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Sound Off: Settling the Score on “Last Jedi’s” Soundtrack-Only Version

The score-only version of Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is marvelous for a number of reasons.

Announced by director Rian Johnson as a special feature available on certain digital releases of the feature film, the premise is remarkably simple. The score-only version of The Last Jedi presents the feature film complete and uneditted, but without any dialogue or sound effects. The sound mix is completely dominated by John Williams’ score for the film, from the opening Star Wars fanfare to the music playing over the closing credits. Over the course of the movie’s two-and-a-half hour runtime, not a single word is spoken and not a single laser blast is heard.

As such, the score-only version of The Last Jedi is the closest thing imaginable to a blockbuster silent movie in the current market. After all, silent films are at best a curiousity in the modern market place, often relegated to retrospectives and festival screenings, with the occasional nostalgic release like The Artist. In fact, black and white films are noticeably more common than silent films in the current market. As such, the score-only version is an intriguing piece of work. It obviously showcases John Williams’ score, and the way in which that score shaped and informs the images on the screen.

But it also demonstrates that Rian Johnson is the best director to have worked on the Star Wars franchise, from a purely technical standpoint.

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The Last Jedi, Dunkirk and the Death of the Hero…

One of the more interesting aspects of living through a pop culture moment is that it is often quite hard to properly assess anything from that subjective vantage point.

It is too easy to assume that this moment is the most important moment in history, to suggest that the entirety of history has been a path leading to this moment or to the moment just beyond it. There is also a clear desire to find signal in the noise, to sift through the nearly impossible volume of data that threatens to overwhelm any filter and find a pattern. As such, it is always tempted to declare particular movies as the important to this particular moment, or to find trends when none actually exist.

At the same time, there is something to be said for trying to sift through contemporary pop culture and to observe trends. In particular, to see how those trends reflect back on the world in which those films were produced and the world in which they were released. In particular, one of the more interesting aspects of Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi and Dunkirk is a clear and conscious shift away from the conventional heroic narrative inside genres traditionally associated with such grand epic themes.

At a point in time when the political right seems to veering closer and closer to fascism, it is particularly striking to have last year’s sweeping science-fiction epic and last year’s highest profile war film both consciously rejecting the politics of the “strong man” and the “chosen one.”

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Non-Review Review: Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is visually sumptuous, thematically rich, but narratively clumsy.

There is a lot to love in The Last Jedi. Most notably, the gamble that Disney took on director Rian Johnson has paid off. The Last Jedi looks and feels like no other Star Wars movie. It is not simply the intimacy with which Johnson stages conversations separated by half a galaxy, nor the high quality visual effects. There is an endearing and appearing sense of wonder to The Last Jedi, as if watching a small child playing with action figures and humming the lightsabre noise to himself. The Last Jedi feels like the work of somebody continuing and expanding a story, more than just recreating it.

Rey of Hope.

Indeed, the best moments in The Last Jedi struggle to reach beyond what audiences have come to expect from the franchise. Some of this is inherited from the ambition of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, particularly in early scenes that emphasise the human cost of this galactic struggle. However, there are other more ponderous moments in The Last Jedi when it seems like Johnson and his characters are asking profound questions of the franchise itself, poking at the underlying assumptions that power this box office behemoth.

This was essential for the success of The Last Jedi. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens was an exercise in nostalgia that worked so well because of three factors; it was a palette cleanser after the prequels, it innovated by pushing background characters to the narrative foreground, and it was released more than a decade after Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Nostalgia is not enough to sustain a franchise that will be releasing one major motion picture a year for the foreseeable future. The Last Jedi needs to find something interesting to say about a forty-year-old franchise.

Seeing red.

In its best moments, it seems like The Last Jedi is lining up its arguments. It looks at the Star Wars universe through new sets of eyes, often in a literal sense. Johnson is not a director in the vein of Lucas or Abrams. Johnson is not a director who feels entirely comfortable with spectacle and scale. Instead, Johnson offers a tighter and closer glimpse at the universe and the people who inhabit it. There is a lot of focus on faces in The Last Jedi, shadows moving across them, eyes either focused or trying desperately to look away.

However, The Last Jedi ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions. The bolder and more provocative suggestions at the heart of the narrative remain just that, nothing more than implications or subtext. The Last Jedi has intriguing and bold ideas, but lacks the resolve to follow them through to their logical conclusions. Although undoubtedly less nostalgic than The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi remains too trapped by its own past to fully chart its own course and map its own destiny.

Shore thing.

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