This was scheduled to be published in late 2017, but I noticed during a site cleanup that it was never published… so, consider this a late review.
On the way to see “The Last Jedi” in the theatre, I got myself all worked up that the desire by fans – myself included – to see the aged actors of the original trilogy appear in a proper sequel had been misguided. We got our wish and the results in “The Force Awakens” had been uneven. That film had struck me as an entertaining ride upon its first viewing but the shine went off of it as the high from ‘new Star Wars’ passed. It had been too much of a homage and the long-term result was something that felt disposable.
So, approaching “The Last Jedi,” I found myself wishing that Luke Skywalker was not going to be returning. I didn’t need to see him cynically paraded around as another failed hero. And, while the film did that, imagine my surprise with being content with the ultimate resolution that was given to his character.
I’ve been engaged enough in online “Star Wars” film fandom to have seen debates erupt around every film that has been released since the original trilogy ‘Special Editions.’ There was a joke on Reddit about how you can only be a true “Star Wars” fan if you hate every “Star Wars” film and the reaction to “The Last Jedi” followed this familiar pattern. There were the general critical raves, followed quickly by a vocal and divided fan base. Did this reaction feel worse than the divide over the prequels or consensus on “The Force Awakens?” Perhaps, but this film’s situation was an odd one.
Like me, many fans had rejected “The Force Awakens” due to recognizing it as too much of a ‘rhyme’ with the prior films (it tended more ‘remake’ than ‘rhyme’ like the filmmakers tried to play up in their press comments). So, when “The Last Jedi” did not rhyme enough or seem (arbitrary as it might be) “Star Wars”-enough, fans were left in hard to resolve (or even articulate) arguments about if the proverbial portage was too hot or too cold.
In defense of writer-director Rian Johnson’s situation, he was given a particular setup from “The Force Awakens” that already included a set of necessary new characters and a failed Luke Skywalker. Johnson began writing “The Last Jedi” in a bubble before he could have heard fan reaction or speculation around “The Force Awakens” but this did not really matter since he would later confess in interviews that it would have seemed unwise to cater to particular fans.
While many fans might have cared about elaborate backstory reveals regarding Snoke or Captain Phasma, Rian Johnson did not make that a focus of his work.
Instead, Johnson’s strengths were in conveying themes to viewers – such as the ability of a ‘nobody’ to rise up to do great things or letting go of a dysfunctional legacy – or in creating compelling character moments. He was less interested in doing mythology information dumps, like JJ Abrams might have been, or in intricate plot mechanics, like a Christopher Nolan.
The plot of “The Last Jedi” was pretty bare-bones. The Rebellion, er, Resistance, had been widdled down to its last few ships and individuals. The Empire, er, First Order, was eventually literally closing in on the Resistance’s last ship and a sort of slow speed chase ensued for much of the film’s runtime. While that plotline was unfolding (slowly, mind you), a couple of ‘side quests’ took place. One of those side plots involved Rey attempting to train as a Jedi under Luke Skywalker. The other side plot involved Finn heading to a casino planet with a new mechanic-type character known as Rose, their mission to get a hacker who could help sneak into Snoke’s flagship and disable a tracking device that was being used to pursue the Resistance through light speed jumps.
Again, the plot points were nothing crazy and one could easily try to poke major plot holes in the central slow-speed chase. That said, how one instead reacted to what Johnson was offering in terms of theme and character moments largely dictated one’s reaction to “The Last Jedi.”
What I liked…
A lot of the trademark ‘mystery boxes’ that JJ Abrams had planted in “The Force Awakens” were largely ignored or kicked over. So far as we can assume, the idea of Snoke being a key character was made moot and that move was probably for the best since Snoke always seemed like a lightweight Palpatine proxy.
The notion of who Rey’s parents might be was teased in “The Force Awakens” as being something significant but “The Last Jedi” tentatively answered that question as simply as possible. It remained to be seen if that answer held but it made sense in relation to Johnson’s intended themes.
The action sequences were memorable, especially the ones in space. Did the lightsabre fight between Kylo and Rey seem irrelevant since Snoke’s former guards should have logically become his follower? Probably, but it was a fun fight. Would I have liked to see Luke do more amazing Jedi action? Yes, but the build-up and aftermath of Luke’s moment of glory was grand, so adding in crazy moves would have only elevated a good sequence.
Johnson’s visual style, editing within scenes, and general handling of direction was top-notch.
Yoda showing up was a welcome surprise. Although, amid the dim projection at the theatre where I saw the film, I hate myself a little bit for initially thinking that Yoda in old-school puppet form looked ‘off’ to me. It seems that I’d gotten used to seeing his CGI version over the years.
A shock scene that involved the destruction of a Resistance ship bridge that resulted in the overly-casual shock death of series mainstay Admiral Ackbar. It looked like Leia was a goner too, but Leia had the Force with her and force-users had been given some leeway in terms of limited outer space exposure. Leia used her abilities to pull herself toward an airlock where she could be rescued. It wasn’t much and some fans quibbled over the moment but it was likely the last use of the Force that fans would see on the big screen from Leia.
The Finn and Rose ‘fetch quest’ storyline was not uninteresting or un-entertaining. In a film that fan two and a half hours though, the fact that it ended as a failed mission led many to wonder if it was a big waste of time. One could argue that it had a lasting contribution of spreading the notion of rebel hope to the downtrodden on the planet of Canto Bight and that point was important but this general plotline was the one that could have been trimmed. Another result of it – the seeming romance with Finn and Rose – was not of much concern to me since neither character had done much to pique my interest.
The use of ramming the final Resistance ship into Snoke’s mega-ship was a huge climactic moment but it seemed to push the ‘in universe’ rules of “Star Wars” a bit hard. Sure, Han Solo had said in “A New Hope” that traveling in light speed required precision to avoid things like planets but one had to wonder why this sort of a tactic had never been used when battling the various Death Stars or other large ships in past films. Fans seemed to scramble to offer explanations but this need seemed like patching a leak versus something that had organically developed within the “Star Wars” universe norms.
It was perhaps not a surprise but “The Last Jedi” featured no significant new or memorable John Williams theme music. Williams had a new Latin Cantina-band variation that was interesting and noted but it was more of a side piece used once. That said, Johnson’s handling of the music that he had to work with was skillful and smooth.
Like with “The Force Awakens,” there were times where the use of humor worked and other times where it was questionable. In particular, an early ‘on hold’ gag by Poe really skirted a line between non-distracting humor and being too slapsticky. As with most things related to humor, opinion is highly subjective.
The new characters that Johnson added were not really remarkable. As I mentioned, Rose was forgettable and Benicio del Toro’s hacker character was interesting but he still felt like ‘Benicio del Toro in a Star Wars movie.’ Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo was an intentional ‘looks can be deceiving’ character and she had a great finale turn but I had no yearning to dig into the character’s supposedly-storied past.
Remains to be seen…
Rey’s training with Luke made Luke’s training with Yoda seem like a full university course. The past criticisms that she had an unexplained/natural high level of practical Force use continued to be valid. Speculation that she might turn to dark side in the future “Episode 9” was not a bad idea since it would explain her lack of proper training finally catching up with her.
Some new locations, such as the casino planet and, Crait, the mining planet with the abandoned rebel stronghold, were interesting but it was too soon to say how enduring those locations would be.
The Porgs were felt like an obvious merchandising ploy but they were not so annoying that they were distracting. In reality, they were a necessary bit of island animal life due to the need to cover up the puffins that were plentiful at the location.
Poe’s character was interesting to watch but also frustrating in terms of brash recklessness. Audiences were supposed to be rooting for the character’s growth but it felt odd having the women commanding him having to reassure the audience that the guy was someone who we should be cheering on.
Kylo Ren’s place seemed more muddled than ever, although this might not be a bad thing. One got the sense that his position as leader of the Empire, er, First Order, was not necessarily going to last. He finished the movie having been humiliated by Luke in front of his subordinates and he did not lash out against them as they looked on in disappointment. It was not explored but some sort of a well-meaning team-up between Kylo and Rey would have been a fascinating twist. It also remained unclear if we would see that quasi-romance ever play out in such a partnership.
Luke’s behavior toward Kylo Ren, with the differing memories of a key moment in his training was interesting. It’s been a focal point of debate amongst fans though and accepting some aspect of Luke’s momentary shift toward the dark side was a factor in being able to enjoy “The Last Jedi.”
Luke’s ‘death’ at the end added a nice moment of emotional closure for him but I strongly suspect that we’ll see his character continue to have a Force-related presence. Either to torment Kylo Ren or to continue to instruct Rey. One interesting idea that will likely not get explored would have been to see more insights into Luke’s journey into this ‘beyond’ that seems to exist for Jedi.
I still don’t know that it’s necessarily a good thing that as the credits were rolling, I told a friend who had joined me for the screening that I was ‘good’ with this being the end of things for me. That is probably not the reaction that Disney wants but with Luke’s seeming exit from the story, it felt like my primary interest in these films had been wrapped up. Sure, there were loose ends with Kylo Ren or the First Order presumably ruling the galaxy but I wasn’t exactly being kept up late at night, yearning to know how that material resolved.
My immediate reaction to “The Last Jedi” had been one of relief in that I had not been looking forward to the sequels to “The Force Awakens” following along the predictable ‘mystery box’ rails that JJ Abrams had laid down. I giggled at the idea that Rian Johnson seemed to methodically blow up every such mystery box but I could understand how some fans of the ideas introduced in “The Force Awakens” might be attached to those ideas and outraged that such things won’t be addressed.
The clean slate that Abrams returns to with “Episode 9” gives him plenty of flexibility though. It might not be elegant but he could easily bring back Snoke by having had his ‘clone’ killed or reveal Rey’s ‘true’ origin.
I’ll admit that my positive vibes with “The Last Jedi” largely boiled down to the final ‘coda’ scene. As I said, my childhood attachment to “Star Wars” was given a sort of closure in with the exit of the original trilogy’s three leads and that scene hammered on Johnson’s theme of letting the next generation rise up to tell their stories. As much as I’ve wanted to keep the ‘toys’ that are “Star Wars” to me, aging has changed my perspective on what is carried on or cherished by the next generation. To some extent, this film gave me ways to let go of “Star Wars” a little bit and, ultimately, that is probably not a bad thing.