STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI (2017, Rian Johnson)
Let me try to skip through the cultural baggage real quick: this is the most popular franchise of all time. Everyone has thoughts about it, it’s been going on for 40 years, and it isn’t that good. George Lucas was an excellent producer and a terrible director. It wasn’t a big part of my childhood (I only saw RETURN OF THE JEDI in theaters, and later PHANTOM MENACE). I’m not big on sci-fi/fantasy in general. There’s never been a great STAR WARS movie. My favorite of all these films is ROGUE ONE. THE LAST JEDI, however, is a close second.
This is a lot of movie. It’s maybe the second “biggest” movie I’ve ever seen, after AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (in terms of budget, size, length, ambition, scope, layers, plot, detail, and… stuff). Big is not necessarily Johnson’s strength — he’d never previously made a movie longer than two hours, and often contained them to locations like a high school or a farm house, even if they were outsized sci-fi mind-fucks. His episodes of BREAKING BAD were stream-lined (“Fly” takes place entirely in one room) and fiercely paced. He’s a genius. He’s the right director for STAR WARS. He has taken so much about this ridiculous universe and made it potent, funny, self-questioning, and invigorating. But it’s still in this universe, and the extent to which this episode is rather silly is the extent to which even as writer/director, Johnson couldn’t really get away from what’s at its core.
To wit, Luke and Leia. So, the original trilogy’s only good character (Han Solo) was killed off at the end of Episode VII, so Johnson is stuck forcing Abrams’s new characters (Boyega, Ridley, and Isaac) into situations with those two — and I just don’t care. Leia herself has become quite the leader after being a scared damsel in distress in Episode IV, but now she can levitate through space, unfreeze her body, and do all sorts of weird shit that makes no sense. For his part, Luke is still super annoying (he has two of the most insufferable “Well, actually…!” scenes of mansplaining in sci-fi history) and Johnson spends more time on his Irish sea-coast of a planet than he did at the LOOPER farm house. But who wants to deal with this tiny kid played by a bad actor (Hamill has slightly improved in the 40 years since Episode IV from awful to mediocre) grappling with the least interesting of several moral conundrums in this story?
Yet every time Johnson turns his eye to action, this thing lights up like nobody’s business, and becomes as armrest-clutchingly awesome as the franchise has ever seen. In the opening ten minutes a woman we’ve never met before has a terrific struggle with a remote control that’s as breathless a sequence as you’ll see this year. The depth in the frame every time something moves in space is like a slap in George Lucas’s face, rubbing in just how bad the previous films were with special effects and creative visualization. Then there’s a fight in the red throne room that has bad-ass weaponry and a hugely satisfying kill. I love how this looks, and when it hums, it sings.
But, once again, this is a lot of movie. It’s funny, if not emotionally involving. It’s two and a half hours long, and there’s father-son stuff (Kylo and Han, Luke and Vader, Rey and whoever-her-parents-are, etc.), stuff about the nature of war (“we’ll win not by killing what we hate, but by saving what we love”), and stuff about wrestling with inner turmoil over what you can choose to become. The best line from that part is when someone says that the burden of a master is that those he teaches will move beyond him. I think that’s Rian speaking to his part in a legacy of not just Star Wars movies, but cinema in general. Don’t hold on to the past as if it’s the best iteration just because of nostalgia. You learn from it. You improve it. You pass it on. And you see it become better. Now that’s food for thought: something smart and provocative, nuanced and complex? In a Star Wars movie? No wonder the hardcore fan boys don’t like this.