by ETHAN PETERSON
The Last Jedi
dir. Rian Johnson
There is a scene in the middle of The Last Jedi, the second Star Wars film made by Disney, where Benicio Del Toro is disinterestedly ransacking a ship he has stolen, looking for treasure. He comes across a collection of coins, preserved for their sentimental value because, of course, in an age of interstellar travel, there could be no actual reason to have individuated currency. Therefore these objects only have whatever meaning their owners, or others, ascribe to them. To a thief from another planet, they would be nothing more than useless baubles, unless they happened to contain precious metals or gems.
Well, nothing in this interminable movie has any actual value. It is good, solid fan service that only has meaning because of sentimental referents. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is looking somewhat rough, but the past two decades in voice acting have made him expert at that particular field, and everyone else short of the preternaturally talented Adam Driver as Ben Solo sounds mealy mouthed in comparison. In The Last Jedi, Luke never leaves the isolated island on which he resides, but he is still the clear highlight. He is the only character in this entire production capable of change.
This is no slight on the rest of the cast. The main protagonists of The Last Jedi never actually do much in the empty chase narrative supplied here, which consists of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) slowly, slowly pursuing the rebels across space. But they are all genuinely likable in their own way. As Rey, Daisy Ridley possesses a faithful masculinity and imposing physical strength befitting the final Jedi. As Finn, John Boyega is given rather less to work with, but he continues to prove that his breakout performance in the British comedy Attack the Block announced the arrival of a serious talent in need of a writer, any writer.
Director Rian Johnson is not that, but he does his best with what Kathleen Kennedy and Co. have permitted him. No one we care about dies in The Last Jedi; no one particularly lives either. There is one brief moment where mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) murders three enemy pilots and Boyega lets out a cheer. This isolated incident only emphasizes how little there is to enthuse about for in The Last Jedi as a whole.
A major subplot, one that ends up of being of absolutely no consequence to the story as a whole, involves Boyega and Rose freeing a number of animals abused by jockeys and trainers on a racetrack in a snooty, upscale town. Given that Disney reaps financial rewards from promoting a Saratoga Springs Resort in Orlando, this seems a bit hypocritical, but it is still a positive message.
Actually The Last Jedi is full of such preachiness, as if to prove that this saga will be about something through sheer force of effort. Animal rights comes into focus a number of times, and the film seems to delight in the inclusion of a diverse cast, none of who we actually begin to know or understand. Is this simply the empty virtue signaling of a massive, hegemonic company? Probably, but it seems somewhat well-intentioned just the same.
These general practices do not come anywhere near actual artistry, of course, and those who say they enjoyed The Last Jedi are on some level lying to themselves. This movie is the paradigmatic example of a work of mercenary fiction, emphasized by the deliberate criticism Johnson levies against such people, who take money from both sides, in his impotent, inoffensive script for The Last Jedi.
As Johnson presciently observes, we tend to mount our strongest attacks on our major weakness as they are displayed in our enemies. The Last Jedi reserves its withering critique for individuals devoid of substance and purpose, in an attempt to distract us from its total lack of the same. At some future moment, though, Star Wars will have to again have to tell some kind of original story. In life, you can only postpone that essential task for so long.
Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.