I had a very bad feeling about this movie. How could it possibly live up to everyone’s unrealistic expectations? I needn’t have worried. The movie is good — possibly the best in the series since the Empire Strikes Back – and it is consistently entertaining.
Let’s start with the awful stuff the movie doesn’t have. No Jar-Jar Binks. No Ewoks. No midichlorians. Best of all, no tendentious Lucas politics. In fact, the movie has a surprisingly matter-of-fact approach to its own mythology. Maybe the Force is with everyone.
Mark Hamill gives a standout performance as the “once more into the breach” Luke Skywalker. I understand that Hamill and director Rian Johnson had a number of arguments (“creative conflicts”) over the portrayal. But whoever’s version won out, the depiction of the now venerable Skywalker as older, wiser, more discouraged but still not quite over his youthful idealism seemed to me exactly right. Hamill has been living with the Skywalker character for more than 40 years, and made the most of his moment.
Adam Driver was another surprise. Since the last film, he’s found a way to to convey his inner conflict in a way that is actually interesting, instead of merely annoying.
The rest of the actors do their best with a rather pedestrian script, although the actors are not nearly as wooden as those in the worst of the Lucas-directed films. The talents of Benicio del Toro and Laura Dern were largely wasted. Rian Johnson does how to pace a film, however — slow enough so that you know what’s going on, but fast enough so you won’t notice the plot holes until you’ve left the theater. The cross-cutting of multiple storylines was masterfully done. And although the film was 150 minutes, it didn’t seem too long.
As so often in the Star Wars films, TLJ’s real strength is in it visual imagery. The film lacks perhaps the grand scale of Lucas’ imagination, particularly in the prequels. Its achievements are smaller in scale, but very well done, and often very witty. The scene in the casino was a send-up not only of the original Star Wars cantina scene, but of every James Bond movie you’ve ever seen. There are a number of new animals and aliens — I particularly liked the fishwives who were actual fish, and the tribble-like puffins. They were cute but didn’t cross not over the edge into Ewokian kitsch — a considerable achievement, considering that the Star Wars franchise is now being bankrolled by the house of the world’s kitschiest mouse.
Best of all, the director showed admirable restraint in the use of CG. The original movies were made before much of modern CG technology was available. The models were made by hand, giving them a human scale that the prequel trilogy, with its over-the-top use of special effects, largely lacked. The director of this movie uses CG to good effect when it is warranted — in the delightful antics of the droid BB-8, for example. But it is fitting that one of the most important locations in the film, Luke’s island, is a largely natural presentation of a real place, the island of Skellig Michael, off the west coast of Ireland. The island was home to a small number of hermit monks during the darkest of the dark ages (6th to 12th C) — who lived in the beehive cells shown in the film. It’s a very appropriate location, when you think about it.
The ending was ambiguous, which is appropriate for the middle part of a trilogy. If I have any concerns about the future, it is that no genuine chemistry seems to have developed among the younger actors who will likely be the stars of the last movie. Whatever you can say about the original movies — ridiculous plots, cheesy lines — it was very apparent that Hamill, Ford and Fisher really enjoyed working together. (Today, we know that some of their on-screen activity was supplemented by some off-screen action, but is that such a bad thing?). The younger actors are capable enough, but at least as written so far, I’m not buying any of the relationships that the scriptwriters seem to be setting up. There was more real chemistry in the wordless interactions between Chewbacca and the puffins — an actor in a gorilla suit and a technological artifact — than in any dialogue between the human characters. So we’ll have to see.