Warning: This review contains spoilers.
It’s been about two years since the release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens but the hype-train leading up to it almost feels a bit like a distant memory. That movie’s very existence almost seemed like a miracle, like something we were never going to see until George Lucas passed away, or that if it did exist under Lucas’ eye it would have been met with incredible suspicion. But the movie did come out, all signs pointed to it being the movie everyone wanted and somehow some way it basically lived up to the hype. Critics like it, audiences loved it, and it ended up being the highest grossing film of all time at the domestic box office. I liked it too, I didn’t love it beyond reason, but it was a very solid blockbuster with some great new characters and a firm grasp of what a Star Wars movie should probably look like in the 21st Century. Prior to its release I greeted The Force Awakens with cautious optimism but I’ll admit I came pretty close to getting caught up in the hype as well on some level. Oddly though, with its direct follow-up The Last Jedi my excitement has been a bit muted despite all signs pointing to it being and even bigger deal than its predecessor. This might have simply been the result of me being a little too diligent in avoiding spoilers for my own good. At a certain point all I’d really known about the movie was that initial “breathe” trailer, which maybe wasn’t the best put together piece of advertising ever. Still, it’s Star Wars, and when Star Wars comes around you show up for it.
The film picks up not too long after the events of The Force Awakens and despite having had their super-weapon base destroyed in the last movie it seems that the First Order have largely taken over the galaxy and the resistance against them is on its last legs. In the opening scenes the resistance are evacuating from their last base and escape to light speed just in time to avoid destruction. They think they’re in the clear, only to suddenly have the First Order have found a way to track people through hyperspace and suddenly appear right behind them. Realizing that another jump to light speed would only waste the last of their fuel, the resistance hits their thrusters and diverts shields to the rear, which allows their faster armada to stay just ahead of their pursuers as long as their fuel lasts. Desperate, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) hatch a plan for Finn to leave the flotilla along with his new friend Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and travel to a separate planet to find a codebreaker who will help them infiltrate the lead imperial ship and turn off their ability to track the rebels when they jump to hyperspace. Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is reunited with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on Ahch-To as per the final moments of The Force Awakens only to discover that Luke has become bitter about the ways of the Jedi and has no interest in training another apprentice. Persistent, Rey proclaims she will not be leaving the planet without Luke or at least without some lesson, but she’s also become troubled by strange visions she’s been having of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), visions where she starts to wonder if he’s looking back at her.
Let’s start with that inciting incident. One of the problems I had with The Force Awakens is that it seemed pretty unclear just what this First Order was and how they managed to take over the galaxy in such a short time from this republic that our heroes had fought so hard to establish in the first movies. This problem sort of persists here with us learning in the opening scroll that despite taking a big L in the first movie the First Order had become dominant in the galaxy and were now more or less in the position the Empire was in in the original trilogy. This felt a bit odd given that the Resistance did seem to still have a pretty decent foothold in The Force Awakens but here they seem even weaker than the scrappy rebellion of the original movies and are so small and contained that they are confined to what appear to be four spaceships. The idea of those four spaceships getting into a sort of low speed battle of attrition with star destroyers as they just barely outrun them is a cool one and I can imagine something like that having the makings of a good episode of Battlestar Galactica or something but it’s a little hard to believe in this context. Why doesn’t the First Order simply call for re-enforcements to cut them off from the other side? They’re running the galaxy now and they have gigantic armies don’t they? For that matter what’s stopping them from simply sending more Tie-Fighters try to outflank them like Kylo Ren did early on?
But okay, it’s a cool little tense scenario and I can work with it, but the tenseness of that scenario is something of a double edged sword as it makes the danger feel really immediate and pressing and that really takes the fun out of any sort of delay along the way. It makes it harder to sympathize with Luke’s hesitance to join in initially, but the bigger problem is that it makes it kind of infuriating to watch Finn and Rose horse around (literally and figuratively) while on their side mission to the decadent planet of Canto Bight. This whole section of the movie is frankly a disaster. I might have enjoyed exploring this decadent space resort but everything’s supposed to be on the line at that point in the story and that is not the time for them to be exploring the lighter adventure aspects of the franchise and especially not when they’re this poorly executed. That space horse escape scene was decidedly not worth the effect it has on the narrative and the fact that they were stupid enough to put their whole operation in danger just because they couldn’t wait to find a parking lot was dumb and so was the coincidence of finding themselves in the same jail cell as a code-breaker who is good enough to help them with their rather specific mission.
Granted, as new characters go I rather liked Rose and thought Kelly Marie Tran brought something interesting to the table in terms of Star Wars characters and didn’t just feel like an echo of or reaction to previous Star Wars personalities like so many of the characters from The Force Awakens did. It had more mixed feelings about Benecio Del Toro’s character DJ, I did enjoy his interactions with Finn where he debated the morality of the resistance but I did not like the way he just coincidentally entered the movie by showing up in the right jail cell and didn’t believe that Finn would have risked hiring him for such a critical mission. Poe Dameron, though technically established in The Force Awakens only really starts to get significant screen time here. I wouldn’t say I disliked Dameron in the previous film, but nothing about the character particularly impressed me, he just seemed like this very generic hero and given what we’ve been given here he almost seems like a parody of the white male heroes that have historically been at the centers of space operas and serials like this. In many ways this movie seems to have been made to pull the rug out from under him but it doesn’t quite have the nerve to really go in for the killshot. I did appreciate how effectively the movie tricks the audience into going along with his insubordination and makes you assume the ends will justify the means but it also doesn’t want him to live with the consequences once this blows up in his face. This guy was essentially gambling with the fate of the galaxy and lost; he got hundreds if not thousands of resistance members killed, and yet just a couple hours later he still has a leadership position in the resistance and is still being treated as a hero.
The material with Rey and Luke on the other hand generally fared a little bit better but isn’t without its own flaws. Mark Hamill is quite good in the movie and makes a compelling case that he should have been getting more work all these years. That said, unlike Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher it’s a little hard to reconcile the older Luke Skywalker with the fresh-faced young man from the original films. That’s explained to some extent in the backstory about his history with Kylo, which is shown in what I believe is the first instance of real flashback in the history of Star Wars. This backstory does a pretty good job of explaining why Luke is bitter and ready to end the Jedi order, but I don’t necessarily get why he opted to fuck off to a remote planet instead of staying behind to help clean up the mess he made. Regardless, his unwillingness to train Rey now that she’s sought him out on the planet is understandable given the track-record we’ve seen so far of highly powerful people getting trained late in life that we’ve seen so far. In fact I feel like the question of what qualifies as Jedi is kind of an inconsistency throughout the Star Wars canon at this point. The prequels made the Jedi out to be these warrior monk samurai who achieve their status through years of hard work and study, which probably scans best with how these sorts of things work in real life. The original trilogy doesn’t exactly contradict this as it seems to suggest that force sensitive people can go their entire lives not even knowing they have powers, but it does seem to suggest that in a pinch a few months of running through the jungle with Yoda will probably be good enough.
In this new Abrams trilogy it feels more like being a Jedi is just something you can sort of pick up on even if you’ve never been trained at all. Here Leia is apparently able to use the force to survive in the vacuum of space despite having presumably rejected Jedi training (a truly odd scene if ever there was one) and in the last movie Rey could apparently fight off a trained sith in a lightsaber fight just on instinct and here she’s similarly able to take on all the knights of ren about as effectively as Kylo could. In the last movie I gave them some benefit of the doubt about this in hopes that there would be some explanation for that in the sequels but here they seem to actively suggest there is no explanation. Yet Luke still insists at the end that Rey is going to become a Jedi somehow despite having not received any real training, losing her one possible mentor, and having not even been left with some books to study. And if training is truly this irrelevant to what being a powerful Jedi is all about why exactly does Luke feel guilty about having trained Kylo or think it might be dangerous to similarly train Rey? Doesn’t exactly make sense for someone who thinks she’s such a natural that she can just be a Jedi autodidact.
The Rey-related elements of this section of the movie generally work quite well though. It’s pretty easy to relate to her frustration with Luke and her palpable desire to train while on that island works pretty well. More importantly her strange force-induced psychological bond with Kylo Ren is quite effective and you can really feel a palpable tension in them. These also lead to what is rather plainly the strongest section of the movie: the confrontation between Rey, Kylo, and Snoke. Andy Serkis’ Snoke is great here and throughout the movie and really redeems what had seemed like a rather odd element in The Force Awakens and while I was sad to see him go I will say that I was pretty genuinely surprised that they were willing to split him right in half right here in the second movie and the ensuing fight with the guards was also a really good. It wasn’t just the Kylo/Rey stuff that was working well here; all the storylines converge quite nicely during this section of the film. Poe’s mutiny was very exciting and tense, Finn and Rose’s storyline finally picks up as they sneak onto the ship and get captured, and the moment when Holdo does a light speed kamikaze run is obviously incredible. In fact the movie so clearly peaks at this point that it’s kind of odd that it keeps on going for another twenty minutes or so and while there’s good stuff in the battle on Crait it certainly feels less involved than what came before and almost feels like something that should have happened in a latter movie.
The big complaint about The Force Awakens was of course that it played things too safe to the point that it almost felt like a re-skinned remake of the original Star Wars. To some extent this sequel also seems to echo its predecessors. The way it splits up an aspiring Jedi trying to train on a remote planet with her friends being on the run from bad guys is not unlike the structure of The Empire Strikes Back and the way Finn and Rey are betrayed is not unlike what Lando does to Han and Leia in that movie. And yet “playing it too safe” is certainly not something you can really accuse The Last Jedi of doing given that it pretty deliberately does the opposite of what you’d expect at various moments, sometimes to the point of underwhelming. Most controversially the film kills off the mysterious Snoke without so much as trying to explain who he was or where he came from and also rather casually giving the most mundane explanation for Rey’s parentage possible. One could blame Star Wars fans for obsessing over those two mysteries and setting themselves up for disappointment, but to that I call bullshit. The fans had every reason to ponder over those mysteries given that they were questions that J.J. Abrams quite intentionally left open, more than inviting people to theorize about them for two years. If he doesn’t have a good answer for something he maybe shouldn’t set it up as a mystery… has he learned nothing from “Lost.”
There is perhaps something of a meta-textual reading to all this. Leaving the old ways behind seems to be one to the film’s most consistent and on the nose themes. Luke talks about letting the Jedi die out until sort of changing his mind, Kylo literally kills his mentor and talks about leaving “the old ways” behind, Yoda’s force ghost literally burns the old order to the ground. The whole thing seems to be some sort of metaphor for the series itself breaking away from its usual traditions and framing it through a sort of Silicon Valley lens of “disruption” as necessary for progress. It’s kind of a wild message to be delivering given that their last Star Wars movie was nostalgia-tinged to the point where it inspired the phrase “memberberries,” and to go straight from something like that to something like this which is flipping over tables and burning things to the ground causes a certain degree of whiplash. A lot of people are praising them for being bold and taking risks, but taking risks isn’t an inherently praiseworthy thing; you also need to make the right risks, the ones that actually pay off, and all too often I don’t think the direction that Abrams and Johnson chose go pays off.
Beyond meta readings of the movie the more overt messages of The Last Jedi are all over the place and at times contradictory. In his ghostly appearance (which was poorly executed incidentally, I think Frank Oz has lost his gift at doing this voice) tells Luke to let the old order burn and Kylo Ren also destroys the Sith order, and yet by the end Luke defiantly declares that he won’t be the last Jedi. Finn’s story ends with Rose preventing his kamikaze run and telling him that they’re going to win by saving what they love rather than fighting what they hate, whatever that means, but this more or less contradicts a similar act of self-sacrifice that Holdo had more or less been valorized for committing and if not for the unexpected intervention of Luke’s force projection this act of “saving what they love” would have done nothing more than to doom the galaxy. Finn’s lesson on the other hand is supposed to be that he needs to stop taking unnecessary risks and quit acting impulsively, but as stated previously the film never really engages in the consequences of this. The overall theme might be something more general along the lines of “you need to learn from your failures,” but a lot of these failures seem more the kind of failures that kill you than make you stronger. By the end of the movie the resistance (which seemed oddly small to begin with) has been reduced to the point where they can all fit into the Millennium Falcon. It’s implied that the true victory is that the galaxy is now “inspired” by their stand, but I don’t see why they would be given how much they screwed up, the events of the last movie seem a hell of a lot more “inspirational” to me. The only real hope to be found in this ending is that their opponent seems kind of incompetent and is now in the hands of a petulant child who got his ass kicked by a novice in the last movie and got played for a chump in this one.
So is this even a good movie? When I first left my the theater I would have said “yes” even though I was a bit baffled by what I’d just seen. While watching the movie disappointment had set in early on and there continued to be moments I just did not like, but there were also moments that sort of made up for that. The characters remained fairly likable and there were action scenes which gave me that excited Star Wars feel. However, the film’s general messiness and tonal confusion remained and as time has gone on its flaws have stuck with me more than its moments of excitement. I could go on and on about why Rian Johnson’s “burn it all down” attitude annoys me and why his refusal to engage in the mysteries of the previous film is a dereliction of duty, but that isn’t really the problem here so much as a series of smaller offenses just sort of drown the movie. It’s less a death of a thousand cuts than a injury of 250 or so cuts. I do not, however, want to go too deep into the realms of hyperbole and suggest that I hate the movie or that there aren’t plenty of redeeming qualities to it. I suspect that a lot of the things I found to be gaping flaws will seem a lot more forgivable to the more casual Star Wars fans who just wants to see a lot of lightsaber fights and space ship battles, but the movie does not hold up to closer analysis and its rather flippant attitude towards a filmmaking legacy that means so much to so many people is pretty hard to take. I’ll give the movie one thing: my dislike of it has been a keen reminder of how much this franchise meant to me in the first place.