“You are no Vader. You are just a child in a mask.”
— Snoke (Andy Serkis).
I had very mixed feelings about the original Star Wars, now subtitled A New Hope, when I saw it as a young college student. Having been a fan of “real” science fiction literature written by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, among others, I was elated at the budgetary elevation of effects, costuming, and production design, but less happy with the almost childlike perception of good and evil. It wasn’t until that fateful moment in The Empire Strikes Back, when Darth Vader educates bright-eyed young Luke Skywalker on the reality of his lineage, that I started accepting the Star Wars saga as a serious contender in science fiction.
40 years later, the truth is evident: Despite its dramatic and scientific shortcomings, the Star Wars saga is the primary mythology of the modern era, certainly in the United States, and possibly for the entire world. You would be hard-pressed to find someone in any major international city who has never seen the iconic symbols of the lightsaber or Vader’s skull-mask. It’s a mythology which, even if there were never another movie made, would still survive in human culture for generations. Critics, including myself, have complained, “Star Wars is hardly Shakespeare,” and they’re right, but it just might be Homer. We still recognize the Trojan Horse 3,000 years later. It’s not out of the realm of possibility to imagine people may remember the Death Star for just as long.
Could a single cinematic entry, if despised enough by the series’ fanbase as well as the broader general audience, reverse all that? Because, you know, there’s an enormous and growing backlash against director Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. Is it fair?
It’s enormously difficult to overcome the appeal of the universal archetypes in the saga, but George Lucas himself almost accomplished it in his “prequel” films by the inclusion of the perennially unpopular Jar Jar Binks. While I don’t believe there’s a character in The Last Jedi as objectionable to audiences, Johnson’s sins may be more of omission. It’s no secret, two years after The Force Awakens, that Han Solo (Harrison Ford) met his end in that film, forever forestalling what fans and audiences really wanted: a reunion of the original Luke/Leia/Han triad. They were likable, had a chemistry, and were arguably as popular in the success of the first film as any other element. It’s a chemistry that the saga, as a whole, has traded upon but been unable to recreate or even approach ever since.
I’m not going to belabor the plot points, many of them spoilery, of who dies in The Last Jedi, or when, or that the Battle of Crait, despite its more sophisticated effects, still isn’t the iconic sci-fi combat scene that the Battle of Hoth was and is, or that, in the wake of Palpatine and Vader, Star Wars seems to have a villain problem. I’m going to confine it to this: Almost nobody has any chemistry.
Separately, the actors are all fine. Daisy Ridley is everything audiences could want as a powerful, latter-day Jedi apprentice. John Boyega is perfect as a stormtrooper turned rebel, Oscar Isaac just as good as a rebel pilot not afraid to tell Admiral Laura Dern what he thinks of her battle plan. Newcomer Kelly Marie Tran, as a rebel out for revenge for her late sister, is a wonderful new member of the Star Wars family, and her relationship to Boyega’s character the only one that even attempts to come close to the camaraderie of the original trio. Benecio del Toro, as a crook just out for himself, is marvelous, and Hamill’s interpretation of the older Luke Skywalker, now at the point in his life where Obi-Wan and Yoda were when he met them, is the best work of his career. Sadly, the noble Chewbacca is reduced to little better than Rey’s chauffeur.
The problem is, unlike Luke, Leia, and Han — and let’s not forget Chewbacca — blasting their way out of the Death Star, firing as much sarcasm as laser bolts, the members of the new triad are all going it alone in separate parts of the galaxy, at least until the last act. It may indeed be better writing, dramatically, and better serve the broader story arc, but there’s not the emotional payoff, for the audience, of characters who love each other. There’s more heart and soul in photographer Annie Leibovitz’s now-iconic photoshoot of the Last Jedi characters than there is in the entire finished film, and most especially the now-heartbreaking one of Mark Hamill and the late Carrie Fisher.
Is it a watchable, even enjoyable movie? Well, of course, it is, although things happen in The Last Jedi that you don’t expect, don’t want. No one can accuse Johnson of pandering to his audience. He does what he wants, and you can like it or not. Paradoxically, the fact that I DON’T like some of it makes me like it even more.