The Star Wars series returned in an unusual position. While it was one of the most popular and beloved series in media history, its most ardent fans also felt insulted and beaten down by years of abuse from the man who began it all. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, USA 2015) was essentially an apology for George Lucas’s crimes. As a way of showing that he was gone and his asinine qualities were gone with him, J.J. Abrams created a paint-by-numbers remake of Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope (George Lucas, USA 1977) with noteworthy improvements. The stilted acting of the original film was replaced by a cast that universally performed well. The “save the princess” plot was turned on its head, giving us a female protagonist who was even stronger than Princess Leia (Who was not anything close to the prototypical damsel in distress herself.). The comic relief was largely provided by Finn and BB8 and was never annoying or groan-worthy the way C-3PO had largely been. The effects were improved. The originality meter was very low on the film, but it worked well for what it was trying to do, and seemed to set us up for a second film that would introduce us to a real new Star Wars chapter.
I only returned to watching the Star Wars series because of my love of Rian Johnson. I think Johnson is the best director currently working in American cinema, and I don’t think that’s an overstatement. When he was announced as the writer and director for the second film in the new trilogy, I was on board. And I thought he was set up to be able to bring in all of the originality that was missing from the first film.
It turns out, his marching orders were clearly something quite different from what I expected.
When Star Wars rebooted its film series, J.J. Abrams was given the task of handing the classic series and characters over to a new crew and cast. He largely succeeded, but he did so in largely the same way he succeeded in Star Wars: he understood the job he had to do. He had Leonard Nimoy do everything short of literally hand a baton off to Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, and company and gave us plenty of time to get comfortable with them while Nimoy was around to tell us it was okay. That was the job he assigned to Rian Johnson this time around, with Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher playing the same role Nimoy played in 2009. Hamill was here to pass the baton to Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Adam Driver.
The story of the film is pretty dull and predictable. Rey finds Luke Skywalker and asks him to become Yoda, which he reluctantly does. She falls for a rather obvious trick from Supreme Leader Snoke that plays on her desire to see goodness in other people, even clearly dark opponents like Kylo Ren, but she is unsurprisingly able to form an alliance with Ren against Snoke. Ren of course can’t actually turn away from the darkness within himself and offers a reasonable-if-dangerous shared dictatorship with Rey, and she turns it down in order to become the first hero of a new rebellion. Then of course Luke shows up to save the day in an impossible way one last time before departing the physical world.
However, what’s good about the script is the way it borrows from both the second and third trilogy films (for example: The final battle is a repeat of the battle on Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back while Rey and Ren’s battle with Snoke is a repeat of the Skywalker confrontation with the emperor in The Return of the Jedi.) and playfully builds a metaphor for what the film’s position within the franchise is. Almost from the first minute of the film, we see an amusing meta-awareness that is omnipresent throughout the film, with Poe Dameron using General Hux’s need to give a dramatic speech against the Rebellion to buy time for an attack. That awareness of self is what allows the film to get away with some more paint-by-numbers and turns its overly-obvious solipsistic metaphor into a winking self-acknowledgement. It’s a smart move by Johnson to cover up that the film is still not very original–we’re still in set-up mode, but by admitting it to us, we can let him get away with it.
The acting is almost universally excellent. I worried about Mark Hamill getting lots of screen time, and he did have some false moments, but Johnson carefully used Hamill’s strengths as a voice actor and some clever light and shadow to cover up much of his performance. Hamill is often facing away from the camera or not even on camera for his lines, which he can deliver wonderfully, and most of the few times he is allowed to show us his chops as a facial actor, he is credible enough. Meanwhile, Johnson leaned on Carrie Fisher to provide a lot of the film’s emotional pull, and she proved up to the task in her final performance. Watch the way Johnson leaves her alone on screen for moments of quiet, leaving her to sell everything herself–and it works. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega continue to be great, with the former especially showing a gift for subtlety in her performance that is rarely seen within the Star Wars cinematic universe. The supporting actors don’t have much into which to sink their teeth, but they perform what they are given well. If the first part of this trilogy could have included the motto Now with better acting!, the cast stepped up its game even further with this film.
However, the actor who most deserves praise is Adam Driver. Taking off the mask was always going to make him more human, but he infuses Kylo Ren with a depth and nuance that simply isn’t there on the page. It’s a wonderful, complex performance, with Driver constantly showing an inner turmoil and outer calm that could easily come across as detached but doing it so well that he comes across exactly how he should.
The biggest problem with this film is its lack of visual imagination. Johnson has shown before that he has a brilliant eye, but this film feels overly constrained within the pallet set by Abrams. There are some moments where we can see that this is someone else’s film, like that red-under-white ground for the final battle, but those moments are just far too few. It’s a waste of a director as talented as Johnson if his film is going to look exactly like what J.J. Abrams has already done, but that’s essentially what happened. There also were some unwelcome additions to the CGI family, but there were relatively few.
3D was still useless. Even Rian Johnson can’t find uses for it.
The Last Jedi isn’t The Empire Strikes Back remade for 2017. But it is another step in setting up the series for the future. Disney hasn’t yet made the Star Wars saga its own, but it’s well positioned to do so in the next installment. It’s still pretty fun and it does a smart job of what it’s doing. Just don’t go in thinking it’s going to be anything new–it still isn’t.
- So it appears that “the Skywalker Saga” meant that this trilogy is really about Kylo Ren? Or it was a lie. Or Ren was lying or wrong about Rey’s parentage. It occurred to me during the film that it would be hilarious if it turned out that Finn was actually Luke’s son rather than Rey being his daughter, but I’m still rather surprised that she appears to be unrelated.
- I’m glad that Rey and Finn aren’t pursuing a romantic subplot so far–it’s good to see such a by-the-book series resisting such an obvious and expected storyline.
- The last time I was in a theater and heard spontaneous end-of-the-film applause from most of the audience was Miracle (Gavin O’Connor, USA 2004). I’m afraid it’s a sign that I’m going to be on the low side for public opinion on this one.
- Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears as a voice. I wish he had a real role, but one positive of Johnson’s involvement is that it gets Levitt interested.
- Why does Luke make his hologram have his father’s recently-destroyed blue lightsaber instead of his own, supposedly superior, green one? Should Ren have seen that as a sign of something being up? Should the audience have? Am I expecting too much continuity? (Incidentally, I always thought the blue lightsaber looked way better.)