Go See a Star War
As I have to tell everyone around this time every year, I’m not really a big fan of the Star Wars franchise. I’m the right age, and the right kind of nerd, but I was preoccupied by other stuff like comic books and role-playing games when I was a kid, and the exploits of Skywalker & Co. never really got it hooks into me. The fact that I have to say this is part of the problem, of course; nobody finds it necessary to go around telling me that they don’t especially care for Visconti. But having an opinion about Star Wars is probably on the citizenship test at this point.
The problem is only going to be exacerbated as time passes. With the continued conglomeration of media companies into a small handful of mega-corporations, ever intellectual property in existence is going to eventually be subject to ruthless cash extractions and brutal licensing blitzes. I have a lot more to say about this, but I’m saving it for an upcoming article where more than just the six of you will read it; to make a long story short, though, it’s ridiculous to call the latest installment of the saga The Last Jedi, because there is no last Jedi and there never will be as long as they can wring one last penny out of the fans. Arguments about continuity, story logic, or even broad stuff like casting and creative choice are always subjugated to questions of commerce, but this tendency is going to be especially harsh as these media consolidations continue. It’s not as if entertainment hasn’t always been a commodity; it’s just that it’s going to start to be treated like a commodity less like movies and more like paper clips or tennis balls. The concept of a movie being “critic-proof” is a lot more frightening than it seems: it’s not so much that we’re just thinning the herd of movie critics (believe me, I know how much people hate us) so much as it is that we’re making movies to which it makes no sense to even apply critical interpretation, any more than you would a spoon or a doorknob.
Of course, this makes going to see one of these movies, let alone try to think of something intelligent to say about them, something of a daunting prospect. If you don’t see them, it’s a statement; if you do see them, it’s a statement; if you just ignore them, it’s a statement. You can’t really relate to them in the personal way that art demands; it’s like asking someone their opinion of a skyscraper. It may take up a lot of space in your life, and you sure as hell can’t ignore it, but what is there to say about it, really? Every time a Star Wars movie gets released — and now it happens, by design, with the predictability of the tides or a quarterly balance sheet — I experience a feeling of dread that has nothing to do with whether the movie is going to be any good or not.
Which, I suppose, leaves me the rest of this entry to answer the question: Is Star Wars: The Last Jedi any good? Well, yes. It’s actually pretty good! Part of me wonders how much of this has to do with Rian Johnson; he’s a generally strong filmmaker even when working deep in genre work, and that carries through into this film. The dialogue is fairly decent for what will never, ever be an artful franchise, and only veers into corniness when it tries too hard to be funny; it’s directed with skill and confidence; and Johnson even tries crazy tricks like — gasp! — filmwork that is designed to create an emotional response rather than just get all the spaceships in the frame at the right time. One of the major drawbacks of this media consolidation trend is that directors will no longer be given any space to be idiosyncratic or pursue a personal vision; they will just be interchangeable components in a machine. But Johnson, in this metaphor, is at least an extremely well-crafted and finely honed component. It’s easy to see his ability, if not his engagement or perspective, coming through in The Last Jedi, which is more than you can say for a lot of other name directors who have been handed a franchise.
That’s not to say that it’s, uh, great. It’s not. None of these movies are ever going to reach the level of greatness, and they really don’t want to. It’s easily a half an hour too long, several of the main characters are complete cyphers and the ones that aren’t are two-dimensional, and there’s a couple of plot points that don’t make much sense. Recent attempts to make the series, and this installment in particular, politically relevant seem as misguided as they are unwanted. There’s still a slapdash approach to continuity, in a way that makes the whole fictional universe seem a bit tossed together, and the filmmakers don’t go to very great lengths to convince the audience that they care enough to figure these things out. It’s not that there’s no one in the series who isn’t a good actor, but this isn’t the kind of movie that demands or rewards good acting, so when it happens — which isn’t often — it doesn’t really have that much impact. I mean no personal slight when I say that with this kind of movie, it’s pretty much the nature of the beast.
But! It does look extremely great; its big action scenes, while there are at least two too many of them, are exciting and well-staged; and the movie begins with one of the most thrilling set pieces in recent blockbuster history. It presents a lot of fascinating background and explores it just enough to be fascinating, and it does something that’s increasingly rare in the era of franchise fatigue: it makes you want to spend more time in its world. I don’t want to play the ratings game, but the best thing about The Last Jedi is that it does something no Star Wars film has done since the first one: it creates a compelling and unexpected fantasy universe that we want to get to know better. On that strength alone, it’s worth seeing.