The Last Jedi is action-packed, thrilling, surprisingly funny, has several unpredictable twists and contains character moments that, in time, will overshadow all that action and adventure. It’s also a cathartic experience for original Star Wars fans like myself. I can’t wait to see it several more times. And I have not said that about a Star Wars movie in a long time… a long time.
But, it’s difficult to review The Last Jedi as simply a film because it means so much more to so many. Because as fans we are all veterans of one war. Star Wars. And like the horrors of actual war in the real world, our feelings about it are complicated. Which is why it doesn’t surprise me that each release of a new Star Wars movie leaves audiences and critics so divided. Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is no different. Factions form into “loved it” or “hated it” or “I can’t believe you loved it, you must be an idiot/SJW/not a true fan/on Disney’s payroll”, etc…
When it comes to arguing about Star Wars, fans or, more accurately, “people on the internet” really let the hate flow through them. And this fandom civil war that has broken out over The Last Jedi is particularly brutal. Or perhaps the negative voices are just a bit louder. But opinions in this arena are often irrelevant as the barometer by which modern success at the movies is measured is Republic credits. But let’s cast aside box office for a moment, your reaction to Star Wars is your own and probably very personal. I’m no different.
“The release of a Star Wars film is an event. And for hardcore fans, they are akin to new chapters of the Bible being delivered from on high…”
It’s also important to recognize that because Star Wars is one of those increasingly rare movie franchises that must have some appeal to everyone, there is a lot of fandom baggage that gets dragged into each new movie. One can hardly evaluate The Last Jedi like any other film. The release of a Star Wars film is an event. And for hardcore fans, they are akin to new chapters of the Bible being delivered from on high. Which gives them greater significance because what happens in this imaginary universe is canon and forever affects characters that have been beloved for decades. Episode VIII is particularly important as it heralds the return of Luke Skywalker. Make fun of him all you want for his initial whininess on Tatooine, Luke’s journey offered the most identifiable and human reaction to the vast strangeness of this new universe. Luke has changed as much as the audience, and in Last Jedi he is a grumpy Jedi, perhaps better known as “Old Man Luke.”
In order to really talk about The Last Jedi, discussion of key story points and spoilers is necessary, so here’s your one warning. The story covers familiar territory–the Rebels, I mean, Resistance is on the run from the Empire, I mean, First Order. A new apprentice strong in the Force seeks out a master for her Jedi training and guidance and the secret of her lineage. Space battles, political intrigue, characters in peril, pure evil, lightsaber fights, choosing the path of light or dark, plus something cute thrown in as a distraction. Oh, and hilarity ensues, perhaps more than some would like. But I really enjoyed the humor because it is an important part of the mix of elements that make a Star Wars film work.
The things that succeeded, worked incredibly well. Equally, the things that did not hit the mark, failed badly but did not ruin the film overall.
The opening battle scene is a whirlwind of starship mayhem — we’ve never seen an X-Wing in a battle quite like that. And it was refreshing to care about a side character with little screen time who makes the ultimate sacrifice. This was not just a collection of cool starship shots jumbled together to form an action sequence, the goal for the battle is made clear with the Resistance attack on a fearsome Dreadnaught ship. While all of this is happening, the human element is never forgotten — there are people aboard those ships and consequences for our characters in the Resistance on the run.
Rey’s arrival and subsequent training on Ahch-To has just the right amount of dire seriousness and situational humor. There are even moments here where Last Jedi feels like an art film, in particular, Rey’s encounter in the cave.
Old man Luke is like a reinvention of the character as we knew him in the original trilogy. Mark Hamill has outdone himself in his best acting as Luke Skywalker. Luke may be a legend in the Star Wars universe, but his human side really comes out during these scenes. We see the pain and regret in that face as he realizes his family may have, yet again, thrown the galaxy in turmoil.
Kylo Ren and Rey’s odd and still unexplained relationship is the most interesting part of Last Jedi. Initially that bond forms over a kind of Jedi Snapchat as the two connect over some Force-driven galactic version of the internet of the mind. At one point, the composition even makes it appear they are chatting over a computer. Women might identify Kylo as some creeper who reaches out over Facebook. Kylo is seen shirtless in one exchange and Rey even asks him to put something on. Those scenes do really feel like some predatory male going after a woman on social media. And even after Kylo and Rey join forces to battle Snoke’s red-armored minons (who I’m sure have a name, but whatever) Kylo then tries to “neg” Rey by revealing that her parents were “nobodies.” He’s actually negging her! I’m pretty sure that Johnson is commenting on creepy and manipulative men who take advantage of women online, or I could be reading too much into it. I’ll let the internet argue over that one.
And then there is Snoke, who somehow drew so much speculation as the new big baddie in the sequel trilogy. After such a big build up, Snoke is cut down like nothing. I honestly believe that Snoke’s origins aren’t all that interesting and his character is just a distraction from the more important issues. But, just for fun, I am going to theorize that the Snoke that was killed in Last Jedi was a clone. That’s right, Clone Snoke! At least that’s the theory I plan to spread on the internet so that it can be debated for the next two years. (And if you are reading this JJ, feel free to use that idea. Also, post with the hashtag #CloneSnoke.)
“When you remember what you love most about Star Wars, it’s probably not the action, the most memorable parts are character moments…”
When you remember what you love most about Star Wars, it’s probably not the action, the most memorable parts are character moments. And there are so many to discuss, from Leia saving herself with the Force, the Snoke betrayal just as Snoke talking about how he can never be betrayed, the Kylo-Rey teaming up, old man Luke’s daily routine, the Chuck Norris-looking Luke taking on the First Order alone and on and on.
Additionally, the dialog seems intended to comment on the film as we are seeing it, as if writer/director Rian Johnson wants to clue the audience in one what he’s really trying to say. Lines such as “Let the past die,” or “This is not going to go the way you think.”
But what worked best of all was the tone. This felt like a Star Wars movie in every way and brought me back to my childhood. Tone is really the most important contribution of the director and Rian Johnson nails it in every sense. And especially with regard to the humor. Even the controversial Porgs provide just enough funny and cute moments. Johnson went so far as to acknowledge the inevitable hate for anything cute by including a scene of a freshly cooked “Cornish Porg” about to be eaten by Chewbacca as the eyes of gaggle of Porgs look on heartbroken, it’s brilliantly hilarious.
Okay, not exactly dark, but here’s what didn’t quite work for me, first and foremost, the running time. This film did not need to be 152 minutes and should have been closer to the 120 minute standard established by the earlier films. I hope one day we’ll see a fan cut that is actually closer to two hours.
The scenes on Canto Bight seemed like an unnecessary divert for Rose (a new character I actually really like) and Finn. This “casino planet” was like a scene right out of a low-budget Sy-Fy channel movie shot in Vancouver. It felt too familiar and earthbound to be a scene in an other-worldly scene in a Star Wars movie. The Rose/Finn alien horse race through the casino that ruined the galactic one-percenters good time and did some property damage was just ridiculous and should have been cut. Rose and Finn flopping around on the alien horse just looked like a bad theme park ride. (I fully expect this chase sequence to be on Star Tours or at Disney’s Star Wars Land.)
Finn’s storyline overall is the weakest, though his journey actually takes an interesting turn in the final battle on Crait. Finn finally learns that becoming a hero requires acts of self-sacrifice. And surprisingly, he finally learned to pilot a ship because if I recall in The Force Awakens which took place maybe a few days before Last Jedi, Finn needed a pilot to flee the First Order and escape his life as a Stormtrooper. So that was fast.
Benicio Del Toro’s character DJ has the most uninspired “Star Wars” name in the Star Wars galaxy. DJ. And Benicio’s acting choice to add a stammer was just cringe-inducing. I would not miss that character if he were cut entirely. The Resistance rag-tag fleet being chased by the First Order felt a little Battlestar Galactic-ish, which would have been fine had this not been a thread through the entire film. The conflicts on those Resistance ships felt a little forced and seemed to be made to fill up screen time. I also was annoyed at the use of the terms “big ass” and “Godspeed.” Language is important in a Star Wars film and shouldn’t sound too earthy. It really doesn’t matter if we know what a nerf herder is, because we understand what it means in context. Isn’t “God” in the Star Wars Universe the Force? Or, as Threepio put it, the Maker.
“Half the fun of seeing a new Star Wars movie is arguing and debating every single minute detail…”
After pointing out all these weaknesses, it might appear that I like The Last Jedi much less. Far from it. Half the fun of seeing a new Star Wars movie is arguing and debating every single minute detail. For me, this kind of nitpicking is actually enjoyable. In our fractured culture, making something intended to appeal to everyone seems difficult enough these days, and I realize that things that didn’t work for me, might have worked for you. The best part is that it gives each of us a little something to nitpick!
The Porgs are kind of a mixed bag because as they are used in the film, they kind of work. And we actually see one skewered over a hot fire to the horror of Porg onlookers. Johnson understands that a cute element is necessary in Star Wars, but it works best when the screen time for those cute things is kept at a minimum. The Porgs appear just enough not to be an irritant, like, say, Jar Jar. That floppy-eared and clumsy Gungan had so much screen time in The Phantom Menace that Jar Jar ruined the story by becoming too much of a focus.
This is a more inclusive Star Wars because that’s what our world is. So diversity with Star Wars characters should be expected or better, not even noticed at all, because we live in a diverse culture with all types of people. But frankly, it took long enough because Star Trek has been doing that since 1966. We’ve come a long way since an all white male fighter squadron and characters named “Porkins,” who was probably given that name because of his portly figure. (Which is kind of lazy and dumb, but I will still love Porkins.) Audiences may not have been expecting a Star Wars movie that also comments on animal cruelty, war profiteering, eating meat, and predatory behavior by men toward women online.
George Lucas has been quoted many times that the original Star Wars trilogy was his commentary on the Viet Nam War. The prequel trilogy is about how a democracy can decay and slowly become a dictatorship. So the Star Wars films have had messages all along, you just might not have noticed them. I do find it surprising that The Last Jedi comments directly on selling weapons to both sides of the war.
“We’ve come a long way since an all white male fighter squadron and characters named ‘Porkins’…”
In spite of the fact that I enjoyed it so much, there’s a lot that what I wish was different. Chatting with friends after an opening night screening, we all thought aloud about things that could improve The Last Jedi. Benicio Del Toro’s character should have been Lando Calrissian. It’s pretty easy to imagine Lando hanging around a casino planet and running hacker scams to make a few bucks. And there’s no mention at all of Lando in this sequel trilogy, so either he’s dead or he’s just not considered a close friend anymore. It should have been Leia that made the ultimate sacrifice on the remaining star cruiser that saved the Resistance by going into hyperspace. It was an admirable end to Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo character, but it seemed more like something Leia would have done. It was also suggested that Last Jedi could have ended on a cliffhanger with Luke standing to face the First Order alone and then… credits. Sure, we would’ve been upset, but the anticipation for the next film would have been off the charts.
It’s also worth noting that this Star Wars film broke the storytelling format set by George Lucas more than any other movie. The Last Jedi has the fewest “wipes” from one scene to the next than any other Star Wars movie. Flashbacks are used to tell the story of Ben Solo’s motivation for his turn to the Dark Side. Flashbacks as a storytelling device have never been used in a Star Wars film unless you count “Force visions.” Even the line, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” is nowhere to be found (though Rian Johnson says that BB-8 is the one who says it at the beginning, which is kind of a cop out). There is a strange visual joke that references the very first Star Wars parody film, Hardware Wars. It’s nice to see such creative thinking applied to Star Wars, because when you rigidly stick to a format, you get what you expect. Or you retread old territory as was done with The Force Awakens.
It’s time for fandom in-fighting to end.
“You’re saying the hero who blew up the Death Star would choose to run away to a swamp instead of fight the Empire? And when he finally shows up, he just cries and loses a hand? Irvin Kershner has ruined Star Wars!” – Rotten Tomato user ratings, 1980
I’m sure many remember the above quote when Empire first came out. Okay, truth be told, that’s a fake quote, but it accurately reflected the sentiment among my friends and others when we discussed the first Star Wars sequel at length.
Seriously, I remember when The Empire Strikes Back first came out. The audience gasped, booed and was angry that the film ended on a cliffhanger. And back then, Star Wars movies were a long three year wait. There was no internet to complain about it, just perhaps the letters column in magazines like Starlog. Conventions were just starting to crop up but they mostly just sold comics. And there was no fan community to seek out support or to debate how you felt. Episode V initially received mixed reviews, good and bad. It was only years later, after the original trilogy was complete that a revisionist history hailed Empire as the best of the three holy scriptures, I mean, movies. Audiences were mad when Empire debuted because it was so different than Star Wars and completely not what they were expecting… which seems to be very similar to what people are saying about The Last Jedi. To be clear, I’m saying Last Jedi is comparable to Empire only in that both received mixed reaction upon their original release.
“…the most I’ve applauded, the loudest I’ve laughed and the hardest I’ve cheered for a Star Wars film since 1983.”
I will end by saying this is the most I’ve applauded, the loudest I’ve laughed and the hardest I’ve cheered for a Star Wars film since 1983. I might’ve cried a few times too. Bravo. What Rian Johnson and company have delivered is a film that took risks, it was unexpected and special. After two viewings of The Last Jedi, I’m struck with how profoundly I was affected. I’m high. I’m high and I haven’t been this high since I was 12. High on Star Wars. I honestly haven’t loved, truly loved a Star Wars movie this much since I was a kid.
And because the film ended with Luke Skywalker fading away as the sun set, something about this feels final. There’s a sense of closure. Which makes The Last Jedi an incredibly cathartic experience. For me, Star Wars is over. I’m finished and it’s done. Sure, I’ll see each new movie as it comes out, but I am oddly satisfied because this felt like the conclusion of the Star Wars I grew up with and I’m happy about that. At peace actually. It’s time for my fandom to end. Star Wars has finally grown up and maybe we all can too. It’s time for that little boy with the broomstick at the end to pick up a lightsaber. I’m pretty sure he could take on the whole Empire.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) Directed by Rian Johnson. Written by Rian Johnson. Starring Daisey Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran and Domhnall Gleeson
9 out of 10