Thoughts On: Star Wars: The Last Jedi - The Best Star Wars Movie?

29/03/2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi - The Best Star Wars Movie?

Thoughts On: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Rey attempts to support the dwindling Rebel force by reaching out to Luke Skywalker.


I never loved any of the Star Wars movies, but The Last Jedi is undoubtedly my favourite - I may even say it is the best after a few more watches. Imperfect, but completely aware of the Star Wars formula that it almost begins to work past it, The Last Jedi takes some major risks and rises up to the seeming impossible.

Confronted by all that is lacking about the newest installation of Star Wars - some touches of clunky dialogue, some structural issues, plot holes, weak characters, etc. - it is important to just take a moment to ponder upon the actual creation of this film. How hard would it be to write even a mediocre Star Wars movie? With the vast expanse of a Marvel movie, but a stronger sense of narrative meaning, a world of greater depth, and a much more confined realm of possibility in terms of narrative arc, a Star Wars movie seems impossibly demanding. Not only must nearly a dozen characters need to be juggled and given arcs, but multiple thematic journeys need to be established, set pieces constructed and everything brought to a neat close. Johnson does an astonishing job in these regards - and though he is credited as the single writer, there is probably a huge team around him.

The greatest achievement of The Last Jedi, I believe, lies in the script's ability to deal with the past and present. This balancing act in the screenplay is brought to life incredibly well with old characters returning, new characters developing, CGI meeting models, old cinematic techniques meeting newer ones and old themes being subverted and built upon. This meeting of old and new is essential for The Last Jedi as it is the first of the new Star Wars films to have to truly bear the weight of the franchise as it continues on. The Force Awakens had so much going for it in terms of hype and nostalgia. It did a pretty good job in managing things, but didn't fully excel in any place, I felt. That was ok though; it managed to revive Star Wars and it introduced a new world fairly successfully. That was enough. Rogue One was a so-so movie from what I remember (which isn't much). It filled in a gap and, itself, was filler. It stepped out of the realms of a true Star Wars movie and seemingly set up a new kind of film, the side-Star Wars flick. The Last Jedi continues the main story and it had to live up to The Force Awakens. Not only does it do this in my view, but it easily bests its predecessor. (I won't bother comparing this to the older Star Wars movies because... let's not).

Just like The Last Jedi is about a possible death of the past, so is the existence of the film itself. How are you suppose to deal with a legend that has grown old? Do you kill it off, burn its constructs to the ground and start again? Do you support and nurture it for as long as you can? Or, is there another way?

The narrative of The Last Jedi has some answers, and they're not bad. However, The Last Jedi itself is more of a question than anything in my view. It attempts to glean what is good from the old Star Wars films - some characters, the tone, score, world, etc. - but also brings some new elements to the fore whilst tweaking what was maybe lacking in the past; a concentration on what it really means to be good and bad as just one example. But, there is a definite sense of incompletion about The Last Jedi that leaves its success questionable.

Some of the greatest, most respectable Hollywood films of all time (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, 2001, Citizen Kane, etc, etc.) balance art and entertainment, meaning and spectacle. Each film has its own sense of balance, but the two parts form a true whole in my view. Star Wars has its meaning, it is embedded in the classical familial and dark-light conflict, and it has its spectacle. Lucas originally found a balance between meaning and spectacle via epic melodrama. He seems to have done this so that the drama could encapsulate meaning and contend with the action. It was because his archetypes were so precise and brilliantly constructed - Darth Vader is one of the most iconic film characters ever for very good reason - that Lucas could contain his two intense elements. It was the likes of Luke, Leia, Ben and Vader that were right-part god and right-part human that they could carry the weight of, and then confront, the ridiculous scale melodrama and action. When we come to the prequel trilogy, we simply had weak characters - too many. The melodrama got out of hand and everything spiralled out of control. With The Last Jedi, we again have some solid archetypes, and so the melodrama - which, notably, isn't as intense as the original trilogy (a good thing I believe) - works with the greater scale action.

The Last Jedi, however, changes up the ratios of its ingredients. As said, the melodrama isn't as intense and the action is far more vast and complex. The action then takes on a lot of the drama - just compare the final showdown of Return Of The Jedi, which is all about the exchanges between Vader and Luke, to any of the newer action sequences, which are fuelled by action as well as character. This change isn't bad, it just is what it is: change. All that matters is that there is a sense of harmony among the multiple parts, and I believe that this is achieved pretty well. However, the synergy isn't optimised.

Conjuring the most affecting and poignant flares of narrative meaning in its surreal-ish sequences, The Last Jedi really struck me and certainly deserves much respect for the risk it takes in possibly losing its younger audiences. However, this meaning is contained to Rey's character arc and is further confined to the second act of the film. Every other character has an arc and along with it comes meaning, but, whilst some learn about humble sacrifice and the value of patience and hope, all is outclassed with the work done on Rey's discovery of potential in darkness. This idea of good flourishing from the dark is central to the Star Wars narrative, but, it has never really been questioned too well; good and bad are pretty black and white. The Last Jedi tries to explore the grey better than any film before, and it makes some strides. Alas, the sheer amount of plot lines encroach upon Rey's joint path with Luke and Ren, and the more work that goes into all else is to the detriment of the central meaning. In addition to this, the action becomes a little too ridiculous, infected by the contrivance of melodrama and made slave to plot. As a result, the fun in The Last Jedi is constantly called into question by glaring plot holes and iffy character decisions. What's more, there is simply too much going on in the third act to keep track of time and space relations.

The problem that The Last Jedi suffers from is that it is trying to do too much. Its characters are split too far apart and there are too many plots for the narrative meaning to be given any real focus. The ending is then very dissatisfying and weighed down by construction; you can feel Johnson trying to bring everything to a close. The questions asked of the main character should have lead the way and dictated structure, but, the Star Wars formula overwhelms all; it demands too many characters go on too many character arcs and there be too much plot that facilitates an awful action. I honestly don't know if there's a solution to this problem. Maybe a longer run-time, less characters, less action, a single and driving plot line?

Pasted all over The Last Jedi is a series of questions on how the next Star Wars is going to turn out. Will it be able to better balance action and drama, spectacle and meaning? Will it be able to sustain the Star Wars formula, keep up with all of its characters, yet still do more and say something slightly different, something deeper and more meaningful, and still show us something incredible?

Who is to know? But, The Last Jedi is a really promising feature that I hope up and coming Star Wars films take some notes on. It's not just about the grand Star Wars narrative, world and characters. It's not just about comedy and the minor characters - though these are increasingly important features. It's also about saying something more complex and having characters go to places that others haven't yet. That said, what are your thoughts on The Last Jedi? Excited for more?







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