Who needs Kylo Ren to snuff out hope when there's Johnson's Loser Luke Skywalker?
By Nick van der Leek
So far the critical reviews seem unanimous - Star Wars 8 is a masterpiece, a triumph, either the best Star Wars ever or second to Empire Strikes Back. It sure had its moments. But it also had a ton of misfires.
One word has emerged in the mounting backlash; it's the same sentiment I left the cinema with.
On Twitter a lot of fans were critical of the apparent hypocrisy in not liking Force Awakens because it wasn't original enough, but criticising Last Jedi because it was too original. It's not quite as simple as that. Force Awakens seemed to recycle and nod towards several plot elements in the original franchise. Last Jedi needed to be its own story, but without cutting itself off from the original mythos entirely. That means you don't resuscitate plot elements from other films, you use what you have, and what you've been given and move forward. Johnson's mistake is that he focuses on moving forward at the expense of the mighty platform he's been given. Which is why when Luke Skywalker tosses away the lightsaber like a piece of trash, it just feels completely wrong - for Luke, for Star Wars and for Rey's journey.
So either Disney's brief was wrong, or Johnson totally misread it. I have a feeling it's the former, hence one tweet:
"Disney WTF have you done?"
For me, the essential spark of Star Wars just isn't there. Didn't the director know or care much about this particular franchise? Throwing away the lightsaber was just one of a bunch of bad calls by Johnson. There's some really bad humour in this film, like when Rey and Kylo Ren share an astral interlude, and Kylo has just come out of the shower...
I read somewhere that doe this film, Johnson built well over 100 sets, which meant he had less than two minutes per set. George Lucas' genius is that he created entire worlds that felt sweeping, and yet Lucas gave them a lived-in intimacy for the first time. You can only occupy a world when you allow yourself to live on those sets; but Johnson races through them so quickly he keeps having to build new one's. And that's what the entire film feels like - a stone racing over a pond, skipping over the surface and not really taking us anywhere.
The island Ahch-To was a wonderful opportunity to do a vertiginous version of Dagobah, but Johnson is so petrified of the Star Wars mythos he spends the entire movie running away from it, just as his fucked-up version of Skywalker does. That's weak storytelling, and weak understanding of the material Mr. Johnson.
It has the music, the lightsabers, the Force, the ships and space, but what it seemed to be missing was the right tone and gravitas. The spirit at the centre of Star Wars. It also wasted a valuable opportunity to have Rey learn something from Luke. Wasn't that what Force Awakens went to the trouble of setting up?
The most vital and magical moment in the entire Star Wars cannon is perhaps when Yoda takes on Luke as his pupil. It's spellbinding, fascinating and touching. In Last Jedi, it bafflingly never happens. And that makes it shallow as hell. Even Mark Hamill didn't like the way director Rian Johnson recast Luke Skywalker as a nihilistic depressive loser. Luke used to be the rebellion's greatest hope, a youthful, positive, can-do character. In Last Jedi he's the most pessimistic dropout in the galaxy. So ironically, this movie seems to be the epitome of Kylo Ren - it snuffs out magic and snuff out the Star Wars spark.
What were the biggest misfires?
It seemed to me the director is completely out of tune with the Star Wars mythos. This comes through right off the bat when Poe contacts General Hux and pretends not to hear Hux's response twice. It's gimmicky, it's silly, it's fun, but it's not Star Wars. When Luke is teaching Rey the Force, it's done through sarcasm and whacking her hand contemptuously with a leaf as she hysterically cries: "I can feel it, I can feel it..."
Besides Luke and Rey going AWOL from each other on the little island, Supreme Leader Snoke is probably the biggest mistake. First of all, Snoke isn't nearly as large or intimidating a presence in real life as he is in apparition form. Second, they say he was modelled on Hugh Hefner. No surprise then that he's a killable pushover at the snap of a finger.
The spirit of what's wrong with this film seems to be rooted in a dismissive carelessness. Star Wars is fantasy, yes, but space fantasy still holds to certain laws of nature. In a scene early on where a bomber crew person [Rose's sister] opens the bomb-bay doors very much in keeping with something out of World War II. She falls onto a sort of grill at the bottom, with the doors open. It doesn't seem to matter that it's outer space, and in space there's a vacuum. Nor does it matter when the same thing happens to Leia...
The many weird things in this film repeatedly pull one out of the immersive state; like the who-cares romance between Finn and Rose and their pointless excursion to find a codebreaker who ends up unable to break the code. There's also neither-here-nor-there astral projection, finger-snapping in front of mirrors, a casino that feels like it belongs to James Bond film and flappy-eared race horses running through a Space-themed Pamplona. It just feels messy, doesn't it?
Rey smashing in Luke's steel door [and then sleeping outside, literally, with the door suddenly intact], and Finn being smashed off course during a suicide mission by a fellow Rebel mechanic - all of it somehow jars more than it delights.
In many ways, as mentioned earlier, this flick feels more like a Transformers movie than Star Wars. In other words it's loud, colourful, and there are a lot of pointless chases and explosions to get through the running time.
The Rebels don't listen to each other is a another huge no no. Poe doesn't, Finn doesn't, Luke doesn't listen to Rey and Rey doesn't listen to Luke. Finn talks at length about being a legend, and Luke does the same [although he does a better and more believable job]. Rose tasers Finn, then joins him. Purple-haired General Holdo [Laura Dern] runs such a loose ship that Poe launches a mutiny which Leia [risen from the dead] has to stem with her laser set to stun.
Leia spends half of her magnum opus in a coma, and so does Finn. R2 is in a coma in the previous film and C3PO hardly does anything. Finn coming out of his coma is another cringe worthy scene - he knocks his head, falls out of bed, then wanders the corridors of the spaceship leaking some kind of amniotic fluid. Nobody notices the half-naked black dude until Poe does.
No one actually seems to listen to or care about authority in this film.
Captain Phasma is even more of a pushover than Snoke [although one suspects Phasma may return].
And wasn't there supposed to be a touching eulogy to Carrie Fisher at the end? I waited and waited during the end credits, was a line or two of blue script it?
I could go on and on but I think you get the picture. The film wasn't a total misfire though, it had its moments, but not enough strung together for me to walk out with that awesome Star Wars buzz.
What was on Target?
The scene between Luke and Yoda was a surprise, and a nice surprise. Unfortunately the filmmakers were very cynical using both Luke and Leia, and one rather had the feeling that the crew thought of them as legends but has-beens, and so they're there but sidelined. This is too bad, because Luke and Leia anchor the film, along with Rey. Unfortunately these three figures are the least present through the film, preferring to give the stage over to sidekicks. When Yoda and Luke share a moment, it's a relief. It's almost as though the director stumbled across an old script and went: hey, why don't we add something authentic here.
The Millennium Falcon swoops in to the rescue... but then disappears. [When it reappears Rey is inexplicably trying to track the rebels through the mountain, when an entire battle is being waged on the other side of the mountain.]
When R2D2 gets Luke on track with that old recording of Leia. See, that's what the film wanted, some real heart, real gravitas mined from its own rich history.
The duel between master and apprentice [Luke and Ben]. It could have down with more actual light saber contact, but then Luke wasn't even there to begin with. Overall, a nice move and good to see the Jedi beat the Dark Side with their own sleight of hand for once.
Chewbacca did well when it counted while brushing aside mewing dashboard penguins....
I liked the two versions of the same story, in terms of Luke's explanation of what happened between him and Ben and Ben's version to Rey. Ben's invitation to Rey to join him so the two could rule the galaxy together also felt like classic Star Wars.
The special effects, especially in the battle scenes, were top notch, but then that's a non negotiable when it comes to Star Wars.
Last but not least, Adam Driver does well rising to achieve par with Darth Vader. If only Rey was as convincing, but then Johnson doesn't give her a chance. If only Johnson had kept the faith in Luke, and shown more faith in the franchise that bore him forth...
I suspect what Star Wars lacks is good old fashioned storytelling. There's nothing wrong with going into new directions and introducing new characters, but remain true to the mythos, even while departing from it, or improving on it.
Disney has too much money and too little nerve for those quiet moments of roaring authenticity. And so, like the Transformers, the idea seems to be to deafen, dazzle and tickle the audience into liking a story, rather than trusting in the traditional pillars of cinemacraft - characters, plot, pacing and mythos.
Going forward, I suspect it will turn out that Rey and Ben are siblings, but that unlike Kylo Ren/Ben, Rey has always been Rey - she created herself. I've maintained since The Force Awakens that there is a lot linking Han and Leia to Rey, but the idea that she may see herself as her own creation is certainly brave, but perhaps this is the greatest heresy in terms of Rian Johnson at the helm.
The heart of Star Wars seems to be royal blood ties. It is to emerge from nothing, and become a truly significant character in the universe. It's about actualisation, and finding that one's place in the universe is greater and more powerful than one could ever have imagined.
Johnson inverts it into something far more cynical. Without these buoys of patriarchy and matriarchy, Star Wars is just a bunch of anonymous, disconnected rebels who end up in it for themselves. If you want a story that nobody cares about, make it about a bunch of unschooled nobodies, killing without conscience, emerging in the universe only to realise they're treading water and going nowhere. We don't need the galaxy for that story, we have enough of that sort of cynicism on Earth. We'd like to know there's real hope out there in Star Wars.
It's no wonder the death toll in this film is such that the survivors of the rebel alliance easily fit into the Millennium Falcon at the end. The characters don't care and by the end of Last Jedi, neither do we. That's how you snuff out the Star Wars spark.
My Score: 6/10