Movie Review – Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley and Carrie Fisher
Did you hear that? That was the sound of a million nerds panicking behind their pocket protectors. The mayhem began when review aggregators like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes began posting unprecedentedly high critics’ scores for Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, while fan scores on the very same sites languished in the mid-40’s and 50’s. “This is not my Star Wars!” the comments ran. “The worst Star Wars ever!” Director Rian Johnson had apparently “destroyed everything good” about the Star Wars franchise. And his cat’s an asshole too!
It’s not unusual for there to be a rift between critics and audiences, but rarely one as large as this. And usually the roles are reversed with the critics disdaining what the fans embrace. Historically, the two “forces” have almost always agreed when it come to this franchise. So something strange was going on. Later reports of a disgruntled fan flooding the sites with troll-bots to discredit the film don’t quite explain the volume of anger on these sites. With over 5000 user reviews on Metacritic alone, it’s hard to imagine so many of them being fake. So then, are the fans right? Is The Last Jedi the antichrist of Star Wars movies?
Ignore the hype. Episode VIII is not the backstabbing betrayal that some internet pussies would have you believe. At its heart, it’s true to the spirit of the series. There’s the required fast-paced action scenes, brilliantly conceived and beautifully rendered through state-of-the art visual effects. There’s the trademark whacked-out aliens, the cornball humor, and the silly, if alluring, mythos that inspires so many fans to obsession. There’s a deliciously over-the-top villain who ranks among the best in film history. And surprisingly, there’s also real dramatic heft and arguably, the most engrossing narrative of the entire series. But there’s also one ingredient from the original films that’s missing – Innocence.
Coming on the heels of a decade of grittily realistic movies made specifically for adults, the original Star Wars was an anomaly. A cheeky throwback to a more innocent era, it was modeled after cheap depression-era serials like Flash Gordon. Those serials had low budgets, minimal storylines, mediocre talent, and cheesy special effects. And the villains were bad, very bad, but only in the most cartoonish, non-threatening way. There was no real violence in them, no conflicted characters, no real evil, and no real human drama either. They were all in fun and aimed mostly at kids. Yet even today they somehow remain indelible because of their unabashed, often exuberant camp theatricality. Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, emulated the naïve spirit and infectious enthusiasm of those serials but with a bigger budget, better talent and vastly improved special effects. It was fresh, exciting and full of fun, the perfect change of pace from the ground-breaking realism of its day.
But that was 40 years ago. Times have changed and so has escapism. As our world has become a darker place, so too has Star Wars, with each series arguably getting successively darker. The cartoon evil of Darth Vader in the original three films gave way to the brooding child-killer of the middle trilogy. And the new series of films, which began with 2015’s The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams rip roaring “remake” of the original, and continued with last year’s stand-alone entry, Rogue One, have an even darker feel. Rogue One was arguably the first adult Star Wars. It played like an old combat movie (the tragic kind, where everyone dies in the end.) And much of that sensibility carries over to Episode VIII. These movies have a more dramatic, contemporary style. They’re darker not only in mood, but less colorful and generally less brightly lit. The sets seem somewhat lackluster compared to the early films. And the violence, though not gory by today’s standards, is intense and real. The characters are more complicated (for a Star Wars film anyway), the evil more palpable, the threat more urgent. These are dark times for our beleaguered rebels and that admittedly sounds a brooding chord over much of the film.
While this darker vision may be responsible for the mixed fan reviews, I suspect a bigger reason some hardcore fans are so disappointed may be in the way the film closes the door so resolutely on the original characters (The baton has officially been passed) and on an important element of the original trilogy’s mythology – the Jedi. As the film’s title make clear, Luke is the last Jedi. There will be no more after him. The Force will live on in Rey and perhaps others, but the Jedi religion appears to be dead forever. This is ultimately irrelevant, but movie fans don’t always respond well to changes, even inconsequential ones. People remember what they love about a movie and want to recreate that experience with every sequel. But for those of us who enjoy Star Wars but aren’t fanatic about it, the formula was overdue for some new life.
Other fan criticism has been targeted at how Luke Skywalker, the beloved hero from the original trilogy, is portrayed. The Luke of Episode VIII is far removed from the wide-eyed farm boy of the original. Now he lives alone as a hermit in an abandoned Jedi temple. He’s turned his back on the Force, even refusing to help the desperate rebel forces. This has supposedly outraged some fans who are apparently unable to imagine that anyone might have changed in 40 years’ time. Luke, like the series itself, has grown up. His experiences with the empire, and the loss of his nephew to the dark side, are more than enough to explain the change in him. And of course, it’s all just a plot device anyway. Luke eventually comes around, just like we knew he would.
These issues seem like contrivances. Claims that the filmmakers have destroyed the franchise are stupid and over-dramatic. There’s so much that’s entertaining about this film, so many memorable Star Wars moments, it would be a shame if audiences were scared away by the bad publicity. Some of those memorable moments include a clever and electrifying space battle that somehow manages to stir up heartbeats despite the proliferation of such scenes throughout the series. A later scene involving a hyper-speed crash of two space vessels is strikingly edited, though stylistically it’s inconsistent with the comic book tone of the series (The series’ trademark “fades” and “wipes” barely make an appearance in the film.) In a spectacular later sequence, vehicles transverse the barren white surface of a red salt planet, stirring up the red crystals underneath like furrows of blood in the snow-like landscape. It’s the perfect visual metaphor for the carnage taking place.
But where The Last Jedi works best, unlike almost every other Star Wars movie, is in its characters and their relationships. The lead cast is large, but all the major characters resonate. The three new leads introduced in Episode VII have all returned. Finn (John Boyega) has less to do this time, but Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) figure strongly. Ridley’s Rey is strong but affable, fierce but feminine. With every frame of her screen time she reminds us what an excellent choice she was to lead this trilogy.
Luke (Mark Hamill) and Leia (the late great Carrie Fisher) provide the film’s wearied heart and soul and a healthy dose of wistful nostalgia. Their big reunion is every bit as memorable as it deserves to be. And it’s made even more poignant by the knowledge it will be their last scene together. Fisher’s face, more severe than even last time, carries the weight of the rebel’s desperation. She’s given much more to do here, even using the Force for the first time on screen. Hamill is especially memorable. A finer actor than we’ve ever been allowed to see, Hamill, in the earlier films, was rarely afforded the opportunity to do much with his typically bland and uncomplicated hero. With Jedi, the fresh-faced farm boy from the first films has transformed, four decades on, into a grizzled old man haunted by the past.
In Snokes, the supreme leader of evil introduced in The Force Awakens, motion-capture actor Andy Serkis adds yet another memorable character to his twisted menagerie of monstrous beings. Deformed and sniveling, his caved-in face and shriveled frame hideous manifestations of the evil within, Snokes is the quintessential space opera villain, the kind every space opera should be required to have. On the other hand, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the film’s other villain, isn’t nearly as much fun as Snokes, but he’s a lot more interesting. His relationship with Rey takes an interesting turn, adding new dimensions to their relationship. Driver is perfect for this role. His Ren is conflicted, self-absorbed, and power hungry, a true villain for our times. These two antagonists serve as the perfect counterpoint to each other and a reminder of the two conflicting visions of the series. Snokes is old school, the perfect realization of cartoonish evil, Ren, the brooding, psychologically messed-up modern soul.
Star Wars fans should keep in mind that this film, like their revered The Empire Strike Back, is the middle chapter of a three-part story. The second chapter of these kinds of generic trilogies must by nature end on a dark note. Like the bridge of a song, it’s the part that creates the most tension thereby to be relieved by the resolving chorus of the third film.
How all this will play out in two years when the next episode is released remains to be seen. But hardcore fans will either have to bail or grow up just as the series itself has done. The Last Jedi is a Star Wars for our dark times and if it lacks the wide-eyed innocence of the original films, it’s because we’ve moved beyond it, both as movie goers and as a nation, into something more adult – something less comforting and more unsettling. It’s too late to go back.