Irreconcilable Differences: ‘The Last Jedi’

Sunday, January 28, 2018 - 5:44pm

NOSELL

Walt Disney Pictures

 

Irreconcilable Differences is a format where we talk about movies that we just can't decide on. Is it good? Is it bad? What are its merits as a work of cinema? Irreconcilable Differences is meant to be read with some knowledge of the film in question and a strong set of opinions. 

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” has all the makings of a mediocre sci-fi flop à la “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets,” or any of the 2010’s bland “Star Trek” reboots. Just like those films, “The Last Jedi” looks amazing, and from a mega-budgeted Disney production I’d expect no less. However, the film is plagued with flaws on almost all other fronts. The most egregious offense comes in the plot: The first half of the film is dreadfully paced, telling two separate stories at the same time, both feeling as if they’re barely crawling along. Rose and Finn’s entire 45-minute storyline is entirely discardable, and the film’s off-kilter attempt at commentary on class inequality feels like some kind of sick joke coming from Disney, a multi-billion dollar mega corporation. Cheesy writing and cheesier performances plague the film, leading some would-be emotional moments to be completely laughable. Many of these flaws were just as present in countless critically panned sci-fi flops, and they were called out for it, so why are we willing to forgive “The Last Jedi”?

The answer, in short, is nostalgia, and I think it may be the death of quality cinema. While that may be a bit hyperbolic, new installments of the Star Wars films have been granted a sort of cultural amnesty, being graded on a curve by both moviegoers and critics alike. Many have lauded “The Last Jedi” as being subversive of its Star Wars identity, but this is simply untrue. While small details change, and definitions about The Force may shift, we still saw many scenes from the original films recreated almost identically. When I saw the film, the audience was laughing out loud during a scene clearly intended to be serious, but then cheered and applauded when their favorite characters from the original films made their on-screen appearances. Nostalgia breeds instant forgiveness, and it’s for that reason that “The Last Jedi” could never have truly been subversive; had it been, audiences would have never forgiven its multitude of shortcomings.

At the end of the day, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a mediocre film that entertains through its runtime, but is by no means the brilliant film it has been hailed as. Moments of genius filtered through from time to time — when the Rebel ship jumped through the First Order ship? Awesome, and totally refreshing for a Star Wars film — but they sadly serve only as a reminder that the Star Wars franchise has the resources and creative energy to be so much more than just a dumb sci-fi space opera. Maybe the series should take some advice from Kylo Ren: “Let the past die. Kill it.”

— Max Michalsky, Daily Arts Writer

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“The Last Jedi” is a bad “Star Wars” movie. And that makes it a bad movie. It doesn’t just feel tonally and structurally disconnected from the original trilogy or the prequel trilogy, it also feels completely disconnected from “The Force Awakens” as well. Every bit of potential and excitement built up in the previous film is burned to the ground here, sometimes literally. Mysterious characters that have barely been used are thrown out like yesterday’s garbage. The hopes and dreams of fans have been utterly crushed — not to build something better than what fans had come up with, but to dumb down “Star Wars” into a superhero franchise. One in which the baton of “Jedi” can be passed down endlessly for decades, so long as the money keeps flowing. 

Thematically the film fails at every conceivable level. It purports to be about letting the past die and moving on but the film spends its last 40 minutes rehashing the opening battle scene from “The Empire Strikes Back” and re-making the throne room clash from “Return of the Jedi.” Old friends pop up every few scenes to make sure you don’t forget this is still a “Star Wars” film. All of them are wasted. The fascinating ideas brought up in the first third of the film — of the Jedi/Sith being perhaps more similar than we believed, of the balance between light/dark not being about forming a dichotomy but about finding balance within oneself, of the notion that maybe it doesn’t matter if the First Order or the Resistance wins the war — all of these ideas are wasted by a conclusion that falls right back on Empire = bad, Rebellion = good, Rey = good, Kylo = bad. 

“The Last Jedi” is one of the most surprising blockbusters in years. Surprising because truly no one could have predicted some of the things that happen in the movie. Surprising because almost no one could have predicted just how bad the movie would be. Subversion only works if it’s used sparingly, that is, to subvert. If every scene is a subversion of the previous film and the previous scene, the subversion itself becomes the opposite of subversion, and the film falls completely flat as a piece of storytelling as a result. Poor humor and mishandled character arcs abound. An incredible cast and beautiful production are totally underserved by a half-baked script that comes off as a giant middle finger to every person that ever dreamed of that galaxy far far away. When George Lucas gave up “Star Wars,” did “Star Wars” also lose its soul as a result? Will Episode IX be any better? In the words of Master Yoda, “The dark side clouds everything. Impossible to see the future is.”

— Ian Harris, Daily Arts Writer

***

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is the best “Star Wars” film since 1980’s “Empire Strikes Back.” Not from any sizable contribution to the franchise’s mythology or anything like that (though it boasts those additions in spades) but rather because of its unflinching commitment to compelling narrative filmmaking that propels it miles beyond what has come before it. Rian Johnson’s first foray into a galaxy far, far away is gloriously expansive and deliriously fun. Nearly every character gets a fully drawn arc that allows for strong character development. Kylo and Rey’s quasi-partnership presents a feast of moral ambiguity, of tough choices and of downright uncertainty unparalleled in the series since those famous scenes on Cloud City. And, most of all, it is genuinely thrilling, with unexpected twists and turns around every corner.

There are so many reasons to love “Star Wars,” the grand-daddy of all the franchises: its world-building, its faithfulness to the Campbell hero myth, its political messaging amid Vietnam-era politics, its assorted cultural heritage — from Kurosawa’s “Hidden Fortress” to “Flash Gordon.” Unlike 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” a pointless (but fun!) exercise in fan service more than thought-provoking entertainment, “The Last Jedi” actually does something new while sticking to the milieu and framework of Lucas’s best work.

In “The Force Awakens,” we got planets that essentially echo those in the original film, and its plot is almost exactly the same. Hell, there’s even another Death Star. “The Last Jedi” invents some cool new planets and creatures — Canto Bight casino, inspired by Dubrovnik in Croatia, is awesome, and Porgs are truly special — and explores the mythology surrounding The Force. It presents a near-PhD thesis on the concept of social memory and the harms of hero-worship (“Let the past die”). Sure, it’s polarizing, but only because it takes risks. That’s something we should reward, not condemn.

I’ve been a fan of the “Star Wars” franchise from as early as I can remember. “The Phantom Menace” is (for better or worst) the earliest movie I can remember ever seeing, I’ve listened to more than 30 hours worth of a podcast dedicated to the damn prequels and I can tell my TC-14s from my C-3POs. But at the end of the day, this is a series of movies about magic space wizards. This one does it right.

— Daniel Hensel, Daily Arts Writer

 

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