You know who I’m jealous of? The 95% of the population who are going to go see Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker without having spent the last two years arguing about the merits of the last movie, Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, on the internet. This endless debate has been just a real bummer and has mostly consisted of people talking right past each other while making strawmen out of one another. It’s been especially painful for me since I was among the people who didn’t like that movie which kind of put me at odds with both the critical consensus and in the rather awkward position of arguing against a movie for what I considered the right reasons while knowing there were a handful of people who were also arguing against it for the not so right reasons. But I wasn’t going to just shut up and pretend there wasn’t a whole lot about that movie which bugged me and I ended up writing a three thousand three hundred word review of the damn thing which I think is to date the longest review I’ve ever written. And now this whole debate is being rekindled all over again by the final film in this new Star Wars trilogy, which was directed by J.J. Abrams rather than Rian Johnson and which critics seem to be coming at it with knives out (pun intended) for perceived offenses against their preferred installment. I’m going to do my best to discuss this thing without rehashing the old TLJ arguments all over again and I certainly don’t plan to set new length records.
We learn right from the film’s opening crawl that Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) has somehow resurrected and soon learn that he had created Snoke and was behind the resurgence of the Empire during this trilogy. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has already found him and has begun to plot with him, but no one else knows where he is. Meanwhile Rey (Daisy Ridley) has continued her Jedi training under Leia (Carrie Fisher) but then Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) arrive at the base with a lead suggesting that Palpatine is on an unknown planet called Exegol, a name that Rey recognizes from one of Luke Skywalker’s journals. Knowing that The First Order is about to go on the offensive using a fleet of super star destroyers that will destroy the rebellion if they can’t find Palpatine and put an end to all of this. As such Rey, Poe, Finn, Chewbacca, BB8, and C-3PO set out to recapture the trail that Luke was on to find this planet years ago.
If I had to sum up my objections to The Last Jedi it would be that it not only ignored mysteries that were deliberately set up in the first film but it dismissed them in the most disrespectful way possible. It essentially told the fans they were stupid for having invested in ideas that J.J. Abrams had told them to invest in in the first place. For instance, critics seemed to think there was a whole lot of interest to be mined from the fact that Rey’s parents weren’t prominent figures from earlier films, but to me that was just the most anti-climactic possible solution to a mystery from the first film. There’s nothing new about force users coming from “nobodies,” hell, Anakin Skywaker himself came from “nowhere.” So that wasn’t a radical reinvention so much as it was a lame “surprise” that didn’t fit within the original puzzle. And now that he’s back in the director’s chair people are accusing J.J. Abrams of “capitulating” to the “bad fans” who dared not to like their precious Rian Johnson movie when the truth of the matter is that he was clearly just reverting back to the original vision he had when he made the widely popular The Force Awakens. He also clears up a few other things that Johnson recklessly muddled like the origins of Snoke, Luke Skywalker’s reasons for having a bad attitude about training Rey, and the bad out of place comedy is kept to a minimum.
Of course there are still issues with this trilogy that this isn’t able to fix. There’s still no explanation for why Rey was able to become a lightsaber savant without training and the basic logistics of how the First Order managed to take over the galaxy so quickly generally don’t make a lot of sense. I would also say that the general trend of these movies mirroring installments of the original trilogy continues. The Force Awakens was almost scene for scene similar to A New Hope, The Last Jedi very closely mirrored The Empire Strikes Back (despite critics’ insistence that it’s some sort of avant-garde reinvention), and the new film certainly has a lot in common with The Return of the Jedi though I’d argue not it’s not a ripoff to anywhere near the degree that The Force Awakens was. Yes, the film has the Emperor and Lando but there isn’t really an equivalent to Jabba’s palace here and while the film does end in a big battle that’s intercut with a more personal conflict between Jedi something like that was probably inevitable regardless of who made this movie. I would also say that the film is a little too drunk on slightly pandering cameos toward the end and I would also say that the movie isn’t entirely successful in building a performance out of Carrie Fisher stock footage to give Leia a meaningful role in the film. That last issue was probably unavoidable to some extent but still the fact of the matter is that it’s pretty obvious what’s happening there and it’s not seamless.
But as easy as it is to pick holes in certain elements of the movie, but pros outweigh the cons in a pretty big way for me. This is the first time we’ve really seen the cast of the new trilogy working together on a mission and the adventure elements here really delivered for me. I’ve heard people say that the movie is “overstuffed” and moves too fast but to some extent that fast pace seems like an asset to me. The characters find themselves on some visually interesting planets and there are some fairly solid action scenes along the way. I also thought the film did a better job than I expected resolving the tensions between Rey and Kylo Ren, which I thought was kind of a mess by the end of The Last Jedi. Beyond that I actually liked how hopeful and crowd pleasing the film’s finale was. There’s nothing revolutionary about the way the last battle plays out but it certainly milks your desire to see win triumph over evil and as much as I might say they went a little overboard on some of the fan service I would be lying if I didn’t say I was struck when some of it happened. It’s a kind of catharsis we from franchises like this in troubling times like these.
Honestly I’m not sure I’ve done a wonderful job of defending this movie, but I’m also kind of surprised that this is a movie that needs defending. I can see why some people would be disappointed that this didn’t go off in whatever wild direction they thought The Last Jedi was pointing towards but isn’t that the same argument that was dismissed when people made it about The Last Jedi itself and its decision to ignore what The Force Awakens set up? I heard one prominent Film Twitter personality accuse it of being “rude” to Rian Johnson as if Rian Johnson hadn’t been incredible rude to J.J. Abrams first. And what’s really strange about the reception is that just about everything it’s been accused of things that are pretty in keeping with what The Force Awakens was doing, and last time I checked people liked The Force Awakens a lot. I have the receipts; that movie is at 93% on Rotten Tomatoes and a solid 81 on Metacritic, if you liked that movie you should like this one or at least not be overly surprised that it is the way it is and the people claiming it’s “worse than the prequels” really strike me as being wildy un-objective… of course I’m doubt I can be too objective about it either. It’s Star Wars dammit, it’s a series that’s ingrained in the back of my psyche and has been since I was a small child so what can I say, it’s a movie that delivered some quality Star Wars and even in this world where Disney is wildly monetizing that IP you don’t really get that too often.
***1/2 out of Five