“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (or “Episode VIII”, plus one spin off for those who are counting) is finally out in theaters all around Europe, while audience in the US and elsewhere still have to wait a few precious hours.
(Edit: this post was written on the first impression I had after watching the movie. Please keep this in mind: this is not a hate post. I watched TLJ again a second time, and it’s fair to say that my opinion on some aspects – especially character development – has improved. I will write about it in more detail in a future post)
After a long series of unfortunate events (including one cancelled flight) I managed to get to the cinema with literally the last available ticket for the Prague premiere, so I was sitting in the first row in an IMAX theater. If you know what I mean: this is how distorted the screen looked from my point of view.
Plus, the damn 3D glasses, I keep struggling all the time with them, looking for the right angle, moving them (they are heavy!), cleaning the lenses… when will this 3D obsession be over? Please theater owners, this is for you: I am glad to pay a higher ticket and have my classic 2D cinema experience, thank you very much. Can we do it, PLEASE? IMAX, but not 3d?
<old man ranting against commercial and useless new technology / off>
I left the theater with a mild case of radiation poisoning, I suspect, from being too close to such a huge screen.
But anyway, passion requires sacrifice.
So, at the end of a very long day and one cancelled flight, I was ready for the 2 hours and 30 minutes of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
And? If you are reading this, you probably want to know what I think about the movie?
Ready? Let’s go. This will be spoiler free thoughts, I will only mention things like the cast and plot elements already seen in trailers, but if you want your movie experience to be 100% unbiased… well, probably the post title already ruined that for you, right?
Talking about Star Wars is complicated, for me.
This is a saga which literally accompanied me in my whole life: my childhood games and fantasies (so many Christmas presents!), growing up as a nerdy teenager with videogames and rpgs, and then the mixed feelings associated to the second trilogy that marked my generation entering adulthood, and the inevitable disappointments and reality checks that come with it. Approaching 40 – mid age crisis? – and the fresh new life brought by Episode VII (that I really liked, together with that little jewel that is Rogue One), and with it, the promise of so many new developments in the series.
It may be that I have too high expectations, but in this particular case (and well, in this other recent case, too) I have to say my expectations were not met.
Let’s start with a few objective facts.
THE GOOD NEWS
The looks. Yes, they are really good.
The visual impact is guaranteed by breath-taking sceneries and locations, solid and fast-paced action sequences, space battles and high intensity duels. So, do we have beautiful space battles and lightsaber duels in Episode VIII? Yes, lots.
I want to mention especially Mark Hamill (more on him later) and Benicio Del Toro (“DJ”), who manages to bring to life a credible, layered and hugely likable character – very important, to bring at least some shades of grey into a story that suffers from light / dark polarization. I said “acting”, not “characters”. About these, I will talk later.
I read criticism about the gags and the moments of comic relief, judged “excessive” by some. I disagree. Star Wars has always been about tongue-in-cheek jokes and banter between characters. Here, true, sometimes the dialogues enter comedy gag territory (especially when Finn, Chewbacca, BB-8 and Hux are involved). But I, for one, don’t find it disturbing and it doesn’t interrupt my suspension of disbelief. I honestly laughed loud a couple of times. And don’t worry about the Porgs (the super cute creature in the picture above): yes, they are merchandising material, but fear not. They are not the new Ewoks.
Some characters are memorable.
As predicted, the story of Ep8 revolves around Luke Skywalker, who shines from an amazing performance by Mark Hamill. Luke blends light and dark side, is legend material but when called to responsibility, refuses his role more than once. He has aged, has lived, has been a hero and has made terrible mistakes. And Hamill manages to keep all this together radiating a gigantic charisma in every shot, delivering us a “Skywalker meets Joker” treat that really, is worth the ticket price.
Kylo Ren is the other giant. Adam Driver confirms himself as a very talented actor, able to deliver tormented and ambiguous performances (as seen also in Scorsese’s “Silence“), here again dancing on the thin line between madness and vision, ambition and fragility. Too bad, the story doesn’t allow him space to grow bigger. More later.
And now it’s time for THE BAD NEWS.
No big deal. This film basically takes no risk at all.
Ep7 left some fans in rage because in some major choices, it was too close to the original trilogy and it felt like a “A New Hope” reboot. Director and screenwriter Rian Johnson (“Looper“) decided to avoid this danger, by not making any major choice at all.
“The Last Jedi” flows as two hours and half of easy and good looking entertainment, but never really challenged me. There are at least four major moments (I counted them) in the plot when I thought “Woah, but if THIS happens, everything will change!” and then… nothing happens.
This is it: in Ep8, nothing really important happens.
No “Han Solo moment” and ESPECIALLY no “I am your father!” moment. No major twist, revelation that will change the galaxy, forever. The epicness of the story is more in the presentation and the general tone – something between a classic samurai movie and a WWII “Tora! Tora! Tora!” – than in the content, what actually happens on screen. And at times, it’s too slow. I had the feeling at least 15-20 minutes could have been cut, with no consequence on the story. And what the hell is it with that super long – and useless – trip to the galactic casino?
Characters are not well developed.
Some minor ones are introduced, not adequately developed, and quickly disposed of. I felt especially sorry for Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), who is introduced as a war hero but never really gets a chance to shine, plus is given a weird Instagram fashion victim look and a “Hunger Games” villain hairstyle, for absolutely no reason at all. It must not be easy, to keep a personal and so daring hair stylist on the rebel fleet.
Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), introduced in Ep7 as a fearsome military commander, here barely becomes Kylo’s comic sidekick. That felt odd.
And again in a marginal role, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie, the Brienne from Game of Thrones), but she at least gets to fight (and lose) a duel with Finn.
Same goes for the main characters, particularly Finn, Rose and Poe. Their narrative arcs… don’t look like arc at all. More like a confused ball of overcooked spaghetti.
The moral ambiguities so much praised in Ep7 (also by me, here) have been softened, and whenever characters face a major choice or dilemma, my feeling is that they retreat – by choice or plot device – into familiar and safe territory.
The result is a much more polarized light side / dark side scenario than the ending of “The Force Awakens” left us with. Again, too bad.
As a consequence, only the “elder” characters (Leia, Luke, and another secret character making a big cameo) are left bearing the burden of hard, imperfect decisions, and having to deal with the real consequences of leadership.
The young ones go on with their individual journeys, don’t get to learn from their mistakes, their lives made easier – not harder – by irreversible choices and a polarized moral background in which there is always only one “right” thing to do.
The result is a story in which young characters deal with their parent figures, and decide to bury them hurriedly, rather than process and elaborate their relationships with them.
Again, for me that feels too easy, too shallow. The main characters don’t face crucial challenges that leave them permanently
scarred evolved. They just go on with their business.
(oh God, I just realized that I now relate with older character and parent figures more than with the young and reckless protagonists. Star Wars made me realize that I am old, and I don’t know how I feel about it)
Where is the romance? Oh come on, epic stories need romance!
I don’t mean raunchy interspecies alien sex (which is by now totally fine in Star Trek), but what happened to flirting, teasing, kissing?
If these characters are “young adults” (yeah, whatever that means) where is the hormonal storm? Kylo for one looks like he desperately needs to blow some steam off. Maybe that’s all we need to bring balance to the Force. Can we let him? This is when I felt for the first time “the Disney effect”. And I am not one who criticizes big corporations just for the sake of it. Star Wars was all about the tension between Han and Leia, and Luke french kissing his own sister! This didn’t stop parents from taking their children to watch it multiple times. As opposed, this story is so sterilized and made risk free, I felt I was watching a movie for kids.
At one point, if Rey had one song to sing, it would be “Beauty and the Beast”, in space.
MY BOTTOM LINE.
I don’t think this film can satisfy 40-years old hardcore Star Wars fans. I was surprised by the overwhelmingly positive reviews, like this from Polygon:
or this from Vox:
which make for a super positive score of 94% on Rotting Tomatoes:
Which are supposedly written by mature critics with lots of experience.
Rian Johnson didn’t dare / was not strong enough to impose his directorial choices on Kennedy / Disney. He contented himself by making a super hero buddy movie, playing with lights, space battles and explosions that ultimately make a wonderful pop corn movie but don’t mean much, advanced the saga only in very predictable ways, and left all the “serious business” unattended.
J. J. Abrams did more in Ep7 and yes, making choices means attracting criticism. And he will have to do it again in Ep9, if he wants to restore the saga to the levels that it deserves.
Or maybe this is what Star Wars is, now.
The movie will be a smashing hit at the box office, executives will be happy, money will be made. Critics seem happy, fans will be happy (but I don’t understand why). A Sw movie has to make 1 bln US$ at the box office. There is simply no comparison in the industry. With those revenue goals, it’s unrealistic to expect that a movie could be more daring, or original. “Blade Runner 2049” did that, and it didn’t end so well.
It’s possible that the saga will split, with the spin-offs catering to a more demanding audience and producing (ok, slightly) more mature content, like “Rogue One” did last year. And the canon stories being very colorful, cheerful and ultimately… young adult entertainment.
For me, this is all a shame, since that it’s missing the essence of the Hero’s Journey. Some critics have praised this choice as “leaving the past behind”, but for me it’s a definite minus. It raises really uncomfortable questions, like:
- Do we really need to leave the past behind, even when it is so good? Is that what “growing” means?
- Are we really willing to forget where are we coming from (including our connections, or past mistakes), just to “have a good time”?
Star Wars is (used to be?) entertainment for different generations, since it presented the audience with many different levels of understanding. Ep8 drastically simplifies this, reducing the “vertical” complexity of the story and increasing it “horizontally”, with a (not always successful) tangle of subplots.
Or maybe… I am overthinking it. Maybe it’s just a movie.
And maybe I have outgrown the saga, who knows. My emotional investment in the franchise is just too big at this point. A bubble bigger than Bitcoin.
Or again – maybe – it’s overexposure.
In 2015, “The Force Awakens” hit us after 10 years or so of basically little or no Star Wars. Fans were so delighted to be taken again to that familiar “galaxy far, far away”, they were willing to overlook plot inconsistencies, half baked characters and iterative material.
But now, with the constant stream of products and available in so many different media (on videogame format for example, where I can make my own story), my base craving is satisfied and I get more demanding.
“The Last Jedi” is a good Star Wars movie, make no mistake. But just “good” is not good enough anymore.
Which means, the return on investment I expect is equally too big to be realistic.
Maybe I am safer betting on Bitcoin, after all.
Thank you for reading!
And what do you think? I will be happy to engage in discussion in the comments below, but let’s keep it civil. I read every single comment, I promise. They are not so many still ;)