Dead or alive, you’re coming with me! It’s sci-fi law officer RoboCop’s most iconic catchphrase, and fitting description of where Star Wars fandom presently finds itself. The latest franchise entry, The Last Jedi, is either alive or dead. There’s been little middle ground or compromise for fans when weighing the entertainment merits of Lucasfilm’s TLJ.
As of this writing, Rotten Tomatoes scores TLJ at 47% of fans liking it, making 53% of its audience calling it a fail.
Less than half of fans celebrate the Rian Johnson crafted film, while its majority simply can’t abide the middle chapter of what promises an end to the fabled Skywalker saga. While my article title and referencing RoboCop 3 suggest comparing film quality directly, this is more on how a Hollywood franchise is treated, or according to some top creatives, including the great film maker Ridley Scott, is mistreated.
The Last Jedi – A Franchise Fiddle
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – all fans had to deal with were the whims of George Lucas. Whatever one thought about the prequels – or how Lucas digitally tweaked his classic films in special editions – you knew you were going to get a Lucas kind of Star Wars. There was a consistency, an overall uniformity. George Lucas was Lucasfilm, and Lucasfilm was Star Wars. And if there was anything Lucas was experienced in, it was writing, producing and directing his SW films.
If anyone fiddled with his franchise, it was the veteran creator/director himself. Lucas possessed years of movie making craftsmanship skill, plus copious story treatments of where he’d want his characters to continue onward. After he sold the lot of it to Disney, the fiddling from others would not only explode, but the new Force overseers would basically ignore any creative input from Lucas.
J.J. Abrams fiddled in The Force Awakens, but it was still evocative of what came before, he even co-scripted the screenplay with Empire Strikes Back writer, Lawrence Kasdan. Abrams stoked its resuscitation fires, but arguably slowly and smoothly, and was being done by yet another veteran film maker.
A Robo No-No
RoboCop fans well know R3 remains the most reviled of the cyberpunk feature films. Disadvantaged with an inexperienced director, and lacking the excellent actor, Peter Weller, who fleshed out the cybernetic superhero, RoboCop 3 was saddled with weakness before its production launch. From Blu-Ray.Com:
“Before it started production, RoboCop 3 was hindered by a prescriptive formula that prevented it from being a success. The film has some small pleasures but is wildly erratic. Although the movie is much maligned, this Collector’s Edition is RECOMMENDED for several worthwhile supplements that provide context into financial and creative decisions Dekker faced while making it. They can be useful teaching aids for how certain films (especially sequels) are set up for failure.”
Rian Johnson, TLJ’s writer/director, had only helmed a few low budget feature films prior to killing off Luke Skywalker. His biggest low budget project is Looper, a sci-fi action flick starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. At 30 million dollars, Looper isn’t exactly the kind of bloated tent pole production a Stars Wars movie can be included alongside. So, what’s a budget got to do with anything? Ridley Scott, one of Hollywood’s most successful directors, is no fan of giving over profitable franchises to less experienced directors.
Talking to Vulture, Scott said this about Disney’s approach to making new Star Wars movies:
I think they like to be in control, and I like to be in control myself. When you get a guy who’s done a low-budget movie and you suddenly give him $180 million, it makes no sense whatsoever. It’s fuckin’ stupid. You know what reshoots cost? Millions! You can get me for my fee, which is heavy, but I’ll be under budget and on time. This is where experience does matter, it’s as simple as that! It can make you dull as dishwater, but if you’re really experienced and you know what you’re doing, it’s fucking essential. Grow into it, little by little. Start low-budget, get a bit bigger, maybe after $20 million, you can go to $80. But don’t suddenly go to $160.
‘Luke Back In Anger’ – A Forceful Forbes Rebuke
Scott’s colorful language seems to be saying though an inexperienced director gets the job done, there may be loads of issues aside from purely whether critics and fans are receptive to your vision or not. Indeed, the more overlooked elements on why most fans don’t like TLJ and Rian Johnson’s stewardship is how well received things like editing, set design, pacing and even utilizing special FX are in the final equation. After all, first and foremost, a SW film is just that – a film. Is a highly polished look a given today? No matter who’s at the director reins? According to Forbe’s reviewer, John Archer, The Last Jedi is simply a mess in all ways – not only bad for a Star Wars movie, but simply a ‘terrible film’.
Given that it currently enjoys a Rotten Tomatoes critics score of 91% and 7.4 on the IMDB, I guess I’m probably going to get crucified for saying this. But for me… Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a terrible film.
Archer stresses he’s not talking about all the merry geek stuff – those minor beefs which any fan has on say a line or two here or there, why Luke was so darn grumpy or why he loved drinking that alien milk so much. Archer digs in deep and blasts Johnson for an incredibly bad film in terms of journeyman movie making.
I’m not talking here, I hasten to add, about any of the thematic stuff that’s caused so much debate in the Star Wars fanverse. I’ll leave those debates to Star Wars forums. What I’m talking about is just how bad The Last Jedi is as an exercise in film-making. I really can’t think of a single important scene where you get any sense Johnson understands how to use imagery to add power to the film’s generally underwhelming events.
The Last Jedi’s many filmmaking fails left me with almost nothing I could latch on to in order to become immersed in the action, leaving me desperate for the whole dull mess to come to an end at least an hour before it did. And once the criminally drab conclusion was finally reached, I couldn’t help but find myself comparing The Last Jedi with Alien 3 in terms of its franchise-crushing awfulness.
Archer compares TLJ to Alien 3, while I’m comparing it to RoboCop 3 – what’s the deal with 3’s? Franchise fatigue? Superman III never makes any top lists. Many Trek fans dislike STIII: Search For Spock. 3’s an odd, unlucky number?
Who’s In Creative Control?
RoboCop 3’s director, Fred Dekker, found himself in a similar position as Johnson – having only presided over several low budget features. Dekker’s been more than honest on his final Robo product, and takes full blame for the critical and fan drubbing it’s gotten. Not so much the case with Johnson. He says negative criticism, though upsetting to him at first, is of no real concern. Johnson stands by his film. His film? Maybe it’s exactly how he should react, since he knows he’s only a hired hand on a franchise Disney and Kathleen Kennedy oversee.
Meanwhile, back in Old Detroit…. RoboCop was becoming more profitable. After the success of two films, animated TV shows, comic books and video games followed. The real power suits (no recharging necessary) ordered that Robo be made more kid friendly. Dekker seems to have been forced into a similar role as Rian Johnson – serving a big, profitable franchise overseen by a studio who wants as family fun a film as possible. Instead of George Lucas or Paul Verhoeven calling creative shots – two highly respected, experienced and talented creatives – Star Wars and RoboCop were both tightly reigned in by their respective copyright holders. Both film franchises became producer and fully studio driven – products more of corporate meetings and bean counting data than the heady creative visions of a Lucas, Verhoven or Ridley Scott.
In the end, no matter how much those who hate The Last Jedi criticize Rian Johnson – or J.J. Abrams for starting the ball rolling downhill – the fact remains: Star Wars is a key income generator for one of the most powerful media companies around. Disney and Lucasfilm’s Kathleen Kennedy control the creative ebb and flow of the Force now. Fans may point incriminating fingers at many of the hired hands, but they should all know who the Jedi really answer to these days. Yoda, Luke, Han Solo and Obi-Wan sit alongside Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear and Kermit the Frog, their pop culture destinies prophesied, then carefully scripted and finely calculated to the decimal point in Excel spreadsheets masquerading as creatively driven movie screenplays.