This post contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
Imagine getting to make a Star Wars movie. Imagine the millions upon millions of dollars Lucasfilm would leave in your lap. Imagine the stellar cast and crew at your disposal – makeup, prop design, choreography, practical effects, costuming and CGI. The galaxy far, far away would be your playground and any tool ever invented in the history of cinema would be at your disposal to help you tell your story. What couldn’t you do with all of that?
For Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi – which is dividing opinion, but convinces this writer more every day – is often more a question of “when” than “what” in its use of the most up-to-date resources.
It’s not a film without its spells of budget-blowing excess – Poe Dameron’s (Oscar Isaac) X-wing assault on a First Order Dreadnought, or Finn (John Boyega) and Rose’s (Kelly Marie Tran) alien-horseback escape from the dungeons of Canto Bight stick out as sequences using every modern trick in the book.
But their egregious use of CGI is all the more glaring than in any Star Wars episode before because they are offset by moments of subtlety, craft, and inventiveness – known in the business as Old School Movie Magic.
Take, for example, a personal favourite directorial motif of mine that Johnson deploys to awesome effect – the psychic connection between Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the wayward Jedi trainee Rey (Daisy Ridley). A creative risk by Johnson, pushing fan’s preconceptions of the Force into unknown territory, but it is sold effectively on the director’s deft sleights of hand. By nature, the Force is a trippy concept and it can open up a filmmaker with an interstellar budget to all kinds of reality-bending, computer-assisted possibilities for its execution onscreen.
Johnson, however, sells the whole thing on the electric chemistry of Ridley and Driver, which transcends the light years their characters are separated by. That electricity is supported by the oldest tool in the box: shot/reverse shot. Neither Rey nor Kylo is lifted out of their surroundings into some Force-induced netherworld for their supernatural communiques, but by positioning his actors’ gazes just off-camera and matching shots together in the edit, Johnson suggests more magic and mystery than any amount of computer power could.
Simple tricks like this are used to powerful effect across Last Jedi’s gargantuan runtime. A subtler version of the quirk described above is deployed to punctuate another flurry of digitally-rendered anarchy, as Kylo’s TIE fighter is poised to zap his own mother into space during a chaotic space attack. The brief, quiet exchange of shots between Driver and the late Carrie Fisher’s Leia speak volumes of untold history, uncertainty, and regret between bombing runs and laser blasts.
Visual shorthand is Johnson’s forte when his dialogue occasionally fails. Rose’s bond to her heroic, self-sacrificing sister is made omnipresent in the moon medallion they both keep around their neck, and the memory of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) hangs heavy over the characters in the recurring presence of the pair of golden dice which bedeck the dashboard of the Millennium Falcon (and have never been so prominent before).
The use, and absence, of sound is vital, too. Rey’s journey into the ominous mirror cave is loopy enough as it is, but made more so when Rey and her copies start clicking their fingers in quick succession and the noise zips across the screen in an eerie whisper. Admiral Holdo’s (Laura Dern) heroic kamikaze run at the First Order flagship would not be half as effective if the explosive fury of space battle noise wasn’t dipped out entirely for an unnerving moment of breathlessness. Even the centrepiece duel pitting Rey and Kylo against the Kurosawa-esque royal guard is twice as memorable because Johnson is wise enough to keep his shots long, steady and clear to let the stunning, classic choreography do the talking.
Last Jedi is not without its faults, or its CGI sins – but it wouldn’t be a 21st-century blockbuster if it had none, really. But what Johnson should be lauded for is in having the self-control to take all those exciting hi-tech toys and putting them back in the box. It is then that his story of heroes, villains, and the forces of destiny that bind them truly hits home.
Plus, who wasn’t delighted when Yoda appeared finally back in his true, Muppety form once again?