by Benjamín Harguindey
Continuing the process of mirroring the original trilogy movie by movie, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) is a send-off of The Empire Strikes Back (1981), albeit a feeble one. Though it supplies some entertaining action-adventure and strikes emotional notes as characters find closure to their arcs, as a “dark middle” for the new trilogy it’s quite tame.
Picking up mere seconds after the end of The Force Awakens (2015), Rey (Daisy Ridley) bestows the iconic blue lightsaber unto Luke (Mark Hamill), finally revealed after a whole movie’s wait (plus some 30 years). Remember the solemnity of that revolving final shot? Luke picks up the lightsaber and, beat, throws it over his shoulder without even looking. Well then. We’re doing the Marvel school of comedy it seems, which determines any character is good for a gag or a sassy quip at any point in the story, drama be damned. Star Wars shouldn’t be reminding me of movies like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or Thor: Ragnarok yet here it is, the third comedy sci-fi adventure of 2017, just one post-credits scene short of flirting with the idea of “cinematic universe”.
As per The Empire Strikes Back, Rey is stranded with a reclusive former Jedi Master for the most part of the movie while her Rebel buddies deliver the swashbuckling. Both halves are actually decently paced and structured: while Rey, Luke and [via telepathy] Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) are enrapt in cerebral ruminations on their fates of choice and the consequences of their actions, the Rebel fleet spends the entire movie on the run from First Order forces, essentially developing from one tense siege scenario to another. In the meantime, heroes Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) go on express quests while trying to sort out obstacles or buy time for the good guys.
Back to the cheeky comedy angle that the movie touts: I’m not one to pretend that Star Wars is above comedy or that the original trilogy didn’t make frequent use of a very mild form of comic relief. But the key word here is relief. Characters were specifically assigned that role and the levity never got in the way of the more important dramatic setpieces. The Last Jedi is ready to play anything for laughs, from the unceremonious death of one of the movie’s chief players to the final climactic battle which has General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) foaming at the mouth like a Saturday morning cartoon villain foiled one too many times by these meddling kids. As the movie opens, Poe prank-calls Hux in a bid to stall for time, which is reminiscent of what Han did in the original movie. What’s the difference here? Poe’s is calculated sarcasm, Han’s is desperate improv.
You might say that all of this undermines the stakes of the movie and removes much of the threat of the First Order, but then the First Order never had that much going for itself. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), all snarls and muahahas, never moves beyond being a knockabout Emperor Palpatine, and Hux’s Hitlerian tantrums carry no weight. Kylo Ren is a good character – a kid who has gone all-in on his path of evil but whose actions are fueled purely by his own insecurities – but a lousy villain.
If I harp too much on the smartass comedy and weak villains it’s because that seems to be the formula for the ubiquitous YA/superhero flick these days and you’d hope Star Wars would play its own game rather than join the ranks of the MCU and its ilk. The series is simply too much like too many other movie franchises at this point.
Let’s instead focus on the good, of which there are plenty of aspects. Mark Hamill reigns supreme as the returning Luke Skywalker, the incumbent heart of the series. Old, embittered and disappointed, he has become a hermit much like Yoda before him; like Yoda he is also a failed teacher to the villain and a reluctant teacher to the incipient hero. Unlike Han or Leia, the character has been given an arc and through him we sense the continuation of the story rather than its reprisal. “The legacy of the Jedi is one of failure,” he tells Rey, a cynical appraisal no doubt inspired by modern-day internet deconstruction (see the Death Star’s glaring design flaws acknowledged and explained in Rogue One for similar meta-commentary).
Hamill steals every scene he’s in and ultimately the show itself. If the preceding movie revolved entirely around finding Luke, this one focuses on his Hamlet-like indecision over whether or not to take action. There’s some fan service to be sure, but the character is treated with the dignity he deserves. Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) is given a similar treatment: she too is weathered and tired of it all, but remains a staunch master of her own fate and an inspiration to the younger generations serving under her.
When the movie isn’t lingering over Luke, it presents an engrossing, developing character study of Rey and Kylo Ren. These mortal enemies become telepathically linked and wind up having full confrontations “face-to-face” via creative editing, each trying to lure the other to their own side. Together with Luke’s arc, this rather poetic tug-of-war between light and dark is when the movie feels at its most “Star Wars”: inner conflict sorted and guided by deeply motivated – and deeply opposed – enemies. The movie’s biggest accomplisment, arguably, is that it doesn’t betray either Rey or Kylo’s sense of morality, keeping the impact of their actions in the grand scheme of things quite ambiguous.
Having said that, there isn’t anything close in power to that one scene from The Empire Strikes Back – you know the one. Two years into teasing about Rey’s parents, Kylo’s origins and whether Poe is gay for Finn or not and the answers are quite underwhelming. Then we realize these were all manufactured mysteries and that we’ve never really been given a reason to care for answers. It’s just TV showmanship hyping up the next episode with answers to questions nobody asked. If you think about it, none of the surprises from the original trilogy stem from questions, because the movies preemptively answer them for us with half-truths. Not only is the big reveal itself a surprise: that there is a revelation at all is surprising. By the end of The Last Jedi, we’ve been baited so much with possible answers regarding Rey’s parents that it’s impossible to feign interest anymore.
Of the series newcomers, the one that fares the best is Laura Dern as the cool Vice Admiral Holdo, providing one of the movie’s best bait-and-switches. Kelly Marie Tran‘s character on the other hand feels like the product of a curt studio memo, and Benicio del Toro phones in what feels like an extended cameo. He’s part of the most pointless sequence in the movie, in which Finn and Rose visit a high-end casino city on the look for a master hacker and wind up befriending the local goonies and freeing a herd of mistreated horse-like creatures. All of this while First Order juggernauts keep a steady barrage on the Rebel fleet, by the way. There’s an unusual count of cute alien creatures in the movie, such as the ice-skinned foxes that hole up with the Rebels in the finale or the googly-eyed Minions knockoffs doing their crazy antics in the background. All product of another studio memo, this one from the marketing department, I’m sure.
The movie is actually directed and written by Rian Johnson, of Brick (2005), The Brothers Bloom (2008) and Looper (2012) fame. Based on his curriculum he’s as good a pick as the studio could’ve chosen: he’s dabbled in sci-fi before and his scripts tend to favor smart stories with neat, clever twists to them. Some of that artfulness crops up here and there, such as the tricky dialogues between Rey and Kylo and Luke’s moment of truth, but for the most part it’s paint-by-numbers committee filmmaking.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult for me to look past the evident cynicism with which these movies are made. Which isn’t to say that I haven’t been enjoying these movies at face value, but as I do I also experience an undercurrent of disappointment at the commonplace treatment they’ve been given. The fan service, the YA cast, the celebrity cameos, the inspiration taken from other similar current pop phenomena and a very TV series approach in the manufacturation of intrigue around characters’ origin stories. More and more this story feels like isn’t happening a long time ago nor in a galaxy far, far away.
Benjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).