Many thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi — with full spoilers for the entire film, for the benefit of people who’ve already seen it — coming up just as soon as I roast a Porg…
The internet was filled over the weekend with people expressing their disappointment with The Last Jedi for various reasons, many of which we’ll get to in a bit. For me, the most disappointing aspect of the film by far was the tantalizingly brief cameo by Justin Theroux as the Master Codebreaker, who never gets to team up with Finn and Rose because they’re arrested seconds after they spot him gambling at the casino.
Now, I’m not exactly going to complain about the man those two end up using to bypass First Order security, DJ, even if Benicio Del Toro is basically playing Benicio Del Toro (or a variant on the type of characters he so often plays). But when you tease the star of The Leftovers in a setting and costume very much evoking that show’s periodic trips to the afterlife (where Theroux was, alternately, an international assassin and the president of the United States), well, my imagination is going to start figuring out how Star Wars and Leftovers share a fictional universe, realizing that the Master Codebreaker’s method of cracking Hux’s security would probably not be family-friendly, and more. Instead, all Theroux gets to do is look befuddled by the intrusion of these low-class ruffians into this posh joint, and then we’re off to meet DJ, mount a prison break, and on and on.
But seeing the brief intersection between the year’s best TV show and arguably the year’s most anticipated movie got me thinking about some issues I had with The Last Jedi. They’re not any of the ones I’ve been encountering over the last few days about Snoke’s death, or Rey’s parents being nobodies, or the film’s repeated expression of disdain for both the Jedi and the kind of nostalgia that this entire franchise has subsisted on for decades. Rather, it’s the way that Rian Johnson tries to stuff The Last Jedi with so many ideas, so much incident, that at times it feels like four or five movies operating under one title, or like Johnson — who has dabbled in television over the years, including directing the best hour of TV drama ever made — trying to somehow squeeze a season of prestige TV into two and a half hours of cinema. Walking out of the theater on Saturday night, the guy next to me said, a bit befuddled, “Wow, that was a lot of movie,” and I understood where he was coming from, despite having loved nearly every individual piece of said movie.
Now, we all know that a season of TV isn’t really a 10-hour movie (and shouldn’t aspire to be). Nor did television invent the concept of stories featuring multiple arcs for different characters that run in parallel for a while before they intersect. Empire Strikes Back — as clear a model for Last Jedi as the original Star Wars was for The Force Awakens — is a pretty episodic movie, crosscutting between Yoda training Luke on Dagobah, Han and Leia fleeing the Empire, and, to a lesser degree, Darth Vader plotting in the background. But Last Jedi felt like that approach on steroids, juggling Rey’s attempts to get Luke to return to the fight, Poe clashing with Vice Admiral Holdo(*) during the Resistance’s agonizing attempt to escape the First Order, Finn and Rose’s caper to deactivate the First Order’s tracking device, and the ongoing power games between Snoke, Hux, and Kylo Ren.
(*) Between Big Little Lies, Twin Peaks: The Return, and this, Laura Dern is having herself quite a year.
As I said, I enjoyed the hell out of each piece of this, and would have gladly watched an entire movie — or, at least, an entire Leftovers-style POV episode — that was just Luke and Rey, or just Leia and then Holdo doing whatever they could to keep the fleet together in the face of impossible odds(*). And Johnson masterfully ties nearly everything together in the climactic sequence where everything falls apart for the heroes at once: Kylo Ren reveals that he killed Snoke only so he could take his place, Finn and Rose’s gambit fails, and that in turn allows DJ to sell out the entire Resistance plan to Hux and Captain Phasma. But put all together, the movie can be an overwhelming experience, particularly since the story continues for another half hour or so after Rey, Finn, and Rose have separately escaped Snoke’s flagship and made their way down to Crait. Thematically, it all makes sense as part of the same film, where Johnson is interested in deconstructing so much of our assumptions about the franchise, but structurally? Well, it’s a lot of movie, and one where I’ll be very curious to see how it plays on second, third, and fifth viewing.
(*) The original Battlestar Galactica was a shameless and unimaginative Star Wars ripoff. Here, though, the Holdo/Poe corner of the film very much evokes the tone and substance of the Edward James Olmos/Mary McDonnell BSG reboot, the episode “33” in particular. All this has happened before, and it will all happen again…
And I will be watching this one many times over, because whatever qualms I had in the moment about each story trying to elbow the others aside for breathing room, or about individual decisions — Holdo keeps her plan a secret from Poe, which not only encourages him to do his boneheaded mutiny, but results in far greater Resistance losses than if Poe knew what was happening and thus didn’t approve of the Rose/Finn/DJ caper — The Last Jedi features some of the most dazzling filmmaking of the entire franchise. Johnson’s a tremendous visual stylist, and the movie offers one remarkable image after another: Snoke’s throne room and his matching guardsmen, or the sheer devastation Holdo’s kamikaze run wreaks on Snoke’s flagship, or the way the red clay and white salt of Crait mix to create the illusion of far more blood than is actually there, which helps sell Luke’s entire astral projection stunt to both Kylo Ren and us. Johnson gets great performances from everyone — Mark Hamill’s never been better in live action, and Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley top their work in the previous film — and introduces several memorable new characters in Rose (who, despite being something of a Star Wars fangirl, never falls into the Mary Sue trap), Holdo, and even DJ, who helps expand the idea of moral ambiguity in what’s often been a very black-and-white world. It may be that, in time, it’ll be a film where I jump around to particular highlights (the opening bombing raid on the Dreadnought, and Rey and Kylo Ren’s throne room team-up, are two of the very best action set pieces in the entire franchise), rather than watching it straight through, but it also may be that the length and the sheer tonnage of ideas will feel less intimidating now that I know where it’s all going.