Back when George Lucas was that oddball car enthusiast and confederate of Francis Ford Coppola’s with two of the greatest and weirdest movies of the 1970s under his belt — “THX 1138” and “American Graffiti” — he really wanted to make a movie out of “Flash Gordon.” But that didn’t work out, so he moved on to cranking out his own rollicking space opera. Forty years after the first “Star Wars” movie, Lucas’s rag-and-bone shop of cribs from Kurosawa, John Ford, and Joseph Campbell has now turned into its own self-perpetuating universe with an annual haul that probably beats the GDP of some small nations. The latest installment, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” looks likely to keep that cycle going for the foreseeable future.
The series has gone through many phases, most hamstrung by a desire to break from or circle back to the originating imagery that blew moviegoers’ hair back in 1977. There was the first movie’s unexpected blockbuster appeal that gave us everything from the movie toy tie-in industry to the “Star Wars Holiday Special” and then the ‘Empire Strikes Back’ and ‘Return of the Jedi,’ with their giddy mix of thrill-seeking and Wagnerian overkill spiked with Muppet Zen koans. They were fun and ridiculous and beloved and overpraised and left an outsized (and, honestly, ludicrously overblown) footprint on a generation’s cultural memory. Lucas brought on seasoned and unpretentious pros like Irwin Kershner and Richard Marquand to handle directing duties and give each story a fresh spin.
The middle trilogy — ‘The Phantom Menace,’ ‘Attack of the Clones,’ and ‘Revenge of the Sith’ — had all the world-building confidence of the first movies but not nearly the spirit of inspiration. Working mostly without collaborators this time out, Lucas buried the strands of an interesting story about the tensions between democracy and imperialism in the busywork common to many prequels; not to mention a shellacking of overeager CGI and glazed performances. This batch were unloved and overcritiqued by fans who had seemingly left their childhoods on the frozen battlefields of Hoth.
By the time Lucas sold off his empire to Disney and J.J. Abrams was brought on to produce ‘The Force Awakens’ in 2015, the same fans so disappointed by the Senatorial politics and Gungan slapstick of the last batch of movies had their own children and were eager to give them another shot. But where Kershner and Marquand gave a hired-gun snap to ‘Empire’ and ‘Jedi,’ Lucas buried himself in an oddball kind of pulp-pretentiousness that might have been well-nigh unwatchable at times but was, for better or worse, certainly his directorial vision.
What, then, of the filmmakers who Disney has given the keys to the Lucasfilm treasure trove? Abrams, who has made a living in film riffing on other filmmakers (Spielberg with “Super 8“) and preexisting franchises (“Star Trek“), did exactly what he was expected to do: Deliver a fanboy resuscitation that basically got the band back together for one more go at the Death Star. It was a fairly mirthless endeavor that relied first on getting audiences psyched for seeing their childhood heroes like Han Solo and Leia back in the saddle and second investing them in a more appropriately diverse crop of new characters who could take the franchise forward. As entertainment it was competent and soulless. The script was so reliant on aping the original that it just reinvented the old Empire in a reincarnated form known as the First Order; they didn’t even have different uniforms. But as a widget-maker for Disney’s entertainment industrial complex it was genius, featuring just enough originality and cliffhangers to creep the story along.
There was hope for ‘Rogue One’ the next year, what with Gareth Edwards at the helm. Edwards’ take on bringing back “Godzilla” was no paragon of originality, either, but his 2010 debut “Monsters” was a weird enough little curiosity that blended monster mythology with a sly jab at immigration politics that there was hope Edwards could retain some personality inside the Lucas universe. Such wasn’t the case. ‘Rogue One’ started off with some promise but very quickly turned into a hackneyed connect-the-dots exercise in cynicism that left audiences back exactly where they were at the start of the original movie. Again.
It shouldn’t be a surprise with ‘The Last Jedi’ that even such an idiosyncratic director as Rian Johnson would not leave much of an imprint on the heavily defended ‘Star Wars’ universe. He’s had a short career but movies like the jaggedly hyperverbal high school noir “Brick” and the Philip K. Dick-like time travel freakout “Looper” were genius reinventions of genre that whipped through their tangled plots with the confidence that audiences could keep up. Obviously, there was too much riding on ‘The Last Jedi’ for Disney to take the chance that some fan might not get what was happening.
So Johnson, who also wrote the script, delivers a whippet-quick variation on a familiar story. ‘The Last Jedi’ rests on tried-and-true formulations while dropping in a greater than expected dose of humor. Is it the best of the Disney-era movies? Definitely. There are more genuine laughs and emotional resonance here than any of the movies have managed since ‘Empire.’ Oscar Isaac’s flyboy hero Poe is the best thing to happen to the series since Han told Leia “I am nice men.” There is also something to be said for a blockbuster like this where arguably the best moment involves Laura Dern in a purple wig and the unlucky Imperial cruiser that gets in her way. But does it have even a fraction of the weird cross-genre spark that animated the original trilogy? Not at all.
These days, burdened by the necessity of stringing people along to buy toys and scatter social-media heat and visit whatever new themed ride has just been rolled out, the ‘Star Wars’ universe is a trap. Given an entire galaxy to play in, each of the newer movies only manage to pluck off a tiny fragment of it to explore each time. So much energy is expended on grinding along in the unending back-and-forth between the Light and Dark sides of the Force, scrappy Rebel scum versus snooty Imperial toadies, and the tiresome Skywalker family melodrama that there just isn’t room for anything else.
Lucas wasn’t a stranger to commerce; he essentially created the licensed movie character toy industry. But he was an innovator at heart. Look at the experimentations of his 1970s movies, his early involvement with the proto-guerrilla version of what became “Apocalypse Now,” and even the (yes, failed) middle ‘Star Wars’ trilogy. There is something to the slow-moving nature of the new movies that he might approve of. After all, what was he trying to do early on but recreate the appeal of the old movie serials like ‘Flash Gordon’? The way that ‘The Force Awakens’ and ‘The Last Jedi’ creep the narrative along, just enough to keep audiences hanging on for Disney to maximize ancillary revenue streams out of the property, owes much to the old serials’ efficient perpetual cliffhanger take on story.
But all the Disney ‘Star Wars’ movies share not just an aversion to striking out for new territory but an insistence on returning repeatedly to the same pool of inspiration: X-wing and TIE fighter dogfights, John Williams’ score, lightsaber duels, occasional jumbles of oddball alien characters jammed into a small space, plucky Rebel heroes sacrificing themselves for the greater cause, and vague Jungian mysticism. Someday maybe a producer will allow one of these movies to strike out for new star systems where there are no Rebels and no Stormtroopers. Until then, the machine will probably just keep grinding away, fighting a holding action for time much like the always outnumbered and outgunned Rebels in ‘The Last Jedi,’ only in the service of a far less glorious cause.