My previous column was all about the cultural importance of Star Wars as the quintessential modern myth. I even mentioned the need for myth in these troubled times, insinuating my desire for Star Wars: The Last Jedi to acknowledge, or comment on, the current political climate in some capacity. And so, having now watched it, I ask: how good was it, and how does it hold as a modern myth?
To begin, much of the progressivism from The Force Awakens is carried over here, and is given much more room to breathe in some instances, as in Finn (John Boyega) and Rose’s (Kelly Marie Tran) excursion to Cantonica, a desert planet run by greedy, corporate, casino-obsessed profiteers who benefit from the galactic war between the First Order and the Resistance. As many reviews have been quick to point out, this arc is easy to bait as a digressing rambling point, though this is most attributable not to the narrative intentions of the arc, but rather the lackluster execution of these explorations which at times threaten to inspire a blatant indifference on the audience’s part. From the moment Rose begins telling her sob backstory, which then leads into a preachy animal-rights midnight exodus extravaganza, the narrative feels forced and progressive for the sake of being progressive—in short, it feels inauthentic.
I should stress that this lack of authenticity exists strictly on a formal level, by which I mean the film was admittedly doing some interesting things in theory. This includes the incorporation of Star Wars canon material previously unseen on the big screen (How did Luke get there?), the subversion of myth by questioning its authenticity, and the fabrication of a triadic collective protagonist (Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren). However, most reviews that have defended The Last Jedi have tended to rely on these novel narrative deviations to the Star Wars canon as sufficient evidence for the film’s artistic merit, the equivalent of arguing Pollock’s early works as redeemable insofar as they are “dense with mythology and Jungian archetypes” or that James Joyce is a genius on the basis that Ulysses “Like many great works of literature…requires repeated reading and deep study fully to understand–and ultimately to enjoy–the many dimensions and layers.” All this is well and fine, but I would argue that the formal ramifications of a work of art (i.e. revolutionary or revisionist technique), or its utter abstruseness, are not enough to warrant—indeed, even measure—artistic merit. Hence, to defend The Last Jedi by way of uttering such generalizations as “The movie works equally well as an earnest adventure full of passionate heroes and villains and a meditation on sequels and franchise properties” is not enough; I mean, sure, but, where specifically do you see this being done well, and, more importantly, how are you measuring “well”?
I would narrow down my problems with this movie to one pivotal, overarching problem that effectively ruined all of the things that could have worked for the film: pacing. By this I mean not only the editing from one plot to another, but the consistent incorporation of “tonal distractions,” both of which, collectively, forbid any one point in the story to breathe and really come into its own. One result of this is that, unlike The Force Awakens, the film no longer feels character-based—the word “feels” is crucial here as the narrative was evidently attempting to darken and flesh out three of its main characters: Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker. This sophistication had the potential to be the holy grail of the film’s engagement, but, whenever this character-building is at play, it is superfluously embroidered by these aforementioned tonal distractions, whether it’s Luke tricking Rey into “using the force” with a blade of grass, Kylo Ren being shirtless (but why?), or a Pog face-planting into a window during what should be a serious rescue scene on the planet Crait. It’s as if Robert Altman had been hired to write a Star Wars movie and immediately decided to Nashville the sh!+ out of it.
The thing is (and this gets to the heart of why I abhor Robert Altman films) the film medium is temporally built to sustain a well-chosen economy of narrative if it has any hopes of fabricating and sustaining any degree of emotional investment. Shows like Game of Thrones and Orange is the New Black have shown that the serial format is much more compatible with large ensemble casts because they are given the room to be explored in an organic and engaging way. When condensing these kaleidoscopic endeavors into a film, much of the emotional weight is lost in favor for what essentially amounts to “interesting ideas”: the philosophy underlying Luke’s cynicism, Rey’s development as a Jedi (we are given some “shocking” background story, but how does this affect her character? She’s still on the good side at the end [I almost wanted her to go to the dark side, just to shake things up]), or Kylo Ren’s inner conflict (which, again, amounts to nothing—he is still the “bad guy” at the end of the film).
While The Last Jedi does not have a terribly high amount of plots and characters, it does incessantly move from one thing we are meant to be taking seriously to another, a system which amounts to the same thing: the dilution of the audience’s emotional investment. Sure, much of the frantic pacing works for the fresh new theme of “let the past die, look to the future” which may in fact be commenting on the generally pessimistic milieu of our times, and whose newness does manage to “keep the myth interesting, and hence relevant” as I mentioned in my last column. However, The Last Jedi is revisionism done wrong, in the vein of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, where a lot of interesting things are going down without succeeding in making us care. This is in sharp contrast to the much more cogent (and also revisionist) The Dark Knight, or The Empire Strikes Back. Recall how much time we spend following Luke’s training with Yoda in Episode V, or Rey the scavenger-for-parts at the beginning of The Force Awakens. These are some of my favorite moments in the franchise, and the reason they work is because we’re there for a while, to the point where the depicted world begins to feel organic, our own—thus paving the way for emotional investment.
If anything, The Last Jedi has compelled me to familiarize myself to a much greater extent with the Star Wars canon. Through my current efforts to understand just what in the world was happening in the film, I might eventually be able to tame my currently lashing and thrashing response to such a degree that the film may not appear as messy and improvised as it does now. Who knows, a year from now—maybe less—I may even like it.