As of this writing. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” has earned $450.8 million, which officially makes it a box office smash. Yet that fails to explain the sharply divided audience reaction to the blockbuster. While it has scored an impressive 93% “Fresh” rating at review aggregator site RottenTomatoes.com, it’s audience rating is only 56% – the lowest for any Star Wars movie ever, including the ones that have Jar Jar Binks in them.
What’s going on?
The problem is not the “Last Jedi” is a bad movie, although it goes on far too long, and its stupid casino planet subplot could have been completely excised without doing any damage to the narrative. The problem is largely one of expectations, which can make or break a movie.
Those who got their hopes up for The Last Jedi had those hopes dashed
It probably never occurred to the average viewer to tamp them down for this one. All the reviews were stellar; writer/director Rian Johnson has a reputation as something of a wunderkind, and everything in the previews suggested this was going to be a lot of fun. Luke Skywalker actor Mark Hamill has said in interviews that his line about how “this is not going to go the way you think” is indicative of the movie, which supposedly pushes these characters in new, exciting, unexplored directions.
But that’s the problem. It doesn’t. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
Sure, there are beats in this movie where you think it could take an unexpected turn. Could Kylo Ren actually be redeemed? Could Rey, perhaps, be lured to turn to the dark side? Could Luke himself be a villain? There are short teases that each of these things is a possibility, but in the end, each of these scenarios predictably resolves in entirely conventional ways.
No, Kylo is essentially just a weak Vader retread who may get his moment of deathbed repentance in the next film just like his grandpa did. No, Rey is the pure, unspotted Mary Sue who will never demonstrate a hint of complexity going forward. And good ol’ Luke is just good ol’ Luke, although that’s not to diminish Mark Hamill’s outstanding work in this film.
There’s some brewing Oscar buzz surrounding Hamill’s “Last Jedi” performance, and it is well-deserved, although unlikely to translate to an actual Academy Award.
The reality, sadly, is that most of this movie, while adequate, is just sort of by-the-numbers and never really translates into something special.
Many unanswered questions, and many more bad answers
What’s even more frustrating is that this didn’t really answer any of the questions from “The Force Awakens.” The question of Rey’s parentage is raised and answered in an entirely unsatisfying way. And who or what is Supreme Leader Snoke? There’s no answer to that question, nor is there likely to be one in future films. He’s just a cookie-cutter bad guy who apparently had a ready-to-order Empire in waiting, and that’s all you need to know.
There are so many opportunities to be interesting that go wasted here. At one point, Rey is drawn to a very dark place on Luke’s island, so dark that it frightens Luke. And she goes there and – well, nothing much happens that moves the plot forward. It’s visually intriguing, surely, but neither she nor the audience learn anything. It’s just cool for the sake of being cool. This franchise no longer wants to get bogged down in complications; it just wants to have a credible backdrop on which to stage increasingly generic action set pieces.
One final note. The elephant in the room going forward is what to do about Leia now that Carrie Fisher is no longer with us. It was heartbreaking to watch her in this film, if only because she looked ill throughout the film. She had one moment where she appears to be superhuman, which was painfully absurd given how sickly she appeared. But news reports prior to the “Last Jedi’s” release suggested that she was to have an even larger role in Episode IX. And as this Episode VIII ends, it’s clear that Leia’s story is not yet finished.
That suggests that there’s really no choice the producers have left but to recast Leia.
That’s blasphemy to many fans, but it really shouldn’t be. Carrie Fisher is gone, yes, but Leia is not, and there’s clearly much more to her character’s arc. Just wiping her out of the narrative offscreen would be far more disrespectful than letting someone else pick up the role.
There’s is ample precedent here. In the Harry Potter movie series, they recast Dumbledore when Richard Harris died, because the story required a Dumbledore. Episode IX requires a Leia in a meaty and substantive role, and the technology does not exist to credibly create that performance with the late Carrie Fisher’s image. Recasting is the best of a number of bad options.
That also works as a summation of “The Last Jedi.” It’s no prequel-level disaster, certainly, but it’s the best of the worst Star Wars films. But as long as its mediocrity doesn’t hurt it at the box office, it’s likely that the future of Star Wars will be one of limited adequacy for years to come.