rey’s skills and abilities are significantly de-emphasized, with her role re-purposed as an optimistic foil for her adversaries. It works a lot better.
Side Note: porgs are wonderful.
Luke’s story in particular has the best payoff, where Johnson is able to re-configure one element of the magic in the original 1977 masterpiece into a worthy counterpart. In the original, the message to Luke was that his good intentions and relaxed habits were his best qualities, perfect for making the best use of his youthful energy. Now he has become willfully incapable of seeing similar qualities in others and thus too cynical even for the Force itself. And The Last Jedi, if nothing else, affectionately emphasizes that the power of the Force is not about the ability to rag-doll your enemies or lift rocks, but the small ways in which you prove yourself and empower others.
This is where the energy of the film is, and it builds a stronger legacy for this movie, the property, and the nu-franchise than anything its predecessors do. The rest of it, unfortunately, can’t help but feel like a plot that Johnson was force fed by his superiors. When the First Order tracks the fleeing Resistance fleet through hyperspace into a corner of the galaxy, The Last Jedi turns into Captain Phillips in space for a while.
One of the fandom’s favorite inside jokes about The Empire Strikes Back is the time lapse. Luke finds and trains under Yoda seemingly for months while the Millennium Falcon is dodging TIE Fighters and Star Destroyers between Hoth and Bespin for mere days at most. The Last Jedi attempts the same plot hole, but here it’s far more indicting. The Resistance plays a waiting game as it runs on fumes – and the waiting is for Luke’s return. But reminding how much time remains, while necessary for effective plotting, gives the game away, like when another pair of characters is sent off on a secret mission – a tertiary focus with only a distant tangential payoff.
As such, time spent away from Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren feels increasingly wasted. This is a long movie, peaking at its final sequence. So feeling busy through the middle actually works for it. But even when Rey brings herself back into the fold, the movie just cannibalizes Return of the Jedi with more hammy fan fiction. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) gets more screen time but still bounces around aimlessly with no development. Chewbacca, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and the new eggs, Vice Admiral Hunger Games (Laura Dern) and sly stutter criminal (Benicio del Toro) are neglected to the point of oxygen deprivation.
It’s clear enough that Rian Johnson can’t even pretend to care about the immediate conflicts beyond the aforementioned big three. His style, influences, and quirks as a filmmaker simply aren’t involved there, and The Last Jedi suffers from a dry midsection because of it, especially when certain characters force tone-deaf jokes or get fortified with more plot armor than an AT-AT.
But to fixate on things like that miss the bigger picture. Criticizing a Star Wars movie for its plot is like doctor diagnosing a yogi philosopher with a brain hemorrhage from all the headstands. Star Wars, original trilogy especially, is a visceral experience making bombastic cinematic opera from the oral tradition of storytelling. The final sequence of The Last Jedi lives up to that potential, but the rest of it coming before it does not. It’s the little things that take you out of it. The opening text has the blandest language ever conceived to the point where I almost wished it didn’t have it. There’s a cameo in a critical dramatic moment that comes off like Professor X with the Benjamin Button treatment. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis)’s red-curtain throne chamber on his starship is one of the ugliest, most painfully choreographed screen studio environments you will ever see in a big movie. It is so detached and impersonal that everything within loses its impact. But as long as we’re talking about the detached and impersonal, this nu-franchise still lacks human passion. Its absence is hardest felt when characters are hurtling themselves into the maw of death and you wonder what they were actually invested in all this time.
With all that mixed with the rushed beginning and poor thriller mechanics, The Last Jedi simply doesn’t rise above its mediocrity. But at least there’s a genuine reward this time – far more in line with the spirit and integrity of Star Wars than the previous two.
Next time, lead with that.