Is it any good?
Whether you ultimately do or do not like The Last Jedi will depend in part on your expectations. Was it hyped to the gills? Yes, but it probably doesn’t deserve it. It’s a Star Wars movie. It’s not more or less than that. Did you want to see an expansion of JJ Abrams’ ideas in The Force Awakens? Then you might be severely disappointed. Rian Johnson, who wrote and directed this movie, is (shocker!) NOT JJ Abrams. Some of the things he set up are discarded. Some return. Some are expanded. But almost none of this is in ways you might expect. Were you hoping that this would be The Empire Strikes Back of the new trilogy? It isn’t that either. It doesn’t feel like a second act. It feels like its own movie. Almost a side story of the trilogy rather than a full installment. While I don’t think that’s bad in the least, I do think it might rankle some people. Ultimately, you will like it if you value the final act enough to overcome the length of the movie and if you can discard your assumptions about what this movie SHOULD be. Because it isn’t that.
This is not JJ Abrams’ movie. I, personally, am extremely thankful for that. While I enjoyed The Force Awakens, I will be the first to admit its flaws and its over-reliance on the well worn iconography of preceding Star Wars movies. He passed the hat over to Rian Johnson, and it feels like Johnson was given someone else’s toys but doesn’t want to play with all of them. Finn gets a little short-changed in this movie (though he does have a really great moment at the end of the movie). Poe Dameron is less likeable and less active in this one. C3PO and R2D2 are in about as much in this movie as they were in Rogue One. Supreme Leader Snoke’s story and Rey’s parentage and Kylo Ren’s backstory are all a little bit different from what you might have expected based on The Force Awakens and the overall Skywalker saga.
So while it feels less like one person’s grand vision, I think Rian Johnson added a lot to the lore. Rey’s history ultimately being a huge misdirection democratizes the Force and makes her more interesting because she wasn’t chosen or special. Snoke’s untimely demise was GREAT because who gives a crap about the Emperor’s surrogate. Let’s all just admit to ourselves that although the Emperor was a great foil for Luke and the uniting factor for Luke and Vader, as a character he isn’t all that great. He is just supremely evil, and really creepy. Kylo Ren and Luke’s history together was very interesting, though I think they pulled back from making it really thought provoking when it just settled into familiar Good vs. Evil territory.
The other reason that I appreciated Rian Johnson’s work is that I think he accomplished what JJ Abrams was incapable of. JJ doesn’t make bad movies and doesn’t make bad looking movies, but I also don’t think they ever SOAR like some filmmakers can. Lost was fun, but I don’t think you can point to specific moments or scenes that were memorable outside of some twist. Super 8 was an able mimicry of Spielberg, but wasn’t really special. Cloverfield doesn’t hold up well and is basically a remake of the Matthew Broderick Godzilla movie. Star Trek was ok at best. But Rian Johnson gave us some of the most stunning imagery in ANY sci-fi/fantasy movie. The Crait battle was ridiculously gorgeous. The overhead shots of the rusty skim-speeders advancing on the First Order’s formation were spectacular. Luke’s emergence and battle on Crait was legendary. His final moments staring at the binary sun on Ahch-To were a beautiful callback. And Holdo’s lightspeed kamikaze through the First Order’s fleet was the single most jaw-dropping moment I have ever seen in a space movie.
But I do think that it was afraid to take too many chances. The Rey/Kylo relationship was incredibly well handled, but the fact that it ended by reinforcing their already entrenched positions was a little disappointing. They had such great chemistry together that I think it would have been intriguing to see her join the dark side or him join the light. I was also intrigued by Luke’s whole notions of the Jedi’s hubris and the need for the Jedi temple and everything else to burn, but, again, he falls back on existing dichotomies when he declares that he won’t be the last Jedi, implying that Rey will continue that legacy. I was hoping for a grey side that is between light and dark to be introduced and delved into. The cartoons had done it with Ahsoka, and I was hoping this sort of grey area could be done with this film.
There are other major structural problems with The Last Jedi that prevents me from recommending it wholeheartedly even though I loved so many pieces of it. It’s not a neat three act story. It’s more like four or five. The escape from the rebel base and attack of the dreadnought is the prologue, the casino heist and Rey first meeting Luke is act 1, Rey’s training and interactions with Luke and Kylo make up act 2, rebel escape and Rey’s confrontation with Snoke is act 3… and then we have more movie. The siege of Crait is act 4, and Luke’s stand against Kylo Ren is either act 5 or an extended epilogue. The pacing is a bit wonky here. Act 1 could have been excised almost entirely. It is necessary to set up Rose Tico’s backstory and give time for Rey and Luke to talk and philosophize, but the casino heist ultimately doesn’t mean anything for the success of the rebels since their plan to board Snoke’s ship never even gets off the ground. Also, the very slow moving Resistance mothership diffuses a LOT of tension on the casino planet. We aren’t initially told how long the Resistance can get away with slowly moving out of range of the fighters, and thus the casino subplot feels really weird. Like… y’all are going to a casino while your friends are running out of gas up there? There should have been urgency, but that then robs the casino of quiet moments that were used to explore Rose Tico and DJ. The resistance SHOULD have just made a tidy escape with Rose and Finn doing reconnaissance on the casino so there’s no ticking clock. Then the new fleet gets pursued and we can begin the second act with a heist or the existing escape sequence.
There are other problems with Johnson not landing on some moments or plots. The Rose/Finn relationship is somewhat underdeveloped so the kiss at the end feels unearned. Poe’s mutiny and what he learns from it doesn’t quite work because it’s all a bit too tidy and bloodless. Even Holdo, who he seemingly hated and against whom he mutinied, admits she still likes him afterward. And Captain Phasma is again disappointing, though far less disappointing than she was in The Force Awakens. I think there were a few too many pieces floating in the air, and Johnson didn’t really care about all of them.
But he DID care about the Jedi. He really thought it through. He gave us questions about the Jedi and the Force and light and dark. He built on Luke and Leia and Rey and Kylo (especially Kylo). I have a feeling that if this wasn’t a continuation of the “saga” and Rian had been able to just do a movie about Rey and Kylo and Jedi, it would be incredible. Those were all the best parts of the movie. I want more of that. I want to see more of Luke training Rey. I want to see him training Ben Solo and the other Jedi he had. I want to see more of the connection between Kylo Ren and Rey and how they conflict and balance one another.
Overall, i thought that the good outweighed the bad. Especially since the good was SO good and it ended the movie. A good ending can go a long way to making you feel like a movie was worth it (in the same way that a bad ending can make you feel like it wasn’t.)