Directed by Rian Johnson (2017)
by Francis Friel, The Projectionist
Unpredictability is always a virtue of good storytelling. Paul Thomas Anderson has said that, while it’s always smart to stay one step ahead of your audience, you need to let the audience know they’re being guided by a steady hand. One step ahead is good. Twenty steps ahead is arrogance. On the other end of the spectrum we might find someone like David Lynch - operating from the rarefied air (or ocean, as he may call it) of a man at home in his own subconscious. But they can’t all be Lynch, being the holy master of modern American surrealism. They can’t all be Anderson, for that matter, asking bigger questions than mainstream cinema has any rights to answer - all while groveling in the dirt with the rest of us. So. There’s unpredictability - never tipping your hand, keeping a few narrative tricks up your sleeve, loading your plot with clever misdirections and twists… and then there’s Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi.
To say that the film is the weirdest Episode of Star Wars we’ve yet seen would be the understatement of the year. To say that it accomplishes much by being as bugfuck bananas as it turns out to be? That’s something else entirely.
I’m honestly still having a hell of a time trying to put all these pieces together and have them make sense for me. On its surface, it would appear to be a Star Wars fan’s dream. It’s got all the elements I probably would’ve asked for if I’d been allowed into the writers’ room. But it’s Johnson’s direction and ultimate purpose in telling this tale that leave me scratching my head. Without spoiling anything major (or outside of the opening five minutes, even), I’ll give just a couple examples.
As the famous opening crawl fades into the distance, the Resistance is under heavy fire from an enormous First Order attack. Commander Poe Dameron, ignoring direct orders from General Organa, directs a fleet of bombardiers to blow the everloving shit out of everything in an effort to shut down the First Order’s tracking and targeting equipment. But within this scene we meet a brand new character, a person whose devotion to their mission had me absolutely on the edge of my seat in a way I’ve never felt before during any Star Wars film. I was waiting, helpless, even getting choked up as the seconds ticked by and all hope seemed to be lost as this one minor figure in the middle of a sprawling space battle had to pull everything together at the last possible second, through sheer force of will, to get the job done. I felt for this character.
Elsewhere in this same scene, Poe has a truly bizarre back and forth with a seemingly coked-out-of-his-goddammed-mind General Hux, the dialog playing as an admittedly hilarious but badly miscalculated stab at humor (at least for these films). This is some straight-up Spaceballs shit right here. So what’s my point? I felt for these characters and laughed out loud, both firsts for me with this series (outside of feeling more than a passing empathy and sadness for Ben Solo - but that’s more to do with my own hangups on having grown up in a brutally abusive household and then arriving fully formed into an adulthood plagued by mental illness and a propensity for wearing masks). So how did Rian Johnson go from displaying the surest sense of this material since Irvin Kershner to mangling the remaining two hours and ten minutes of running time? Beats the hell out of me. But I have a theory. See if this makes sense.
At its core, this is a film about The Force. What it is, what it means, where it comes from, what it can do for us and the ways in which our misinterpretations of it can distort our senses until all we’re left with is a religious ideal with a very rigid set of rules. But what this film turns out to be is a crash course in just how bonkers a concept this all really is - how do you depict The Force itself on screen? Johnson, to his credit, actually attempts this at one point (at least… I think that’s what I was seeing?) and the effect is pretty baffling. And it’s in this one scene - which I couldn’t spoil if I tried since seeing is truly believing in this case - that I figured out just how badly Lucasfilm fucked up in hiring Johnson to direct his own script of this material.
Rian Johnson kind of doesn’t live in the same cinematic universe as the rest of us. He seems to go around doing whatever the fuck he feels like - all the time - and doesn’t pay a lot of attention to the details that don’t add up. To him, the whole is all, and so long as the individual elements and scenes that get him there feel like they make sense, that’s good enough*. Is it cool, in Looper, when Older Paul Dano’s body is feeling the “real-time” effects of being mutilated in the past? Yes. It is cool as shit. Does it make any fucking sense? No. It makes zero sense. It doesn’t even defy the logic of the film itself, it’s just this extraneous bit of business that adds to our awareness that time - and time travel, and causality - are tricky, slippery concepts. The issue here, though, is that this is not how Star Wars operates. The details tend to matter. Johnson, and The Last Jedi are essentially daring Episode IX to figure out where to go from here. I can imagine that this is the kind of Star Wars story that Johnson has always wanted to make but, somewhere along the line, too many people got out of his way and let him go a little too wacky with the story’s construction.
So what we end up with is a strange, bloated film that adds - and, for that matter, subtracts - so many new elements to the existing mythology that there’s no way in hell the next film will be able to satisfactorily address even half of them. Seriously, there’s shit in this film that is so out there that I truly can’t believe most of it got past the Lucasfilm review board. But that’s not the worst part - the film consistently then just brushes past every single one of these as if it wasn’t just the weirdest shit you’ve ever seen in a Star Wars movie. It felt like every new scene left me going, “Wait, wait, what now? But what about…and if that’s true, then how…???” Then on top of that, the back half is devoted to just fucking slashing and burning through so much territory that, again, it feels like nothing more than Johnson yelling “Top THIS!” at Jar Jar Abrams, as if that’s gonna help this series get anywhere near a satisfying conclusion. It’s the “Tyrannosaurs in F14s” of Star Wars films.
I wanted to like this film. I was prepared to love it, even. And since I work at a movie theatre, I’m excited to be standing in the back of the auditoriums while audiences experience certain scenes for the first time. Watching as the lights went down on that Thursday night 7pm show of The Force Awakens, everyone shushing each other, the Lucasfilm logo appearing to an absolutely silent crowd, then the burst of screaming and cheering and applause as the Star Wars logo finally appeared on the screen - it’s still one of the most exhilarating moments of my Movie Life. And while nothing in this film even comes close to bringing back that feeling - and not that it needed to, or could - there are moments, shots, scenes, concepts and characters here that are going to just blow people away. Which is great! I just wish that in the long run, the film had thought a little further ahead towards what it was all going to be about. Because it’s not enough to be a long string of cool stuff. There’s got to be some purpose behind it. As is, The Last Jedi is probably best described as a game of Exquisite Corpse where the second-to-last hand just rips the paper in two and says, “Your turn!”
*Not counting Brick here, as that film is a flawless execution of a very specific idea. Go watch Brick again. It holds up.