I’ve been putting off putting my thoughts on The Last Jedi into words for a while. I was initially going to do a review of the movie soon after it was released, but the internet almost immediately filled up with “hot takes” where everyone was trying to shout out their opinion louder than anyone else’s. There was a lot of “Yes, The Last Jedi IS the best Star Wars movie ever” vs. “No, The Last Jedi IS the worst Star Was movie ever.” Everyone wanted to point out how Rian Johnson was either a genius or a hack. In the age of the internet and social media, speed is key you see. A nuanced, thought about opinion is not desired because what’s hot and relevant can change in the blink of an eye. So I decided to holster my opinion until after the madness of the initial release died down. And now with the trailer for the Solo movie being released along with the announcement that Disney is giving the Game of Thrones guys their own trilogy to write, I figure now is a good a time as any to go back and talk about Episode VIII.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of it, I will say that there will be open spoilers to the movie in the following review. I’m not going to police my words or jump around the big spoilers if I’m talking about them, so if you haven’t seen the movie yet and that’s an issue to you I’d recommend bailing out now and coming back later when you’ve seen it. I’ll also be openly talking about stuff from other Star Wars movies too, obviously. But if you’ve already seen everything or just don’t care about spoilers then come on in, the water’s fine.
Now with that out of the way, let’s begin.
First, I want to be very clear: I liked The Last Jedi. I’ve liked all of Rian Johnson’s previous movies and this one is no exception. It’s well directed and has some amazing visual shots. He treats all the characters well (except for one, which I’ll get to, and no it’s not Luke) and directed a movie that held respect for the established Star Wars universe while also trying to add his own twists to it. But it’s by no means a perfect movie.
This was probably the most visually spectacular portion of the movie.
When The Force Awakens came out I wrote a long diatribe about why I didn’t like the movie. I’ll sum it up like this: it did nothing new, it tread very safe ground and took very little risks and did a bad job continuing the world from where Return of the Jedi ended. Instead of a new conflict, we ended up with an even stronger Empire for some reason now called The First Order. Luke, Han, and Leia are all separated across the galaxy and there’s a Resistance for some reason along with The Republic, but the Republic doesn’t actually matter because it gets blown up by an even more dangerous Death Star, blah blah blah. It was A New Hope in a rebooted skin with minor tweaks.
I don’t blame J.J. Abrams for The Force Awakens. After Disney plops billions of dollars on this franchise and having seen the fan’s reactions to the prequel trilogy, I can understand playing it safe. He played it a little too safe, though, to the point that the movie was literally beat for beat A New Hope. He sprinkled a few mysteries into the story (who are Rey’s parents, who is this Snoke guy?) but overall it was just ultimately a soul-less recreation that was fun as popcorn entertainment.
The Force Awakens ends with this epic panoramic shot of Rey holding out Luke’s lightsaber to him. A huge cliffhanger which Rian Johnson is tasked to follow up on. And what he does with Abrams’ set-up basically tells you everything you need to know about The Last Jedi. When we return to Luke and Rey in that moment Luke takes his lightsaber from Rey, looks down at it, and then chucks it over his shoulder like garbage.
In the first couple minutes of this movie, Rian Johnson tells the audience “All that safe stuff from the first movie? Forget about it. Buckle your seatbelts ladies and gentlemen because we’re going on a ride.”
Milk drinkin’ Luke doesn’t care about your expectations.
This is The Last Jedi’s greatest success and also its greatest flaw. You see, after everyone got A New Hope 2 two years ago, a large chunk of fans came into The Last Jedi expecting The Empire Strikes Back 2. They wanted the big reveal at the end to rival “No, I am your father.” They wanted Snoke’s backstory to be explored and maybe revealed as a secret Sith manipulating everything from behind the scenes. They wanted a cliffhanger like Han frozen in carbonite. Instead they got the big reveal being that Rey’s parents are nobody and she isn’t related to anyone. She’s just an awesome Force sensitive person. We got absolutely nothing on Snoke and he gets bisected by Kylo Ren who is way more interesting and compelling as a villain since he has characterization and motivation instead of just mustache-twirling evil emperor. And there’s no cliffhanger at the end – the main characters all end up together. Heavily diminished in numbers and barely surviving, sure, but together and willing to fight on.
It makes The Last Jedi almost paradoxical. I enjoyed it because it did the exact opposite of The Force Awakens. It subverted every expectation and zig-zagged every possible comparison it could to Empire Strikes Back. But would I have enjoyed it if I wasn’t comparing it in my head to TFA and ESB? I honestly can’t say. The Last Jedi almost entirely relies on subverting the audience’s expectations because of previous movies instead of standing on its own. It’s enjoyable to me because it does this, but it also makes it extremely hard to judge in a bubble – I can’t separate it from other Star Wars movies because it so heavily requires knowing the story beats of the other movies to garner the correct reactions.
Rian Johnson also had a habit of undercutting his own awesome moments within the movie. The biggest one is, of course, during the climax when it’s revealed that Luke has been force projecting himself into the final battle with Kylo Ren from across the galaxy. When it was revealed that Luke has been punking the Sith punk the whole time, the entire theater audience broke out into cheers. Luke has this ultimate, legendary moment of proving just how awesome a Jedi he truly is and it really hyped up the audience.
And then not two minutes later he dies.
It sucked the air right out of the theater and not in a good way. It was the complete anti-hype putting both events in such proximity, to the point that it not only felt rushed but I was left going “Wait, what?” And this isn’t the only moment of undercutting in the movie. Shortly before this, Finn tries to sacrifice himself so the rest of the Resistance can live, only for his new buddy Rose to swoop in and push him out of danger. Pretty cool moment (because I was actually pretty worried Finn was about to die) until he goes to Rose’s crashed ship and she….confesses her love for him? What? The entire movie they had been barely friendly buddies on a mission in Sonic The Hedgehog’s Casino Night Zone, and suddenly she’s in love with him? Instead of being a powerful moment, you’re left scratching your head and wondering “do we really need a love triangle out of nowhere going into the final episode of the trilogy?”
There are, of course, other nitpicks about the movie in general. Leia playing Space Superman, for example. Or why Darth BB-8 was only in the movie for like 30 seconds despite getting a ton of advertising (oh hey, I can answer this one: merchandising!). Or why they went through the trouble of saying that only one guy in all the galaxy could possibly hack Snoke’s defenses, only to have another guy also be able to do that and he also happens to be visiting the Casino Night Zone. Just cut out the coincidence nonsense and have Finn and Rose be looking for that guy in the first place!
This is the original render of The Last Jedi’s casino planet.
And while I’m nitpicking I honestly feel like Finn got the shaft in The Last Jedi. His character arc was pretty clear – he goes from only selfishly caring about keeping himself and Rey safe to actually being willing to die for the Resistance. But he doesn’t really have a lot to do in this movie and is pretty much relegated to the B-plot for a majority of the time. At least he consistently sucks at piloting stuff in keeping with his character from The Force Awakens, though.
Let’s bounce off of complaining and back to praising. What I really liked about the overall theme of The Last Jedi is that good guys and heroes can still make mistakes. The entire movie is basically one big screw-up. Poe screws up by pushing his luck and getting the entire squad of bombers killed to kick off the movie. He then screws up more by challenging the acting commander and trying to mutiny, and the acting commander screws up by not trusting Poe in the first place. Finn and Rose screw up by trusting the wrong guy, Luke screws up while teaching Ben Solo, Rey screws up by believing Kylo is redeemable and Kylo screws up by thinking he looks good in high-waisted pants. But they all redeem themselves by the end and while most of them look like jerks in the moment, what matters is that their intentions are good and that they learn from their previous mistakes and grow.
And that’s a good message to get from Star Wars. Within the parameters of what was established in TFA, Rian Johnson did a good job. Now if he’d had the first movie, I truly believe we would have seen an evolution of plot from rebels vs. evil empire to something greater. But with what he had to work with he went scorched earth and left an open slate for the conclusion in Episode IX. I’m hopeful for the trilogy he’ll have complete control of since I think if he gets in from the ground floor the result will blow away all of the other non-OT Star Wars stories.
It’ll be interesting to see how the trilogy closes out, but I’m hopeful based on where The Last Jedi ended. I’m hoping that there isn’t any retconning to Rey’s heritage – her being fresh blood and leading a new generation of Force users is a good way to finish the Skywalker saga. Oh, and if Luke doesn’t come back as a Force Ghost in Episode IX, I’m gonna riot.