Arts, Movies, Review

Disney Eschews Quality for Merchandise in ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

In the pouring rain, Luke angrily glares up at Rey, frustrated by her arrogance, as she towers over him. She demands answers he does not have.

“This isn’t going to go the way you think,” he says with equal parts contempt and earnestness.

This line is depressingly applicable to the viewing experience of Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Inevitably, a property as gargantuan as Star Wars would garner an insatiable, idealistic fanbase that would be dissatisfied regardless of the product put before them. Given the prestige and sacrosanct nature of the space-opera franchise, even minor flaws may seem like glaring inadequacies to die-hard fans. The Last Jedi is not bogged down by petty faults, however, but by real narrative problems. Inconsequential auxiliary plotlines and a lack of thematic direction make the film feel more like a hapless foray into the Star Wars universe rather than a worthy addition to the existing lore and mythos. Without question, the film has its fair share of fresh ideas and faces, but ultimately it feels as pointless and superficial as Kylo Ren’s mask.

With Starkiller Base destroyed, the ragged remains of the Resistance must escape the coming onslaught of First Order ships as they attempt to evacuate their base. Under the leadership of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), the renegades must formulate an improbable escape. Elsewhere in the galaxy, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) seeks to deepen his commitment to the First Order and the will of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), while Rey attempts to uncover her abilities and the fate of the New Jedi Order with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

The acting is serviceable, but falls flat at crucial moments. Star Wars has been known to have rather wooden performances and The Last Jedi does not deviate too much from this trend. But when emotion is needed from characters, not all heed the call. Driver as Ren succeeds in furthering the deeply conflicted nature of his character. In all of his scenes, his mangled moral compass is worn on his face as he wavers back and forth between light and dark—good and evil. Decisions visually weigh on him.

Meanwhile, Ridley as Rey leaves much up in the air. Her acting never feels tied to any heartfelt connection with her narrative. Upon certain revelations in the film, namely her parentage, the moment is undercut in part due to the Ridley’s terse reaction. Things quickly shift to other matters in these scenes. Whether this was a directorial choice or writing flub, one may never know, but when the emotional chips are on the table, Rey, through Ridley, folds.

The narrative of the film is inefficient in several areas. One glaring problem comes in the form of pacing. The problem primarily stems from Finn (John Boyega) and Rose’s (Kelly Marie Tran) mission to find help for the Resistance. This plotline is a dead-end in every way imaginable, narratively and intellectually. The happenings of the sequence have no effect on the final outcome of the film. The wasted 30 minutes of runtime could be better spent elsewhere. Benicio Del Toro is somewhat stimulating as DJ, who offers compelling critiques about the war and profiteering, but nothing comes of it, as his ideas and character are ultimately swept away and forgotten. The whole storyline reeks of inconsequence. It’s a relatively boring digression used to keep Finn relevant so Lucasfilm can keep cashing huge checks off the merchandise they’ll sell.

Another narrative pitfall stems from various let-downs of intrigue introduced in The Force Awakens. Much is revealed in this film, but it is so poorly thought out, or at least delivered, that fans will justifiable feel cheated by such prosaic storytelling. This is most sorely felt in regards to Rey’s backstory, Snoke, and Captain Phasma, whose reveals or progressions are unimaginitive. Should these things be explored in the final film of the franchise, it will not retroactively remedy the viewing experience of The Last Jedi as an individual work.

In addition, the most important character, Rey, has much to prove in this film. Many of the criticisms of the character in The Force Awakens accused her of being a Mary Sue archetype, with virtually no flaws and adept abilities, will, and drive for every occasion. The Last Jedi was the chance to quiet such notions by giving her weaknesses, inabilities, and need to learn. Her training with Skywalker is that opportunity, but that proved perfunctory. But for the most part, she has little to learn from the aging Skywalker, Ren, or even herself, continuing on the brash and independant track she was on in the previous film. Coupled with the emotional disconnect through Ridley’s sometimes vapid performance, the character is an untouchable god for the majority of the film. This issue hampers Rey’s relatability, as her struggles, if they even exist, are easily toppled quickly by her unassailable character. Perfection is not personable.

On another positive note, the film expands on the use of the Force as a pervasive element. The Last Jedi sees the Force used in ways that have never been seen before without tastelessly overstepping the confines of fiction. A Star Wars fans should embrace such additions, as it shows the universe is still growing and has not stagnated by way of a rigid, unimaginitive lore. Additionally, much of the conflicted nature—seen in Ren—and antihero mentalities—seen in DJ—were refreshing counters to the black-and-white Light-side/Dark-side trope fans have become accustomed to. The question of the grey middle ground is compelling. Given how minor or unimportant these notions are in the final outcome of the film, one would yearn for such forward-thinking expansion to be manifested within the film.

The Last Jedi is not a terrible film, but it is not the Star Wars movie many wanted. Its puerile nature may lead many to believe the Mouse has aim other than quality in mind. Disney proved through its various narrative blunders and incongruencies that the films will be encumbered with shoe-horned content to sell merchandise, rather than inspire. Instead of subverting expectation in meaningful ways, they left audiences feeling deflated and duped. Star Wars has alway been about overcoming struggle by pitting an underdog against an unstoppable force and somehow, through it all, coming away victorious. Someone once said, “Never tell me the odds.” The Last Jedi seems to suggest there are no more odds—simply calculated, emotionally devoid storytelling. Disappointment has never been so applicable.

Looking at the critical reviews, it is not so surprising. As the Disney monolith gobbles up more properties, dispensing billions for acquisitions and making billions more in profits, it’s become the empire that is too big to stop. The critics cheer on, getting their part of the pie, buying into the lie that quality can emanate from a yearly release cycle. Confused fans sit in the periphery wondering what happened the saga. Now I know how Padme Amidala felt in her Senate booth on the last day of the Galactic Republic:

“So this is how liberty dies,” she says. “With thunderous applause.”

Featured Image by Walt Disney Studios

December 16, 2017