Review by Thomas O’Boyle
Edited by Katie Tarrant
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Composer: John Williams
Sound Design: Ken Klyce w/Skywalker Sound
Writing an introduction to a Star Wars film always feels odd. If ever there was a franchise that sat firmly within the pop culture zeitgeist of every single generation of its existence then this would be the one. Yet here we are, dear reader, once more riding into the breach to experience the eighth and newest instalment of the world’s greatest sci-fi franchise (or longest-running series of toy commercials depending upon your own personal level of cynicism).
Written and directed by Rian Johnson, whose previous credits include 2012’s thoroughly enjoyable Looper, The Last Jedi picks up pretty much where previous instalment The Force Awakens left off, with Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) tracking down Luke Skywalker (you may have heard of him) while the rest of the cast are attempting to escape the clutches of antagonists-du-jour the First Order.
Right off the bat, I should probably mention that I didn’t like this film. The pacing is slow, the script is daft, the dialogue is clunky, and the editing is sloppy. And, while it occasionally had moments of fun and wonder that I’ve come to expect from everyone’s favourite galaxy far, far away, these were largely in spite of the films flaws as opposed to any general virtues in the script.
All that being said though, there are still some elements of dazzling filmmaking on display in here. And they’re worth talking about. This movie’s strengths lie pretty much where they do with every Star Wars film: the audio and the visuals. Touching briefly on the visual elements of this film, it’s a real treat to look at. The lighting is top-notch and the stellar props and cinematography comfortably carves out a strong sense of personality and identity in the overall aesthetic of the film while still staying true to the overall look of the franchise as a whole. But the real star of the show is almost inevitably…
Writer, director and Jar Jar Binks apologist George Lucas once famously said “Sound is half the picture”. And it’s this philosophy of audio-visual cohesion which has permeated the Star Wars franchise and given rise to a kind of sound world that is unparalleled in cinema. The simple fact of the matter is that the “Imperial March” theme and the scream of an incoming TIE fighter are just as much an essential part of the world of the franchise as lightsabers and wookies. Precious few franchises can claim to have even a fraction of the audio association that comes baked into a Star Wars film. And, in the way at least, The Last Jedi carries on a very proud tradition.
Remember that thing you were humming on the way to work the other day? Chances are that it was something John Williams wrote. It goes without saying that Williams is a master of the craft, if not the master of the craft, when it comes to film scoring. And his use of leitmotif and orchestration in The Last Jedi maintains this high standard with aplomb. Themes both old and new are stated, re-arranged, and interwoven in ways that move and swell with the ensuing drama onstage. It adds a wonderful sense of dramatic weight and implication to scenes where the somewhat hammy acting truthfully wouldn’t be up to much on its own. Williams’ music evokes everything from conflicting loyalties to hope and despair from shot to shot. It’s a rare composer that can keep the drama flowing with such finesse from moment to moment whilst maintaining the thematic material so comprehensively.
In terms of the musical content itself, all of the fan favourites are there. “Imperial March”, “Force Theme”, “Leia’s Theme” and many more all appear in various keys and iterations. These are joined by returning themes from The Force Awakens for series newcomers Rey, Poe, and Finn. Thematically speaking, there isn’t an over-abundance of new material. New character Rose Tico, an engineer with the resistance played by Kelly Marie Tran, gets her own theme; a gentle, thoughtful little piece that reminds me somewhat of Anakin’s theme from The Phantom Menace, and that’s about it. Not that that’s in any way a criticism from me. Williams has created a well-established sound world and hearing him work his magic with existing material is what makes his music such a joy to listen to while watching the film.
The orchestration and arrangement is, as you might expect, breath-taking and totally fitting of the tone of the film; a key theme of which is one of hope despite difficult odds. As a result, much of the thematic material in the score is somewhat muted and gentle within the overall weight of the rest of the underscore. It gives much of the score an almost yearning and pained feeling that wasn’t really present in the score for the comparatively brazen The Force Awakens. The arrangements as a whole are top-notch. While Williams is known (perhaps unfairly) for the bombast and intensity of his brass and wind writing, overall The Last Jedi is a much more string-driven and emotive affair. The overall production quality has a very modern brightness to it and more digital audio manipulation and input can be heard throughout the film. This is by no means a bad thing. If anything, it’s helping to set Disney’s sequel trilogy apart from its predecessors and I’m all for that.
The Last Jedi is a Star Wars film, and Star Wars films have great sound design. This series is only the second film in the franchise not to feature original sound designer Ben Burtt. In many ways, he’s the father of modern cinematic sound design and the credit for the cohesive and characterful sound world of Star Wars rests on his shoulders just as much as John Williams. You owe him a big thank you for every time your twelve-year-old self pretended to be a lightsaber-wielding Jedi and you made that characteristic hum with your mouth whilst wielding a broom handle. Because, back in the 70s, someone had to figure out what a sword made of light sounded like.
This typical high standard that we’ve all come to expect is maintained here, if not necessarily expanded upon. Everything from the handful of new creatures introduced to the frankly terrifying cannon fire from the First Order starships are given an array of sounds that feel cohesive to the universe while mostly being given their own unique and flavourful sound. A blast from a particular gun on a particular ship will, by and large, sound notably different to a comparable gun on a comparable ship. One nice touch that’s been introduced for the sequel trilogy is the sound of the film’s lightsabers (admittedly brought in when Burrt was still with the series for The Force Awakens). While Rey’s blue lightsaber has the classic and stately hum of previous instalments, series antagonist Kylo Ren sports a mean little red number that audibly hisses and crackles in a way that sounds, to put it bluntly, mean and unstable. And while the idea of a lightsaber’s characteristics reflecting its user is one that has been touched upon before, it’s never been meaningfully explored from an audio perspective so this is great to hear. If a criticism of the sound effects can be made, it’d likely be that a few of the new alien critters introduced in this instalment feel a little samey. Being frank, some of them sound a little bit like someone simply ran some stock wookie sounds through an EQ. It’s a nit-pick and not one that detracts from the film as a whole, but worth noting nonetheless. Despite these sounds being perfectly serviceable nigh excellent in places, it’s admittedly hard to shake the idea that maybe Ben Burtt would have injected slightly more personality into the proceedings if he was once again at the helm.
Lastly, I should probably mention the overall mix. As a frugal member of the peasantry, I saw this at a standard 2D showing so I’d bear that in mind. Overall, I thought it was excellent and pretty much what you’d expect of a movie of this budget. In a break from many big-budget movies these days, it never felt uncomfortably loud, even during some of the explosion-filled moments. Admittedly some of the louder sections resulted in the sound effects fighting with the score somewhat, most pointedly the strings, which could sometimes lose a lot of their nuance with so much sonic real estate being taken up elsewhere. But that’s probably to be expected.
One aspect of the sound that was very much appreciated was its use of silence. Some scenes lent themselves to dramatic pauses with little or no sound at all. It certainly let the scenes breathe and was a welcome departure from the usual dramatic bombast of the Star Wars franchise. Elsewhere, some of the dubbing felt a little sloppy and a few of the vocal effects used at various points were a little overdone. Being frank, I found it hard to hear everything being said. With that in mind, considering how most of the lines I actually did hear gave me thoughts of firing Rian Johnson’s script out of a comedically large cannon, maybe that’s not bad thing.
In conclusion, The Last Jedi is not a film I enjoyed (yeah, I said it. Fight me). It was a hammy, poorly constructed affair that left me bewildered and disappointed. That being said, pretty much everything that entered my ears during the film’s duration was utterly glorious. If I’m to give this film a pass then it’s a pass that is borne on the back of the superlative score and wonderfully evocative sound effects. This may not have been a total triumph for Star Wars but it sure has been a good day for audio in film.
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The Sound Architect