Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi ★★½

Since Looper and Breaking Bad, I have struggled to put my finger on a deep sense of dissatisfaction inherent within Johnson's compositions involving actors, which are simultaneously brisk, clean, and efficient, and yet bereft of texture, detail, or a lively perspective. They are actually pretty blandly imagined; organized according to the most basic and brutish principals of dividing space between a face and whatever else happens to be around or behind it.

In a similar sense, Johnson's facility with said actors rarely rises above the broad stroke that passes quietly enough to seem subtle: the wide-eyed glance, the just-gently-curled-enough lip - "small" gestures that aren't actually small or complex or teeming with the potential of multiple emotions, but are isolated and bottled to provide an undoubtably clear throughline for each scene. In this scenario, the only element left to an actor to modulate is intensity (and thus we can sort of understand the great "success" that RJ found with Walter White). In this sense, he never left his short film days behind, as he constructs features with the sort of efficiency and emotional shorthand that novice (particularly English-speaking) filmmakers learn to adopt if they want to be accepted as "storytellers."

In this general sense, Johnson is no different from Abrams - all is subordinated to some ineffable and forever indefinable definition of "visual storytelling" and "economy." That said, in terms of form, Abrams is more baroque, and in terms of text, more beholden to imaginary audience demands. Johnson is his opposite in both areas and the result is both more interesting at a character and chessboard level and yet plenty enervating to actually watch, often dissolving into a series of mediums and close-ups that have little energy or meaningful relation to each other beyond general continuity and a quiet scrupulousness for pushing forward the engine of the plot. In both films it is the same: nothing surprising, messy, or inspired is permitted to arise from a contributor's work.

This is partly why the one major departure from Lucas - the extremely self-aware coda - rankles so much. In that moment of self-regard, Johnson turns a 'little' gesture - a simple Spielbergian glance into the heavens - into a consecration of SW's own overbearing and suffocating cultural capital. Wide-eyed wonder and imagination is what corporate Hollywood and its network of accomplices in distribution ("Escape With Us") and merchandising thinks it is selling, with an endless horizon of possibilities open now that George Lucas no longer controls it. But, three movies in, we know what awaits: a horizon with two suns, never more, never less.

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