At the so-thrilling-you-won’t-quite-believe-your-eyes climax of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (I mean that literally: It’s thrilling, and you won’t completely believe what you’re seeing), there’s a lightsaber duel, as there has been so many times before, even in the middle of some very mediocre “Star Wars” films. The duel is darkly balletic and whipsaw furious, and something happens at the height of it that echoes a famous death from the original 1977 “Star Wars.” It’s a “Whoa!” kind of moment — but in “The Last Jedi,” it turns out to be merely the set-up for a much bigger “Whoa!” moment.
That mega super ultra “Whoa!” is designed to blow our minds, and in one sense it does. It leaves the audience with popped eyes and dropped jaws, going “Geez, I didn’t know the Jedi could do that!”
But approximately two seconds after you’ve taken the moment in, it also leaves you with the feeling that the reason you didn’t know they could do that is that the film is making up its rules as it goes along. The moment is arbitrary, breathless but superimposed — spectacular in a monkeys-might-fly-out-of-my-butt sort of way. It seals the experience of “The Last Jedi,” a movie in which stuff keeps happening, and sometimes that stuff is staggering, and occasionally it’s quite exciting, but too often it feels like the bedazzled version of treading water. Yet you hang on and go with it, because you’re yearning for something great, and this is what the “Star Wars” universe, in its sleek retro-fitted corporate efficiency, has come down to: Making stuff up as it goes along.
Each time a “Star Wars” film is released, the feeling the audience brings into it isn’t quite a new hope; it’s closer to a very old hope. We want to be transported. We want to believe. The three George Lucas-directed prequels are, in hindsight, easy to dismiss as movies that got lost in the religion of technology, and that never found the human voice to match their busy visual bravura. Yet they served as a backwards reminder that the great “Star Wars” films (and there are exactly two of them) had an elemental tug. They weren’t overly fussy; they were works of whiz-bang classicism — the last gasp of the Old Hollywood, dressed up in an unconscious daydream of the digital future.
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That was the primal aesthetic — escapism with a depth charge of doom — that “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back” established, and that countless “Star Wars” fanatics now look back on in the same way I do, even though I’m not a “Star Wars” fanatic: as an emotional-dramatic template for how to make these movies come out right.
A stupendous “Star Wars” movie is something you’ll know if you see it; it’s not something you have to convince yourself of. Yet in the new, born-again, rebooted-by-angel-craftsmen era of the “Star Wars” franchise, there is so much sheer collective pop fundamentalist desire for these films to be great that it’s almost as if we can’t allow ourselves to confront the ways that they fall short. Even when those shortcomings are staring us in the face.
Here are four ways that “The Last Jedi” doesn’t measure up — even as the film seems, on the surface, to have delivered exactly what it promised. You can call me a curmudgeon if you want, but the issue at the heart of my quibbles is simple, and not really so negative. Forty years later, we’re still talking about “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back.” Decades from now, are we going to be talking about “The Last Jedi”? If the answer is “no,” then I say: Someone is doing something wrong. Because even as a non-“Star Wars” fanatic, I want these movies to be great. Don’t you? The enemy of greatness, at this point, may be nothing less than the overly facile and calculated imitation of greatness.
1. Rian Johnson doesn’t know how to structure a movie. If you watched, in a sneak-previews setting, almost any isolated scene from “The Last Jedi” — Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) facing down in a power play of rebel loyalty, Daisy Ridley’s Rey at once embracing and pushing back against her Jedi training — you might assume that the film looks masterful; taken one scene at a time, it’s the essence of burnished competence. Yet its dramatic tension isn’t sustained. It wavers and flags. It escalates and then droops. The whole cross-cutting and-then-this-happened style of the “Star Wars” films, derived from the old serials, now becomes an excuse to pile on half a dozen plots that don’t intermesh so much as they coincide.
This is no mere accident. Johnson, who wrote and directed “The Last Jedi,” has been a practitioner of the more-is-more school of cinematic sprawl ever since his debut feature, “Brick” (2006), the Dashiell Hammett-goes-to-high-school lark that remains one of the foundation stones of his hipster-auteur cred. But I’m sorry, that film was so overstuffed with its own cleverness it didn’t quite breathe. In “The Last Jedi,” Johnson throws things at you without building the story. He turns cross-cutting into narrative promiscuity.
The result is that Rey’s Jedi training, though it takes up 70 minutes of the movie, doesn’t crest and pay off with the kind of galvanizing emotional thrust that Luke Skywalker’s did in “The Empire Strikes Back.” In this case, the thrust is signified more than it’s earned. Ridley brings her surly feistiness to the role, and she winds up ready for action, but the film splits itself into so many identification points — herself; Hamill’s burnt-out, faith-challenged Luke (the most resonant character in the movie); Adam Driver’s which-side-will-he-go-to Kylo Ren; Isaac’s hothead pilot; the wary team of John Boyega’s Finn and Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico — that it never finds a true center of gravity. It’s not that an action-adventure movie can’t have a large cast of characters. But this one wobbles like a gyroscope spinning in too many directions to find its proper balance. Unlike “The Empire Strikes Back,” it’s got franchise disease: It’s not just telling a story — it’s planting tropes for the future.
2. You can feel the force of repetition. “The Last Jedi” is the ninth “Star Wars” saga, which means that it’s now repeating things that have already been repeated. The rebels-up-against-it plot, with our heroes worn down to the nub of their fighting spirit, feels like a rehash of what we went through a year ago in “Rogue One,” and the attempts to echo the look and mood and darkening design of “The Empire Strikes Back” now make clear that the new trilogy is an official monument to nostalgia. That was ultimately the limitation of “The Force Awakens”: It was beautifully made (much more so than this one), and held you in its thrall, but after it was over you realized that part of the excitement is that you’d been watching “A New Hope Redux.”
“The Last Jedi” is nearly stoic in the reverent obedience of its backward-glancing gaze. Andy Serkis succeeds in cutting loose from that in his joyfully nasty performance as Snoke, and when Yoda makes an incongruous cameo, snarking about how dull the old Jedi texts are, he could almost have stepped out of “Saturday Night Live.” In general, though, the spirit of recycling doesn’t sit lightly. Maybe that’s why the film lacks the crucial dimension that Harrison Ford’s Han Solo provided. He was the kind of hero who took it all seriously yet somehow seemed to be chuckling at how little he gave a damn. “The Last Jedi,” marching to the lockstep of its top-heavy mythology, has too much dutiful familiarity to strike that balance of awe and irreverence.
3. Watching a “Star Wars” film has become a postmodern experience. This is linked to the repetition factor. In the original “Star Wars” trilogy (or, at least, the first two films — sorry to harp on that, but I’ll never stray from the conviction that George Lucas took this series straight down the road to run-of-the-mill the moment he masterminded the slipshod toy emporium that was “Return of the Jedi”), when you saw a lightsaber duel, you reacted by feeling, “That’s the coolest fight I ever saw!” In the second trilogy, when you saw a lightsaber duel, you thought, “At last, here it is! The incredibly cool lightsaber duel I’ve been waiting for!” At this point, however, we’ve scaled that mountaintop of coolness so often that the audience can’t help but slip into a zone of self-consciousness about it. It’s now turned into something more along the lines of “Whoa” “I’m” “thrilled” “to” “be” “watching” “that” “incredibly” “cool” “lightsaber” “duel” “!”
I’m not suggesting that there’s an easy way out of this. Is the layering of pre-digested nostalgic coolness going to seem any less self-conscious by the time of the 12th “Star Wars” movie? Will the lightsaber duel be retired by then, or will it be as ritualized as the rare climactic pile-driver that still sneaks its way into a WWE match? I’m just pointing out that the “Star Wars” universe, even as it’s preparing to metastasize as never before, now has the potential to turn into a hall-of-mirrors version of itself.
4. Critics and fans have traded places. Remember the good old days, when there was order in the universe? Reviewers would grouse about a new “Star Wars” installment, and fans would then grouse about them. What a difference half a dozen sequels and the cultural shrinking of criticism makes! It’s not just that “The Last Jedi” has been breathlessly raved about by film critics and, I dare say, more than a touch overpraised (with rare exceptions, like the trenchant and fearless analysis offered by Peter Debruge in his Variety review). It’s that the critics, more and more, are doing their impersonation of egghead fanboys; you can feel how much they want to be on the film’s side. Whereas audiences have come down from the high, taking in the experience of “The Last Jedi,” even on opening weekend, from a place of relative levelheadedness.
The movie has received a 93% Fresh rating from the reviews compiled by Rotten Tomatoes, but — tellingly — only 56% of viewers on the same site have given it a “Like” rating. My own admittedly unscientific anecdotal survey is that the average person I’ve talked to feels underwhelmed by the movie, though in ways they’re not always sure how to define. (The most consistent idea I’ve heard is: It’s no “Empire Strikes Back.”) I’ve seen countless movies I’ve loved more than audiences, but when critics start to sound like fans and fans starts to sound like critics, we may finally have reached a moment when the “Star Wars” galaxy, even in the hyperspace of its success, needs a realignment.