Bright Lights Film Journal

<em>The Last Jedi</em>: Enjoying Corporate Cinema’s Quasi-Risks While They Last

Rey tries to convince Luke Skywalker to come back and face Destiny in The Last Jedi.

One might argue that Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi attempts at deconstruction yet again, depicting the original trilogy’s heroic Luke as an inexplicably jaded Jedi living in self-imposed exile on an island of Pokémon. But, shackled to the scraps of Abrams’ mangled half-narrative, Johnson never truly gets the chance to move beyond broad suggestions of moral complexity. In other words, he never gets past scraping at the surface of everything the prequels had to offer.

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To date, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi has supposedly encountered “polarizing” reactions. I wonder how this could possibly be the case, seeing as Johnson’s film lifts most of its framework and sensibility from the safer-than-safe “coming attractions” reel that was The Force Awakens. The main difference between the two films is that Johnson’s work shows some evidence of authorial perspective and formal attentiveness, whereas Abrams’s carries the uncanny sense of something carefully and neurotically manufactured by a corporate collective in an effort to appease fans’ broadest, basest desires. Given the purportedly divisive reactions surrounding Last Jedi, I also wonder to what extent Disney’s marketing team is manufacturing or at the very least magnifying voices of dissent – why should a well-crafted and intentional variation on The Force Awakens incite animosity and disdain? Amplifying voices of disagreement would make sense as a marketing move, given Force’s swift downward critical trajectory. The first spin-off celebrated hyperbolic praise during the first month or two of its release, but its reputation seems to have drastically slipped in a surprisingly short amount of time. The popular critical and cultural narrative now deems it “too much like A New Hope,” which is puzzling, given that George Lucas’s complex and visually dense prequels have been retroactively damned for steering too far from their predecessor’s “roots.”

All of this context warrants scrutiny, because it plays so deeply into The Last Jedi’s tone and execution. Where The Force Awakens steered so far from risk that it ended up playing more like a trailer for Disney’s newly purchased corporate venture than like a self-standing film, The Last Jedi takes the time to breathe and actually be a film. This is not enough to warrant the kind of critical dialogue that suggests something bold, adventurous, and novel; much like Awakens, Jedi situates all of its scenes in environments that look very much like Planet Earth. Like Awakens, it deviates from aesthetic creativity, appropriating that film’s confused, muddy gray-brown aesthetic but adding a touch of vibrant red on occasion as if to say, You see? There’s a heart beating inside this one! This kind of needlessly imposed aesthetic restraint plays as a rebuttal to the audiovisual excesses of Lucas’s six films, which seemed to push the boundaries of cinematic storytelling further with every successive entry. By contrast, Disney holds its cards so close to its chest that one wonders if the company possesses any plan aside from dishing out one new glimpse of something novel in each new entry, a visual tease amid mechanical, surface-level repetitions of a purchased past. Maybe the next one will sneak red and, say, aquamarine into its sea of monochrome! We’ll just have to wait and see.

“A touch of vibrant red”

It’s important to recognize Lucas’s name and authorial history – yes, he sold Lucasfilm and all its incumbent properties for a mammoth sum of over four billion dollars (which he purportedly plans to invest in a fully-funded museum of narrative art). However, he also provided outlines for his episodes seven, eight, and nine, which have been scrapped by nu-Star Wars head honcho Kathleen Kennedy and her directors for hire. The company’s lack of singular, coherent vision is already showing through by the time this second entry reaches its clunky ending – where Abrams’ film was an ephemeral and superficial exercise in “making one for the fans,” Johnson’s is a Frankenstein monster of half-interesting ideas and tyrannical narrative demands. We still don’t understand why or how the First Order functions, or from where its Lord of the Rings­-inspired leader Snoke arose. We’re given no reason to care about characters like Finn (John Boyega) or Poe (Oscar Isaac) – sure, the actors are charming and charismatic, but what of the roles themselves? Who the hell are these people? And in what way do their shadowy, unaddressed character arcs relate to the baseless central conflict? Why should I care if they resist the First Order when I still don’t even remotely understand said organization’s origins or motives? The only times Last Jedi ever comes alive are when it spends time with Rey (Daisy Ridley), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Unlike Abrams, Rian Johnson is clearly a visually astute director with an eye for composition, camera movement, and editing technique. When he puts that formal intelligence toward scenes with purpose and pulse, the results are occasionally downright exciting. No, the film never rises above the level of exciting fan fiction, but there are fleeting moments of beauty: consider the gracefully choreographed combat sequence pitting Rey and Kylo against Snoke’s throne room guards, or the long-distance Force conversations between Rey and Kylo that play like mystic Skype calls. Although Hamill has voiced his confusion and disagreement with the disjunction between Lucas’s Luke and Disney’s Luke, he also enjoys some moments of quiet power. I pine for some alternate version of this film that’s much shorter, more focused, more psychedelic, and genuinely strange.

Last Jedi-themed energy drinks, featuring Captain Phasma, BB-8, and two members of the First Order. Credit: Disney/Lucasfilm.

The problem is that the successes are far too little, too late. Even when Johnson gets the opportunity to execute an alien steed chase through an intergalactic casino, the design and execution land far away from the mark. Why do all of this film’s new creatures and animals look like they’ve been lifted from the same design template? Why do the faces of said alien steeds look like slight variations on Snoke’s warped mug? And yes, this chase originates with broad suggestions about animal cruelty (as does a short gag with Johnson’s Pokémon-like Porgs), but I don’t buy into Disney’s claims of benevolence or ideological wisdom. Yes, these nu-Star Wars films are making strides in terms of inclusive casting, and yes, this film makes sound ideological statements; but those statements stem from a blunt, limited moral logic that one should hope we all already recognize – exploitation is wrong; toxic masculinity is destructive; animals are sentient beings undeserving of abuse. Regardless of the conduit, these messages are welcome and exciting; but why laud them as anything other than base-level moral recognition when Lucas’s prequels still haven’t earned due respect for their political complexity? From The Phantom Menace (1999) to Revenge of the Sith (2005), Lucas used genre trappings and retrofuturist imagery to represent repetitions in economic, political, and social-psychological factors that contribute to the rise of fascism. Where his original trilogy offered a newly rendered variation on “the hero’s journey,” his prequels inverted and deconstructed the basis of that arc.

Revenge of the Sith

One might argue that Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi attempts at deconstruction yet again, depicting the original trilogy’s heroic Luke as an inexplicably jaded Jedi living in self-imposed exile on an island of Pokémon. But, shackled to the scraps of Abrams’ mangled half-narrative, Johnson never truly gets the chance to move beyond broad suggestions of moral complexity. In other words, he never gets past scraping at the surface of everything the prequels had to offer. If he has indeed been condemned for making such efforts, one wonders if a vast majority of Star Wars fans are expressly anti-Lucas after all, or if they are instead simply anti-auteur. If what they are after is another Force Awakens-like simulation of Star Wars memories, then they are likely to have their wishes granted. After Johnson took some slight almost-risks with Last Jedi, going so far as to plug a flash of red into all the brown and gray, Disney has re-hired Abrams to round out their new trilogy. Lucas’s Star Wars never continued past 2005, but what concerns me even more is that blockbuster auteurism might actually be dead. Johnson is no Zack Snyder – he lacks that director’s conceptual range and technical rigor – but when assessing this film, it’s hard to forget the studio-mandated tampering that surrounded something like Justice League. Or, more to the point, consider Disney’s decision to replace Lego Movie directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller halfway through the production of their Han Solo “origin story.”

Sure, I can uncritically appreciate Last Jedi’s minor aesthetic merits as they’re blazing across a giant multiplex screen, but I won’t go without acknowledging the context. Maybe I’m naïve, but I just have too much commitment to authorship.

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Unless otherwise noted, all images are screenshots from the films’ trailers or the films themselves.