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Star Wars: The Last Jedi

| December 21, 2017

I’ve never been a person indebted to Star Wars, but I’ve always been a person indebted to popular culture. With this, the release of each new film in the franchise has been more of a circus that has circled around me and swept me up in a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon-way but still affected me nonetheless, and the lead-up to The Last Jedi was no different. By going into a phenomenon with a refreshingly blank mindset, I was surprising at just how much I enjoyed the film—for the first hour or so. The balance of drama and humor, the focusing of the philosophy of Star Wars, and the audacity to make some decisions that are daring in theory all make for a blockbuster that stands out from others. But when the decisions feel haphazard and the characters feel less like real people and more like the pawns of a writer, the ideas that engage in theory really just fizzle in execution.

Now, before anything regarding plot or content is spoken of in the slightest, let it be said that no spoilers here will be explicitly stated. The basic setup will be mentioned and critiques will be mentioned in a relatively general context. If you don’t want to run the risk of finding out anything about The Last Jedi, it’s within your best interest to not read about it.

Picking up right where The Force Awakens left off, Episode VIII concerns the Resistance, now led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), in a war against the First Order, still led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in tow. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) proceeds to develop her newfound powers under the guidance of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) after she arrives at Ahch-To, the strengths of her powers unsettling him. Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper), it marks what could be considered some of the franchise’s most discussed moments and decisions, those of which have already lit up the Internet with reactions ranging from love to rage. Despite being a person who loves to have strong opinions, I couldn’t help but just exit the theater with a shrug and an “eh”.

No matter how you feel about it, one thing cannot be denied: this really does feel like Rian Johnson’s movie. Virtually all of the positives and negatives worthy of lengthy discussion stem from his decisions; director Johnson is very good while writer Johnson is often times maddening. As a director, Johnson offers some of the franchise’s most striking compositions visually, with his regular director of photography Steve Yedlin playing up the bold colors and nature-fueled landscapes that personalize the film when compared to the other entries, which were in turns dusty and sterile (albeit justifiably so). Aside from a few awkwardly shot lightsaber fights, the combat is fluid and easy to follow, mixing together zooms, pans, and static shots in a way that really do demonstrate an understanding of the sequences on a minute level. Contrasting features within single compositions extend themselves to the ways in which scenes intercut. If individual portions of The Last Jedi are brushstrokes, then the ways that portions are conflated add up to create an entire painting.

That painting, though, is what Cher Horowitz would call “a Monet”. (Yes, I seriously made a Clueless reference while writing about Star Wars.) The pacing here is quite reasonable, especially for a 152-minute movie. That does hiccup, though, but those issues arise from the other side of Johnson—the side of him as a writer, which doesn’t provide characters and arcs the depth they deserve. While this is evident in some issues earlier in the film, it’s still possible to look past it, despite the fact that it’s distracting nevertheless. A set piece early on in the film leads to a dispatching of a large chunk of characters only for the consequences to be mentioned in dialogue and largely ignored overall, and similar problems show themselves later on. Some of the most notable moments of the film don’t quite succeed from a storytelling perspective because it at times feels like Johnson is simply using the toolbox of Star Wars mythology in order to get to an end goal. The exploration of the universe’s philosophy is fascinating and grounded in the beginning, but it soon shows itself as a way to rush to conclusions, bring in some characters, and insert other characters as if they’re simply acting as placeholders. In terms of directing, The Last Jedi shines. In terms of storytelling, it meshes together a lot of elements that have so much potential, but that potential is left untapped, making the finish line far less gratifying than it should feel.

I’m curious to see how reactions to The Last Jedi shift over time. While The Force Awakens was revered upon release, it attracted an underlying sense of disappointment from some viewers over time. Audience reception to The Last Jedi, though, has already split the Internet in half, both sides of that cracked-open iceberg leaving little pilings of dust in the middle. I happen to be in that middle, despite how much I want to love the franchise’s latest. It’s a push-pull experience that demonstrates great power and great weakness, the end result being underwhelming. How Rian Johnson’s own Star Wars trilogy in development will turn out is going to be an adventure unto itself, but there is some hope that it could be great. Maybe the solution is just to throw more porgs at everything.

About the Author:

Senior year film student at Columbia College Chicago, Hollywood Film Festival pre-screener, and Best Social Media Presence for North Farmington High School's 2014 senior mock elections. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff".
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