When I saw Looper back in 2012 (Looper smartens up sci-fi tropes to riveting effect) there was no denying director Rian Johnson had found his niche in science fiction. He played with the tropes of the genre with expert ease, allowing for humanity to shine through without ever subverting the genre. He also wrapped it all in an atmosphere familiar to those who grew up with a certain sci-fi movie. The weather-beaten technology owed a little something to the first Star Wars movie. When he was announced as the next director on the latest episode of the space opera created by George Lucas, I felt confident he would deliver.
In some ways he does, but for the most part, the movie-making-by-committee that is the franchise’s new ownership (Disney) creates so much uneven spectacle as to push away a truly creative voice. It’s now clear why Johnson was granted his own alternate Star Wars trilogy. He played nice with the producers headed by Kathleen Kennedy, and the result is a film that is not as thrilling as its predecessor, which had its own issues despite being clearly in the voice of director and co-screenwriter J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits nearly all the right notes with breezy, rich flair — a film review). The problems lie in a surprising amount of self-conscious humor that doesn’t always work and the usual devotion to the familiar form of a Star Wars episode storytelling (though this time without wipe cuts).
It’s well known that Disney/Lucasfilm producers have held a tight creative reign on the tone of the Star Wars movies. This summer directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were replaced by Ron Howard on the upcoming Han Solo movie over creative differences with longtime Star Wars writer Lawrence Kasdan (‘Star Wars’: Why the Han Solo Film Directors Were Fired). In that case the directors’ brand of improvisational humor bore most of the blame. Director Colin Trevorrow was supposed to be the next director of the main Star Wars story, the as yet unnamed Episode IX. However, this past September he was fired during the screenwriting phase over what sources said were clashes with Kennedy about re-writes (‘Star Wars: Episode IX’: Colin Trevorrow Out as Director). Abrams has since replaced him on the project. One can’t also leave out how 2016’s Rogue One saw original director Gareth Edwards take a backseat to the film’s co-screenwriter, Tony Gilroy who took over the helm late in the editing of the film for extensive reshoots (Rogue One‘s reshoots show how Disney saved the first standalone Star Wars movie). I never even bothered with mentioning the director of the movie in my negative review for that film (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story can’t overcome its own gimmicks).
All of this is to say that it now seems apparent and futile to search for a single voice to ring through the din of a Star Wars movie, and there is a lot of inconsistent noise in the nearly three-hour-long Episode VII, a.k.a The Last Jedi. As even the franchise’s creator has proven he can mess it up with those bland prequels many who grew up with the original trilogy love to hate (I am of that generation), it seems false to hope for a true auteurist to redeem the Star Wars movies. When you don’t allow for a single voice to guide a movie, issues in tone become incredibly apparent. We are not allowed to go into spoilers because that is the culture nowadays in film criticism and of course, Disney invited us to a preview under the condition that we “refrain from revealing spoilers and detailed story points in any coverage.” It’s not a spoiler to note that the film shows a silly sense of humor at times that exploits cute new characters and even involves some of the original trilogy’s legendary primary characters. Out of the two dozen or so attempts at lightening the drama with humor, the balance in the two rings genuine only a few times. Other times it feels forced and pandering. Slapstick has always been part of the Star Wars universe, but it needs to be eased into the performances or the spectacle, not shoved down one’s throat with such a self-aware wink or the humor is lost. The more familiar things become in a Star Wars movie the less they need to be called to the audience’s attention.
At that heart of the film is the continuing conflict between blossoming Jedi Rey (a still terrifically sincere Daisy Ridley) and current Sith lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, a wonderful actor as ever). Their story line, which now includes Luke Skywalker (a charming Mark Hamill), shows great dynamism and stands as the highlight of the film’s plot twists. But it’s not a Star Wars movie without a space battle, and there’s a drawn out one that includes a side mission for Stormtrooper-turned-rebel Finn (John Boyega). Even though Finn gets his own mission featuring a new character, Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), it’s the character of Poe (Oscar Isaac) who shows more dynamic growth in his trigger happy X-Wing pilot as he faces off with more strategically minded General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). Still, it all pales to the conflict in the dynamism of what the Jedi mean to the story. There’s even some added insight on how The Force figures existentially into the Star Wars universe. But a Star Wars film needs to weave together a trio of stories in one film, and sometimes this slavish adherence to the rules of the franchise can be a detriment to the acting and writing, which is why this movie sometimes feels uneven.
All of this is not to say that The Last Jedi is a bad film. As far as big cinema entertainment, it’s grand and moves briskly. The movie is actually better paced than the breakneck previous installment directed by Abrams, allowing for more emotional resonance (Harrison Ford deserved a better exit from the franchise). The art direction, while not as weather-beaten and dark as Looper, is beautiful, from new environments to tweaks in the interior design of the space ships. Most importantly, the film’s main characters still feel interesting. The Last Jedi is a good film, yet not the great, distinctive film it could have been. Let’s be real, no upcoming Star Wars movie will ever emerge from the shadow of its legacy, but it would be nice to allow directors of the films a bit more freedom to allow for something more particular and different or else the franchise is in danger of becoming stale quickly.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi runs 152 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens pretty much everywhere on Friday, Dec. 15, with options to see it in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX. Disney Studios invited us to a 2-D preview screening for the purpose of this review.