"The Last Jedi" Review: An Epic, Calculated Failure
If something cannot be said about the new Kathleen Kennedy-produced Star Wars trilogy, it's that it didn't listen to the reaction of its hardcore fanbase.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was an absolute success. It broke more than 20 box office records and it secured one of the top places of the list of highest-grossing films of all time. The critical response was also well incredibly positive.
However, the general word of mouth was that The Force Awakens had been generally very safe, and that very strongly relied on nostalgia, by emulating classic aspects of the original trilogy.
With J.J. Abrams out of the picture (he was offered the complete trilogy, but, overwhelmed by the responsibility and the enormous amount of work, he rejected the proposal,) the responsibility for the second installment of this new trilogy fell to Rian Johnson, who was already known in the industry for films like Looper and for his work in legendary TV episodes like Breaking Bad's 'Fly' and 'Ozymandias'.
The first and most important thing you can say about Rian Johnson is that, while still a rabid Star Wars fan, he's also a writer and director with a big personality. The monolithic, immovable and giant legacy of Star Wars didn't make him flinch. He wasn't scared to take risks (unlike J.J. Abrams, who, although did a good job, always treated Lucas's mythology with adamant great care.) The result? Perhaps the most revolutionary film in the Star Wars saga, and definitely the most polarizing.
The reason for that is a good one: Rian Johnson demystified the Force and basically democratized it. The Jedi and the Sith did not have to have its monopoly and this film, through the powerful Rey's backstory and Luke Skywalker (nonetheless,) would clearly send that message.
You can't deny that the premise is revolutionary. It eliminates the almost monarchical-kinda racist condition that the Force had had all this time. To be one with the Force, you didn't have to devote himself to the Jedi arts. You don't have to have a certain last name. That’s huge.
Of course, in a fanbase as quasi-religious as the Star Wars one (let's never forget that at some point, countries like Australia formally requested the Jedi religion to be formalized, with 70,000 people marking "Jedi" as their religion in the national census,) the move was absolutely polarizing. Many hated it. Many loved it. But there is no doubt that it was a bold, well-executed decision that instead of closing doors, opens endless possibilities. So, in that regard, here, we are #TeamRian.
However, since most Star Wars—The Phantom Menace apart—entries have always had a generally positive reception, that polarization ended up staining The Last Jedi.
The democratization of the force was not, at all, the only issue that some fans had with The Last Jedi. Rian Johnson certainly disappoints in some other aspects of the plot.
Perhaps the biggest criticism of the character treatment in The Last Jedi, is that the story separates them for the vast majority of the time. Rey is on the remote planet Ahch-To to try to convince Luke Skywalker to return to the rebel cause, while Finn continues in a comatose state, and Poe Dameron tries to delay the imminent plans of the First Order (which now includes the possibility of tracking rebel ships even in hyperspace) to completely destroy their opposition.
However, J.J Abrams himself left The Force Awakens' story at that point, so it's kinda unfair to blame that on Johnson.
But Johnson is absolutely guilty of not being able to handle well some subplots. The adventures of Poe, Finn, newcomer Rose and the rest of the rebels could be completely eliminated, and the main story would not change at all.
Especially, everything related to the odyssey of Finn, Rose, and BB-8, which includes going to a bourgeois planet, being captured, escaping, infiltrating the Snoke ship, and simply having done all that for nothing, is really frustrating. They contribute absolutely nothing to the plot.
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And, broadly speaking, one could say that, in general, The Last Jedi does not advance the big plot much. Johnson refuses to deliver great, clear answers. Supreme Leader Snoke shockingly dies and we are left still not knowing anything about that character. Kylo Ren remains fixed on his desires for autocratic domains. The rebels don't achieve anything, beyond, apparently, warmly rekindling hope in those poorest and most oppressed in the galaxy. Rey's parents, according to Kylo, are nobodies, which, of course, reinforces Johnson's intention to massify the Force: it's not necessary to have Kenobi or Skywalker "pedigree" to have a great connection with the Force.
What is undeniable, though, is that Johnson's direction is wonderful. He knows when to move the camera and when to leave it static. The production design and the use of colors are also admirable, with the color red (a rare thing in the whole saga) taking full prominence in key scenes. There are really memorable sequences like the battle in Snoke's throne room and the final confrontation on the small mineral planet Crait.
The Last Jedi is full of secondary characters embodied by incredible actors, who unfortunately feel half-cooked for their short time on-screen. Laura Dern’s Amilyn Holdo manages to be a villain and a hero in a couple of hours, but that deep emotional connection with Leia feels completely out of nowhere (because it is). Benicio Del Toro plays the stuttering hacker DJ, who only seems to exist to move forward a plot that aims to be futile. Oof.
That general sense of failure could be part of Johnson's plan, though. After all, Yoda appears at some point and among his wise phrases is "The greatest teacher, failure is", which could well be the motif of this film. In The Last Jedi, not only Finn, BB-8, Poe, and Rose fail. Everyone fails in this movie. Rey doesn't convince Luke. Luke basically relives his failure with Ben Solo. The rebels fail repeatedly, dropping like flies throughout the film. Rey also failed in her plan to "rehabilitate" Kylo Ren (for now). Even Snoke fails monumentally.
A film about failing repeatedly is certainly anti-climatic, but speaks volumes about Johnson's balls and desire not to follow the predetermined "recipes" and make seismic movements. It's a nice way to force the culmination of the trilogy to deal with these changes.
Although Johnson did make some big changes, he was noble and smart enough to allow the next director (J.J. Abrams, who will return to Star Wars Episode IX (The Rise of Skywalker), after Colin Trevorwood's departure) to achieve the closing he (and Lucasfilm, of course) wants. The film ends with a small slave boy showing an obvious domain of the Force. The boy is also rooting for the rebels. There seems to be hope, after all.
© 2019 Sam Shepards