I attended a Thursday night preview showing of The Last Jedi and bought the soundtrack the following day. So at this point, I've seen the film once and listened to the soundtrack several times. This blog contains my initial reactions to The Last Jedi movie and music.
WARNING: Spoilers below.
I had high hopes for the new Star Wars film. Rian Johnson, the director, had experience with dark film (including a few episodes of Breaking Bad), so I was expecting something dark and profound, ala The Empire Strikes Back. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed with both the film and the music.
WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THE FILM
Rey turns out to be nobody. I like that Star Wars is expanding from a Skywalker saga. This truly is taking the story in a new direction.
Snoke dies in the second film (as opposed to the third, like everybody was expecting).
The humor. Part of the problem with the prequels were that they were always so serious. The Last Jedi does NOT take itself too seriously. Comic relief is in plentiful supply.
Leia gets to use the force! I like that this is established, but it's entirely undeveloped and comes out of nowhere. (More on this below.)
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE ABOUT THE FILM
Structurally, the film is a mess. Ethan Gach of Kotaku compares the structure of The Last Jedi to video games, in that games often send characters off on side missions tangential to the fundamental objective. He argues that such sidebar endeavors work in video games because the player is actively participating, but that type of structure in a film is less successful because the viewing audience is a witness – rather than participant – and so only passively engaged. Indeed, these plot points could have been better explored in a game or serial format rather than a movie. It's as if the scriptwriters made a list of all the things they wanted to include and forced all of them in whether they contributed to the story there or not.
What's up with the porgs? They add nothing to the film – only comic relief, which is already plentiful. And they're all horribly animated – it's as if the special effects creators couldn't be bothered to do a decent job! At least those nuns on Ahchto Island actually looked real. It seems like the porgs are just there to sell toys. Strikes me as Disney commercialism at its less than best.
While I like Snoke's earlier-than-anticipated demise, he died with no explanation of where he came from. What's his story? Why did he only come to power after the empire? What was he doing during the rebellion? Why was he hiding? How did he come to seduce Ben Solo? And who are the Knights of Ren? And how did Ben get involved? That was hinted at in The Force Awakens, but nothing came of it in The Last Jedi. I would have much preferred to learn more about Snoke and Ben than watch Finn and Rose head off on a pointless casino excursion.
And what about the confrontation between Luke and Ben? Luke thought for the briefest of moments that he would kill Ben, Ben wakes at precisely that moment and attacks Luke in self-defense? Is this really just a big misunderstanding? This type of thing works well in chick flicks; not so much in Star Wars.
Finally, there's Leia. She gets blown into space but uses the force to survive and make her way back to the ship. I've often thought Leia's force abilities needed to be explored, and I'm glad to see that finally happening, but this came out of nowhere! And with Carrie Fisher's death, I can't imagine they're going to further explore her force abilities in Episode IX. So not only does this come out of nowhere, but it's also leading nowhere. In which case, was it even worth including?
So, while I don't think this is a bad film - it's lightyears ahead of Attack of the Clones - it does feel like a missed opportunity. Johnson had a blank slate - fans would flock to this film regardless of what he did with it - but instead of using that carte blanche to do something truly innovative and groundbreaking, he took the easy way out. There's little, if anything, risk taking - nothing that challenges the viewer. And it's obvious why: money. Adding dozens of epic battles and explosions makes for quite the spectacle and a massive commercial success, but it doesn't necessarily make for a great film.
Okay, so there are my initial thoughts on the film as whole. But what about the music specifically? The soundtrack, after all, is my primary interest.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE ABOUT THE MUSIC
When I was a grad student at the University of Hartford, I took a class called “Music for Theater” in which each student scored a play for the university's theater department. It was the best class I took at UHA. I learned so much – including that some directors are more open to music than others. Whether it's a play or a film, the director is the ultimate authority. What he/she says goes. Some directors want music to play a big role, others don't. And in The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson didn't give John Williams much to work with.
I wasn't thrilled with J.J. Abrams' direction on The Force Awakens, but Johnson's direction on The Last Jedi has given me a deeper appreciation for Abrams because Abrams consciously gave Williams ample opportunity for music. Johnson, however, failed miserably at that. So while I find The Last Jedi soundtrack to be slightly disappointing, many of my qualms are more with Johnson than Williams.
That being said, I was disappointed with Williams' lack of development of Rey's theme. He admitted one reason he agreed to write another Star Wars score was because “I didn't want anybody else writing music for Daisy Ridley.” Indeed, Rey's music is heard throughout The Last Jedi – but it's not developed the way I had hoped it would be. In my presentation, I cite the concluding music of several films. Darth Vader gets the final musical say in The Empire Strikes Back; Palpatine in The Phantom Menace; the force in The Force Awakens. In The Last Jedi, we hear the force theme leading into the end credits (as was the case in Episode VII) and Rey's melody at the end of the end credits. I'm just not convinced either is appropriate. Vader is the winner of Empire, so it's perfectly appropriate that he gets the final music. Palpatine is the winner of TPM, so it makes sense that Augies' Great Municipal Band is based on Palpatine's Sith theme. And The force awakens at the end of The Force Awakens – that's obviously appropriate. But does the force or Rey come out on top at the end of The Last Jedi? I suppose with Luke's death, Rey is the default highest ranking force user, but that's pretty weak – a passive rather than active ascension for Rey. Perhaps I'm missing something, and if so I'll write subsequent blogs explaining the revelation.
WHAT I LIKED ABOUT THE MUSIC
There are a few new themes, the only major addition being Rose's Theme. The theme is classic Williams – ultra-romantic sweeping melody with lush orchestration. This is what I'll be adding to my Music of Star Wars presentations starting next month. There are many similarities between Rose's theme and other themes (Anakin's theme, the Force theme, even David Newman's theme from the 1998 film Galaxy Quest), but I'm not entirely sure if those similarities are significant or merely coincidental. I suspect the latter. I'll return to this idea in later blogs.
Though Rey's and Ren's themes both lack development, The March of the Resistance is developed quite a bit. I'm eager to continue analyzing to discover the many ways in which this theme is tweaked throughout the film.
The first time I saw Rogue One, I liked the film better than the music. After repeated viewings and listening, I reversed myself: I now think the music is much better than the film. Point is: It's very difficult to critique something – anything – on a first encounter. With that caveat in mind, I will withhold final judgment of The Last Jedi until I can see the film a few more times and digest the soundtrack a bit more. Look for future blog posts as I continue analyzing and understanding the music.
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The Music of Star Wars
These posts will help focus and develop my analyses of John Williams' film scores.