I didn't hate TLJ, but even if I completely ignore all the (among many fans) controversial choices Rian Johnson made with regards to his treatement of Star Wars' lore and characters, I still have a great number of qualms with the film in terms of its storytelling (sorry, this is going to be rather long):
PACING: Now that was probably my biggest issue with the film. Apart from the opening battle, the film has very little forward momentum for nearly two thirds of its running time. After the action-heavy beginning, the plot gets tangled in 3 separate storylines which unfold simultaneously. My (perhaps personal) problem was that I found 2 of those neither emotionally involving nor thrilling: the Finn/Rose subplot about finding the code-breaker on the "Casino Planet" Canto Bight as well as the Poe/Holdo storyline about the resistance' messy escape from the First Order and the universe's most sluggish space chase.
But the one story I was ready to get fully invested in - you know: the one about Rey and Luke on the island (and Kylo via Force-Skype) - not only offers very little in terms of action and visual excitement, it also never really gets the time to breathe: because the overall narrative requires the film to cut back and forth between it and the other two evolving story threads.
The result of that narrative structure is 90 minutes of scenes with Rey and Luke (and a little Kylo) on a dreary, grey island that beg to resonate emotionally but get blunted each time by the film's need to cut to the (for me) somewhat uninvolving action in Finn's and Poe's part of the universe. And their two storylines lose all sense of urgency because they keep getting interrupted by the scenes on the island with Rey and Luke - which, to make matters worse, develop over several days in the film while Finn's and Poe's stories unfold over a couple of hours.
Due to that uneven structure we end up with a two-and-a-half-hour movie where the most crucial scenes of the story never get enough room to breathe and even feel rushed. It's only once all three storylines start coming together during the last third of the film that the film's pacing really works for me. But getting there often feels like a chore (and I'm really not sure a Star Wars film should feel like work).
ODD CHARACTER CHOICES: What is the purpose of having Leia in a coma for the better part of the film? Don't tell me this is all set up so Kylo thinks she's dead: she's connected to the Force, and he's about as plugged into the Force as one can be; if established Star Wars lore tells us anything, it's that Kylo would instantly feel it if his mother died (now that's something even a casual fan such as myself knows). So why not use Leia more? Why introduce a completely new character in Laura Dern's Admiral Holdo, if she essentially just functions as a stand-in for Leia?
Poe Dameron's whole arc in the film is about him learning the terrible human cost for stupid, vain heroism, and it's with Leia that he clashes, after he's sacrificed half the resistance' fleet in order to take out a single Dreadnought during the film's opening battle. And as soon as Leia's in a coma, almost the exact same conflict continues with Holdo. Nothing against Admiral Holdo, but it's hard to get invested in her character, because we only just met her; from a storytelling point of view, to make Poe's arc really resonate and raise the stakes for him (and the audience), it would make much more sense if he rebelled against Leia. Wasting her in a coma instead seems utterly pointless.
BIG MOMENTS: Unlike its immediate predecessor, TLJ shuns familiar formula. It's not all forward momentum, it's not all action - but unfortunately, it fails to provide the audience with an emotionally involving story instead. It may take characters in unexpected directions, but most of those new directions turn out to be somewhat... rather "mature" choices in terms of storytelling instead of exciting ones? Yes, there are several grand moments in the film that work great on an intellectual level, but they fail to reach us on a gut level. Whenever the film tries to build up to a big emotional moment, that moment ends up feeling, well, not very big at all - which naturally could again be a very deliberate choice by the director to subvert the formula, but to what end? Surely, the subversion itself can't be his main goal?
For example, take the scene where Rey learns from Kylo that her parents were nobodies and that they're long dead. The problem of that scene is not the reveal itself: it's the scene's execution. It's a huge reveal for Rey, and it should have more weight. It could - and probably should - be the most emotional moment in the film; a heart-felt gut-punch to our heroine, but instead it's just: *fighting* - "Your parents were nobodies, and they're dead." - "Yes, I feel it too." - *fighting continues*. I just don't get why such an important moment is treated so fleetingly.
In contrast, look how Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams staged The Force Awaken's most emotional scene: Han Solo's death at the hands of his own, terribly conflicted son. Now you can say about the film itself what you want, but that scene had a huge emotional impact on the viewer. It had weight. Imagine that scene had just happened during a fight, in a heated moment, only for the narrative to proceed without giving it any room? These are storytelling choices by Rian Johnson that don't do the movie any favors.
I would have been ready to applaud the director's (and/or Disney's) decision to try something different after TFA, but I lament this failure to develop emotional gravitas - and the film's unwillingness to ever raise the stakes for its lead characters. Until the very end, I never feel like any of the protagonists are in real danger. Nor are they ever confronted with the shocking consequences of their reckless actions on a personal level; Finn and Poe's great ideas and plans directly lead to the senseless deaths of dozens, if not hundreds of people - but those casualties are just numbers; they're just exploding spaceships we witness from afar; our heroes (and we as an audience) are never forced to feel the full weight of their loss.
As a consequence, there's just nothing there to make this war's terrible cost really resonate with us. This film needs a heartfelt punch to the gut; I'm all for challenging the protagonists morally and give them intellectually satisfying arcs, but the resulting storylines should still be exciting enough to make your heart pound. And I know I can only speak for myself, but my heartbeat hardly ever accelerated throughout its entire two-and-a-half-hour running time - if at all.
TLJ'S ISSUES AS A DIRECT SEQUEL: TFA teased a boatload of things to come, and while I'm theoretically on board with many of the unexpected directions Rian Johnson took these characters to in TLJ, I am very confused by his decision to ignore so many of the plot threads that were set up by Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams in TFA. Because due to that unorthodox approach, watching those two films back to back is a jarringly weird experience. Regardless how one feels about TFA, not even bothering to acknowledge what came before isn't just strange - it's almost offending to the many people who were fully invested in its mysteries and could hardly wait for those promised reveals.
And don't tell me they have only themselves and J.J. Abrams to blame; no - they had every right to have those expectations: because TLJ IS the direct sequel to TFA. In the same sense that BACK TO THE FUTURE II was the direct sequel to BACK TO THE FUTURE: the kind of sequel that continues only seconds after the first film ends, resulting in one unbroken storyline developing over two films. And of course the director can go into unexpected directions in the sequel - hell: as an audience we want him to. In fact, that IS part of our expectation and one of the reasons we go to the movies (and BTTF II did it brilliantly) - but pretending like important plot points and huge moments in the previous film simply didn't matter or didn't even happen comes dangerously close to playing the audience for fools.
Not that an artist (or a huge conglomerate) shouldn't have the creative licence to do that - but if you go down that road don't act surprised about the inevitable backlash. And I honestly don't get why going into new directions had to result in such an uneven transition from the first film to the second; the way I see it, even a couple of lines of dialog from characters like Luke, Snoke or Kylo-Ren would have been enough to tie some of the most prominent lose ends up or at least not just leave them dangling in the air like this. I mean, I get that Johnson doesn't want us to be interested in Snoke's story (and a whole bunch of other things that were made to feel important in TFA) because HE isn't interested in it. But as a writer he could get that point across and still address the issue (because the previous film told the audience to BE interested in it) - just to then quickly resolve it in an offhanded manner and take the story where he wants it to go.
SUMMARY: The Last Jedi is a structurally uneven and often frustrating film that almost always refuses to give its heroes - and the audience - satisfaction. It is a film that over large stretches of its running time is so concerned with subverting the formula and teaching lessons about the importance of failure, that it fails to realize how watching your heroes fail over two and a half hours may be unexpected, but frankly - it's also a bit tiring.
It may have been a gutsy and very unexpected move by Johnson to throw out most of the mysteries teased in TFA, but the question only audiences - and time - can answer is whether what he offers instead is a worthy replacement.
Favorite films: IMDb.com/list/mkjOKvqlSBs/
Lesser-Known Masterpieces: imdb.com/list/ls070242495/
Favorite TV-Shows reviewed: imdb.com/list/ls075552387/
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