On paper, theoretically, I should despise Star Wars, as its very existence is built not out of a desire for artistic expression or fantastic storytelling, but rather as a glorified toy commercial, masquerading as art, designed entirely around merchandising and marketing, and A New Hope – alongside Spielberg’s Jaws – can actually be credited as the films that began cinema’s descent into commercial nonsense interested solely in profit margins and that sweet merchandising profit.
Now, that’s not to say the original studio model wasn’t mostly interested in profits – of course it was, it had to be to survive and thrive, but the previous model for making profits relied on fantastic films being made to draw the audience in. Citizen Kane, The Godfather, The Wizard of Oz – all films that were commercial successes for the sole reason of being fantastic films. With Star Wars, this all ended and it began the trend of merchandising being as important – if not more important – than the artistic expression and narrative itself. Yet, despite knowing this, I have a real soft spot for the original trilogy and would go as far as to state that A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back are among the best examples of blockbuster film making ever devised.
Even Return of The Jedi – easily the worst of the original three – really isn’t a terrible film. They tell a tale as old as storytelling itself – the hero’s journey – but told in a relatively fresh, interesting way with immediately iconic imagery and characters you couldn’t help but adore. So, as a young man, I was excited for the return of Star Wars under the guise of the prequels…yet sadly, I, alongside everybody else, was horrifically let-down and am still, even as I type this, trying to forget Attack of The Clones ever happened. So, it was with great excitement that I sat down for A Force Awakens and a potential resurrection of a once great franchise. It didn’t disappoint. While it is hardly a master class of cinema, it did provide a fun, silly, well paced enjoyable ride that did a fantastic job of updating the films for a modern audience – even if it did lean far too heavily on nostalgia. It seemed that Star Wars was back in the saddle and on-form – that this trilogy may well be something special. Unfortunately, after watching The Last Jedi, my enthusiasm for Star Wars has once again plummeted. Ignore the critics (irony fully acknowledged); this film, judged for its artistic merit and not merely cool moments and that sweet nostalgia, fails on almost every level.
The movie picks up exactly where the last left off…or, well, sort of. And here in lies the very first issue before we’ve even begun. The Force Awakens ends on a fantastic – if somewhat awkward – shot of Rey offering Luke his iconic lightsaber, while The Resistance enjoy victory at their base. However, this film opens up with The Resistance undergoing a massive attack from The First Order, which goes on way, way too long (I walked into the cinema five minutes late and yet still found it dragged on). We then cut to Luke and Rey in exactly the same position we left them at the end of the last film. Either we’re dealing with different timelines here, or Rey and Luke have been standing there in the same position, for hours, or even possibly days.
Now, I can understand differing timelines, but most films either go the full ‘figure it out yourself’ route, or they at least make some explanation. In a franchise like Star Wars, which has always gone with the latter, this just seems like a bizarre mistake as opposed to an artistic choice. The story then proceeds to follow a duel narrative; one deals with the Luke/Rey/Kylo Ren triangle, and the other deals with The Resistance trying to survive a massive First Order onslaught. Of course, I will try to avoid spoiling it as best I can, but frankly, most of my issues lie with the bizarre narrative, so this may be somewhat difficult. As with many films that fail to deliver, the issues stem mostly from the screenplay. Very rarely do I come across a script in a tent-pole blockbuster that is quite this bad – it is clumsy, lazy, half cooked and full of great, deep ideas that are not explored to even a fraction of their potential. Everything is seemingly solved with one or two lines of dialogue, huge plot revelations are merely brushed over in seconds, and almost every potentially poignant scene is immediately stripped of any levity by an awful, unnecessary joke.
It is the worst kind of Disneyfied, inoffensive, ‘aimed at everyone’ screen-writing. Every Star Wars film tends to have an iconic quote of some sort, yet walking out of this one I couldn’t think of anything that really stuck with me. Hell, they even found a way to make Yoda sound awful. Some of my least favourite lines include – and I swear to you that this is an actual exchange of dialogue that made it into this film – ‘I’ve had a vision. I’ve seen your future. You will turn.’ ‘I’ve had a vision too. I’ve seen your future. You will turn.’ I’m serious, this somehow made it into the final product, and I have no idea how. It’s as if a teenager on cocaine with no concept of subtlety wrote it. In fact, I felt personally offended, as if Johnson was directly yelling at me; ‘Hey listen, dumb-fuck, they’re trying to turn each other…do you fucking get it?’ Yes, Johnson, I got it. I got it in the prequels when Palpatine turned Anakin. I got it in the originals when Luke tried to turn Darth. This is nothing new, we’ve seen it before and we’ve seen it better. You don’t need to beat me over the head with on-the-nose dialogue.
The script has other issues as well, beyond the awful, awful dialogue. I need to stress as well that I mean awful; this is not hyperbolic, this is Michael Bay levels of terrible writing. The pacing, for one, is completely erratic. The Resistance story, in a nutshell, is extraordinarily simple; they’re stuck, surrounded by The First Order and they need to escape. It didn’t need much screen time to cover. On the other hand, the Rey/Ren/Luke/Snoke scenario is far more complex, dealing with weighty themes and trying to redefine how we know Star Wars. So, guess which of these two plot lines gets the most time to be explored? If you guessed the latter, you’d be wrong. For whatever reason, Johnson seems more interested in exploring boring casino planets and repetitive space fights than he does the narrative that the entire marketing of the film hinged on; leading to an uneven, almost incoherent, boring mess. The worst part of it all is that the Rey/Luke/Ren/Snoke story is genuinely fascinating and if given some more time to breathe, could have been something truly special; yet, alas, it’s rushed, underdeveloped and the pay-off that should have been utterly fantastic feels completely unearned.
Every time we get a grand revelation, before we even have a chance to digest it, we’re taken elsewhere and expected to just simply move on. Nothing has any time to stick, and as a result, it becomes an atmospheric vacuum. I commend Johnson for his attempts to take the franchise in a new direction, but if you’re going to effectively revolutionise something that so many people hold close to their hearts, you need to take the time to justify it.
Effectively, he sandwiches an entire movie’s worth of material into half a film. He also rushes a lot of the big plot points that perhaps could have been in the third entry of the series, leading to a situation where I feel like I already know Episode 9’s lay-out and what will happen, and now as a consequence I have no desire to see it. In terms of that revolution, I won’t cover it as I don’t wish to spoil it.
What I will say is his depiction of Luke Skywalker is very controversial, as it somewhat undermines everything that made Luke so iconic in the first place. Now, this is referenced within the film, and you feel like the film itself is attempting to be a deconstruction of what Luke Skywalker really is. Nice, meta-storytelling, one could say. If, of course, Johnson had pulled it off, which he doesn’t. All I will say on the topic is this; prepare to have your childhood memories kicked square in the balls, but without any deep justification to warrant it. Hammil does though, to his credit, put in the best possible performance he could with the tripe served to him. It’s a magnetic, powerful, screen-owning performance that is, by some distance, the best part of the film. Rey and Ren’s story also falls flat and turns into some very weird territory involving mind bridges which is never truly explained. Regardless, what frustrates me the most is that the two undergo a lot of supposed development, but when you strip away the window-dressing, they haven’t really developed at all.
Both – in my opinion, at least – effectively end the film exactly where they started, just both with more powers and abilities than they did before. Rey is still a starry-eyed protagonist full of hope and Ren is still a conflicted villain. They don’t really grow, the film just tricks those with less understanding of character development into believing they do.
The only character in the entire film that actually develops is Luke, and he effectively ends where he was two films ago. The idea hinges on him becoming a legend again to fill The Resistance with hope, but from what we learned in The Force Awakens, nobody ever stopped viewing him as such. Consequently, other than Rey and himself, I’m not entirely sure who he’s proving himself to. I will say though, that Driver gives a great performance as Ren. Powerful and emotional, he lives the character, embodies him fully, and deserves a lot of credit for making the terrible writing work to a certain extent. Ridley, on the other hand, is really bad. I wouldn’t say awful – she can somewhat emote and occasionally changes her facial expression, but her delivery of dialogue remains wooden, forced, and obvious that it is an actor reciting lines. Luckily, you don’t have much time to care, because you’re often immediately thrust back to The Resistance and that nonsense. The film is also long; very, very long, and the last half hour feels like it could have started Episode 9 and fit in significantly better there. I should not, under any circumstances, find myself bored during a Star Wars film, but this one almost killed me.
Laura Dern is horrifically wasted, yet hilariously gets a character arc that nobody gives a shit about. Seriously – she’s introduced, does a bad guy move, everyone rebels, and it turns out she’s a hero. Problem is, we only met her in this movie and she must have about twenty minutes maximum of screen-time. We’re expected to buy an entire character arc that really relies on us knowing and caring about the character, forced down us in a matter of moments.
It’s ridiculous, and again goes back to the central issue of not earning a pay-off, just hoping the pay-off itself will suffice. It doesn’t. Laura Dern is an incredible, world-class actress and this is an atrocious waste of her talents. There is also a terrible, terrible forced-love story between Finn and a new character, Rose, that feels – and I honestly don’t want to get into politics here, but I have to – like a forced neoliberal story thrown in to appease the social justice crowd. Ironically, it actually comes off as kinda racist; taking your one black, and your one Chinese character, and throwing them together because it seems progressive, when in fact you’ve effectively done the opposite, suggesting that minority characters can only be with each other. Again, it’s a forced pay-off with a ham-fisted build up, that seems to serve no major purpose. The message is botched hilariously as well. I said no spoilers, but I am going to use just one. Towards the end of the movie, Finn looks like he is going to sacrifice himself to save everybody. There is a giant canon looking to blow down the door that is the only thing standing between The First Order and the last of The Resistance. At the last moment Rose flies in, effectively harming herself to save Finn. She tells him – again, hilariously on-the-nose – that ‘this war will be won by saving those we love, not destroying those we hate.’ Now, on paper this is a great message. The execution, however, is problematic and laughable considering that – if it weren’t for some Skywalker intervention – she would have just doomed the entire Resistance, thus killing all she loves, in exchange for saving one solitary person. Frankly, it’s a pretty selfish move, and what should be an emotional, powerful message ends up being somewhat hilarious. It’s another reminder that Disney lacks the balls to pull off anything truly shocking, as Finn’s death would have been a great moment, a real surprise, and held actual poignant weight.
Snoke is also abysmal, – a terrible paper-thin villain who looks like he was ripped out of a Playstation 3 cut-scene. He had a genuine weight and presence in Force Awakens, feeling like an in-the-shadows villain that could be a real force. Unfortunately, he ends up sounding as if somebody had gone through an internet database of stock, terrible, generic villain dialogue, jumbled it all together and released it as a screenplay. I almost laughed out loud when he referred to Rey as ‘a pathetic child’, and the way his story ends is embarrassingly inconsistent. Man can link minds from across space-time, but can’t seem to notice a lightsaber in his peripheral vision. It doesn’t make any sense, doesn’t work at all, and it has to be a contender for the biggest wasted villain of all time.
I hate to go back to Twin Peaks, but if one compares Cooper’s Doppelganger – the great screen villain this year in any medium – to Snoke, it becomes laughable. Now, I may appear to be tearing this film to shreds – to be honest, I am – yet I don’t think the ideas that are explored are bad ideas. I’m no die-hard Star Wars fanboy who can’t deal with character changes or alterations to the mythology. In fact, I admire that. I want to see something different. The film does what a film is supposed to do, and deals with actual themes, just not in a very well-delivered manner. So Johnson does deserve some credit for what he has attempted to do. Unfortunately, Johnson himself seems to lack the talent necessary to pull it off, and has very little idea of cinematic composition and how to earn a pay-off.
The cinematography is also fantastic, but at this point feels somewhat like polishing a turd. I will also say that, if you’re less cynical than myself, you probably will laugh at the horrible Disney humour – people were laughing in the cinema, so I have to admit it worked on some level and connected with a certain audience. You may also find the pay-offs work for you because you’re not really concerned with whether they are earned or not, which I suppose is more than fair. You may also enjoy the space-battles, though, to me personally, in the era of nonstop CGI clusterfucks, what was fresh and exciting in 1977 now effectively looks like everything else and bores me to tears. I’d like to end this review, before approaching my conclusion, by taking a minute to pay tribute to the late, great Carrie Fisher. From all accounts, she was a hilarious, loving human being who will live on in the memories of millions for the rest of time.
While I hate some of her character changes in the film – and am annoyed they missed a perfect pre-written opportunity to give her the on-screen death she deserves – it was wonderful to see her at centre stage in a Star Wars movie one final time. She does give a very solid performance as well – and this isn’t me eulogising her in death – she is really good with what she has to work with.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi could have been something special.
It had potential.
It had lofty, clever ideas that, if well executed, could have placed this as the greatest of the franchise. It wrestled with some original ideas and interesting themes, tried to revolutionise the franchise, and ultimately failed horrifically, collapsing under the weight of its own ambition. It will almost certainly still be a success, financially at least, as it devours the box-office and everything standing before it. Yet, for those true cinephiles, those real fans of film as an art form, it has to be considered an abject failure; an exercise in overblown tedium, focusing too heavily on areas that are unimportant, and not enough on those that really matter – ending with a stand-off that should have been iconic, but falls flat. If I was to summarise The Last Jedi in one sentence it would be this – Paradoxically, it manages to be both dragged out and rushed simultaneously; which, in a way, is almost impressive.
Review by Joshua Moulinie
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