Rian Johnson proves he’s the right man to assume the mantle of steward of the Star Wars franchise.
Be warned — massive SPOILERS AHEAD!
While watching The Last Jedi, I was reminded of one of my original impressions / complaints about The Force Awakens — that its story, while pleasant, was a perfunctory retread of the original movie. (A pretty common complaint.) Say what you will about the Lucas-driven movies — including the prequels — but not only were those were stories he wanted to tell, they were bursting to get out of him. With TFA, you had a bunch of perfectly competent Hollywood creative types sitting around a writers’ room, breaking a story. No one — Abrams, Kasdan, etc — set out to tell a story they were dying to tell, I don’t think. The result was the good-hearted but somewhat inert TFA.
By contrast, with The Last Jedi, we at least got a story — or stories, because it was a bit of a patchwork — that Rian Johnson wanted to tell. I don’t know if he was bursting to tell it, because I don’t really get that sense from any of his movies, but hey — he’s an ubernerd who got tapped to write and direct a whole Star Wars movie. That’d put me in the mood to tell a great story.
Visually, I liked sensing more of a director’s hand behind the camera. Johnson used silence, canted angles, and quick cuts all in ways we hadn’t really seen in a SW movie before, and all to good effect. Snoke’s redlit throne room was striking, to be sure, as was the casino planet (though I had a gripe with that storyline). The final battle looked great — those sand-skiffs, though they didn’t quite make sense to me, were an inspired visual idea, kicking up all that red salt. And it was nice to finally see a flashback in a Star Wars movie. Good stuff.
I even sensed a nice little bit of theme bubbling up from the proceedings — that of endings, last rites, and a general casting off of what came before. To that end, Johnson brought back one of the original trilogy’s best characters, Yoda, specifically to underline this theme. Folks, I was a wreck during his appearance, during which Luke burns down the original Jedi temple and its humble library. To be sure, the imagery was a little on-the-nose, but to a worthy end: Yoda reappeared to remind Luke that in the grand scheme of things, the Jedi order and all its trappings aren’t what’s important; what is important are the connections we make, the lives we save, the loves we cherish. (Tran’s Rose returns to this theme in the final battle when she speaks of “saving what we love.” Hear, hear.)
The power structure of the galaxy, left so murky and undefined in TFA, came into focus: both the First Order / Empire and the Resistance / Rebels are flying on fumes. Yes, the bad guys seem to have a few more resources, ships, and guns, but you really got the sense that both factions were like two bloodied boxers staggering around each other in the final rounds.
That said, I’ll circle back to this idea — that Rian Johnson is a perfect guy to take on a new Star Wars movie, isn’t he? Agreeable, reasonably creative, gives the franchise a dash of artistic cred, and best of all, he’s not gonna rock the boat. But he’s never really gonna get my blood pumping. (Your mileage may vary.)
On the downside, it’s easy to ding the movie’s Hamlet-like run time, much of which wasn’t warranted or earned. As much as I liked Kelly Marie Tran’s character, she got stuck in (what was for me) the movie’s weakest storyline: the search for the codebreaker. The idea has promise; in a series where the MacGuffins are usually plans, maps, or devices — tangible, physical things — I liked having an actual person be the target. But the casino island/planet was (for me) uninspired. I’d submit that the best Star Wars imagery channels and is otherwise inspired by settings from our world, right. The Mos Eisley Cantina recalls an old west saloon while being its own thing. Imperial ships and bases recall U-boats, etc, but they have their own look and feel. The casino just … looked like a casino. With aliens. Bummer.
There was also the laughable matter of Benicio Del Toro’s character and what exactly the First Order’s plan with him was. (Put him in a jailcell to be found by Resistance fighters, help them break onto the dreadnought, then spring the trap. Brilliant!) And yes — I know, it’s a Star Wars movie and we’re not supposed to sweat that kind of thing, but Johnson, unlike J.J. Abrams, isn’t quite as good at carrying us away on a moment-to-moment basis; the sugar-rush illusion was quicker to fade when confronted with that kind of plot hole.
Very much on the plus side was Ben Solo / Kylo Ren, who continues to be the best character in the new trilogy. I also dug the choice — assuming they don’t overturn it in episode nine — to make Rey a nobody, and three cheers not only for episode MVP Kelly Marie Tran, but also for the movie’s general inclusiveness. Women and folks of all ethnicities — except, sadly, for black women, as has been pointed out online — packed the ranks of Johnson’s movie, much to its benefit and credit. I was struck at how powerful it was to see women heading up storylines minor and major. Two women led the naval assault in the movie’s first reel, while Laura Dern’s fully stupendous Admiral Haldo held down the movie’s middle acts. It was even refreshing to see women stalking the bridge of the First Order vessels.
And let’s not forget General Leia. In a year of valedictory performances, Carrie Fisher got to give one of the greatest women in all of pop-culture a worthy send-off.