There were two movies America couldn’t get enough of in 1977. The first, STAR WARS, went on to envelope pop-culture in such a suffocating, ever-present degree that the only possible way to escape it is death. The second was SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT, a film in which the late Jackie Gleason briefly made racist, southern sheriffs not just lovable, but nearly cuddly. In short, STAR WARS stuck around while SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT didn’t. But I wish it was the other way around. I wish I could walk into any one of three remaining FYE’s on the earth and see too many Sheriff Buford T. Justice dolls on the shelf instead of too many Darth Vader dolls. I wish I could go to any Halloween party and see the uncertain faces of women as they have second thoughts about being coerced by their soon to be ex-boyfriends into dressing as Paul Williams in Little Enos drag instead of Princess Leia in her ‘slave’ get-up. I wish I lived in that alternate universe where SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT: THE FINAL JUSTICE is playing in theaters instead of STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI.
I don’t like STAR WARS. I never did. When I saw RETURN OF THE JEDI as a child I got so bored, I tried talking to the kid sitting next to me. When he ignored me, I started kicking him. I’m not proud of that moment but there it is. I’m a petty, violent asshole who is easily exhausted by space dogfights. Now, with that said, the obvious question is, “If you hate STAR WARS so much, why did you sit through THE LAST JEDI?” Well, three reasons: Like mostly everyone else on earth, I already sat through the previous chapters in the STAR WARS saga -- for various reasons -- and figured one more couldn’t hurt. It wasn’t genuine interest as much as it was the same kind of misplaced completism that led to me owning a full set of McDonalds BATMAN FOREVER tumblers. Secondly, I had to witness the PINK FLAMINGOS-esque sight of Mark Hamill jerking off the nipple-y, boob-penis of a Muppet before glumly drinking its green milk-cum. Finally, I kept hearing how different THE LAST JEDI was from the other STAR WARS movies. How it was more SPACEBALLS than A NEW HOPE, that it destroyed the legacy of Luke Skywalker and how it allowed black men, Asian women and Laura Dern in a purple Supermarionation wig to tread on the bland, E.E. “Doc” Smith-like space mediocrities that comprise STAR WARS’ inescapable legacy. The mashing of a thousand caps buttons whittled down the pudgy, brittle fingers of various Redditors into Cheeto-stained nubs so that the world would understand that STAR WARS had ceased to be STAR WARS, and became SCARY MOVIE rewritten by Andrea Dworkin. Manic, over-the-top criticisms of THE LAST JEDI caused me to believe it was a Porg-filled fartstravaganza where Dern pulls down Oscar Isaac’s spacepants to dismissively flick his penis and ends with Mark Hamill looking into the camera to say, “Menstruation is not a crime” as John Williams’ iconic theme swells in the background. It seemed heady and exhilarating. But much like the Magic Cards that were stolen out of the backpacks of THE LAST JEDI’s most scathing critics back in high school, my high hopes were flushed down the toilet and laughed at. Contrary to whatever unsolicited opinions are being screamed at to disinterested clerks at your local comic shop, THE LAST JEDI is not a STAR WARS movie for people that hate STAR WARS, this is a STAR WARS movie for people that love STAR WARS so much they have to pretend to hate it in order to impress STAR WARS fans who are pretending to really hate it for reasons -- that as a non-fan of STAR WARS -- I’ll never fully grasp. In spite of the fact that THE LAST JEDI has minor progressive touches and even slighter attempts at genre subversion, this is a STAR WARS movie right down to the cardboard characterizations, bad pacing, clunky dialogue, and the kind of comedy that suggests the only thing every STAR WARS creative team can agree on is that nothing will be funnier than the sight of those rats running the diner in THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN.
Still, as much as I disliked THE LAST JEDI, it has something I never experienced in any other STAR WARS movie, moments that not only stayed with me by the time I left the theater, but also caused my cold, STAR WARS-hating heart to unthaw but in that ineffective way a bottle of soda that gets pushed to the back of a fridge unthaws. It’s still a lot of ice. Although the sense of humor in this series still errs on the side of sub-Muppety, baby whimsies; genuinely amusing moments are almost hidden amongst gags involving terrified quivering robots and screeching CGI bird-things that look like Danny DeVito reinterpreted by a Sanrio artist. The film opens with a solid laugh as Isaacs’ Poe Dameron taunts Domhnall Gleeson’s fey authoritarian General Hux by pretending to have trouble with his communication device which causes Gleeson’s standard, bad-guy monologue to be repeatedly undercut by Isaac’s requests to, “hold please”. It’s funny simply because of how unexpected it is. The STAR WARS film universe is earnest to a deadening degree and to see something this sarcastic and self-parodic is refreshing. Unlike THE FORCE AWAKENS, which couldn’t stop reminding you of the past and felt like one of those cast reunion sketches Jimmy Fallon used to smirk through on THE TONIGHT SHOW, THE LAST JEDI isn’t as beholden to the original films. C-3PO is finally presented as the grating irritant he’s always been, one that’s openly ignored and mocked by the characters. Luke Skywalker isn’t just an embittered hermit but almost an attempted child murderer (more importantly he drank the green milk-cum that came out of a Muppet’s nipple-y-boob-penis). The darker, more adult streak Gareth Edwards was trying (and failing) to bring to the franchise with ROGUE ONE is better realized in THE LAST JEDI as it addresses class issues and politics with a degree of nuance the series is usually unwilling to explore (and by explore I mean the film addresses the fact that classism and war profiteering exists. Not exactly groundbreaking points, but a big step for STAR WARS). Yet as the film gently deconstructs its own tropes, it’s also tweaking expectations in surprising ways. Particularly in the way it depicts Isaac’s brash, hotheaded flyboy archetype. Initially, THE LAST JEDI appears to side with Poe because he gets results, man, and Princess Buzzkill (Carrie Fisher) and Admiral Holdo and her stupid Dame Edna wig won’t allow him to just go out there and fuck shit up, y’know? But then the film reminds us that he managed to get a number of his own men killed with an impulsive, half-hearted attempt to take out one measly spaceship, nearly gets John Boyega and Rose Marie Tran’s characters killed in an ill-considered secret mission that backfires and kills several more resistance fighters and commits mutiny simply because Dern wouldn’t let him in on her secret plans even though she was under no obligation to do so. After decades of Hollywood deifying the image of the loose cannon, THE LAST JEDI has the courage to finally explain why the police commissioner is grinding the captain’s ass: Harry Callahan, Marion Cobretti and anyone who insists on playing by their own rules are glib, harmful lunatics who would blow up your house if it meant they would get to say, “there goes the neighborhood” to your smoldering corpse. The only thing separating Martin Riggs from Jason Voorhees is a hockey mask.
Yet as great and as promising as all of those above moments are, they’re still just moments. Blips in a nearly three hour movie. It’s amazing all of the uproar these things have caused because they’re almost negligible. Splotches of gray have entered the film universe but the characters’ motivations are still decidedly black and white. In spite of all the ways Rian Johnson has attempted to revise, update and otherwise shake-up the franchise, he’s still leaving basic characterization to the people who write the extended universe. As in THE FORCE AWAKENS, the characters -- with the exception of Luke and Benicio Del Toro’s stuttering code master -- are devoid of personality. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (Boyega), Kylo Ren, and even Andy Serkis’ Snoke are bland sci-fi ciphers, the kind of uninteresting clichés people would be ridiculing if these movies weren’t released under the STAR WARS banner. When Driver murders Serkis’ twisted Emperor Palpatine simulacrum towards the beginning of the third act, the moment carries no impact because we don’t know who this character is. He’s just a John Merrick looking motherfucker that likes to yell and wear gold lamé. Who cares? Additionally, Johnson undoes the goodwill generated by one of his gutsiest and most unexpected twists by having Dern note dreamily that she “likes Poe” after he held a gun to her head, called her a traitor and proceeded to kill several more resistance fighters. Sweet, sweating, ab-crunching Christ! Have the dudes who called this movie a SJW atrocity even bothered to watch it? Poe’s sociopathic actions not only carry zero consequences, they’re making everybody on screen dangerously horny and, realistically, nobody should want or need Llewyn Davis inside them after all of the selfish bullshit he pulls. Even worse, THE LAST JEDI is at least a half hour too long, which means we get much more dialogue like “Get your head out of your cockpit”, “Let’s go Chrome Dome” and “We're going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!” which is so cloying your aunt should stencil it underneath “Live, Laugh, Love” on the walls of her dining room. Oh, and if you seriously think that Rey’s parents are exactly as Kylo Ren describes (scummy, faceless drunks buried in a pauper’s grave), you’ve either never seen a STAR WARS movie or you suffered severe head trauma before you entered the theater. I guarantee that in the next sequel her parents will be revealed as some kind of Jedi royalty or an already established character like Sy Snootles, Lobot or Loki (Disney owns both properties. Why not?).
Obviously, I’m not the audience for THE LAST JEDI, but even though I didn’t enjoy it, I didn’t exactly hate the experience either. Johnson is bucking against the constraints of audience expectations and that’s a good thing because this franchise has been coasting on nostalgia for close to twenty years. There’s a sense that the creative team wants to stop massaging every inch of its fanbase’s brain with rose-colored, STRANGER THINGS-esque memories of Gatorade Gum, Big Wheels and puppet Yodas and finally move forward. Who knows? I might actually like the next chapter in this unending saga, but I kind of doubt it. Unless it involves an unsettling, CGI Burt Reynolds causing a Southern accented Josh Gad to angrily throw his cowboy hat on the ground, I’ll probably avoid it.