This is a review, and it contains spoilers. Because a spoiler-free review is pointless. I highly recommend that you do not read this if you haven’t seen The Last Jedi. I’m not sure I recommend it even if you watched the film.
Despite what you're about to read, I didn't hate this film when I first saw it. I genuinely enjoyed parts of it, and I actually find it to be a much more interesting film than The Force Awakens. But I do think that it's a confused, artificial construct of a film, striving to make its mark on a franchise which has never regained its footing from its tumultuous early days. Worse than this charge however, it seems to go out of its way to tear down what has come before. And regrettably, over time The Last Jedi has worked its way down the list of Star Wars films to the point where I’d probably rather sit through A Phantom Menace than this.
It was a relief that it brought more freshness to the table than its mostly derivative predecessor, and the occasional insightful line of dialogue ("We are what they grow beyond") or theme (kill the past; both sides are funded by the same people), it unfortunately also retains some of its predecessor's worst weaknesses and is on the whole significantly less than the sum of its parts.
I've often argued that the best person to helm a project like this is someone who isn't reverential to the source material. Peter Jackson gets a lot of flack from hardcore Tolkien nerds for the changes made to the story of The Lord of the Rings (elves would never come to the aid of men at Helm's Deep!), but he had a point of view, and more importantly a film to make, and I will take that over someone who holds the source material too dear any time.
However when it comes to The Last Jedi I genuinely have a hard time figuring out what Rian Johnson's relationship to Star Wars is. While there's something wonderful about a sequel willing to poke the bear by doing something unexpected, it really seems to go out of its way to also tear down what has come before it, most obviously so in its reaction to what it inherited from The Force Awakens where it seems almost to overcompensate in an attempt to do veer left where it veered right.
I didn't love much of what was regurgitated in The Force Awakens, but in the interest of a coherent direction this feels somehow disrespectful, if not to that film, then to the audience trying to figure out what's up and down.
The end result is a contrived plot, a mess of redundant subplots and unnecessary characters and character arcs with every other scene falling over to undercut itself with tone-deaf slapstick humor. Moreover it seems to be trying to actively subvert the core tenents of Star Wars itself; the Jedi, the Skywalker line, and more importantly the mythological underpinnings of the series itself.
A foundational issue with this new trilogy is that some five hours into it I still don't feel like I have a grasp of the basic story. Why is the resistance called the resistance? What are they resisting? The first order? Where did the first order come from? Are they remnants from the empire? They seem to operate like a rogue state or terrorist organization; but maybe they have planets under their control? That's never made clear. How are they funded if they aren't running things? Do they have support anywhere? They must be even more powerful than the empire at its height, given that they could build a planet-sized weapon.What is the republic doing? Is the resistance a part of the republic? Was there a republic? What happened between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens that we didn't get the galactic peace we were promised in 1983? Has Leia literally been fighting a civil war for 40 years? Her arms must be tired! When we meet the resistance in The Force Awakens, are they aware of the first order? That isn't made explicit (and I would argue that the film treats the first order as if they're a surprise).
Some argue that since A New Hope began in a similar way, without explaining many of these details, the new trilogy likewise doesn't need to dwell on it, but I beg to differ. First of all, if you go back and watch A New Hope again, you'll see that it in fact goes out of its way to tell the story of the empire's role in the galaxy. Luke talks about hating the empire, and we see civilians in Mos Eisley run and hide when patrols pass through, and shady dealings in the cantina where Han talks up his ability to outrun imperial starships and Obi-wan asks to avoid imperial entanglements. We see Tarkin talking about the dissolution of the senate and the politics of keeping control of the territories with fear. And then there's the name: The Empire. You know what an empire is, it's a governing instance encompassing all the countries, so...
But this is a sequel trilogy, and as a sequel everything is in relation to what has come before. The bad guys are called The First Order, which says nothing, except they're not called the empire, like we expected. But it begs from the audience the question of why when they're still using all the same weapons, machines and uniforms of The Empire, did they change their name? No answer has been provided.
Worse, we know the empire had a couple of Death Stars at the height of their power, and since the first order has a death super star, we must assume that they are even more powerful. But when we left the story in 1983 with the death of Darth Vader and the emperor, and the destruction of the second Death Star and the only super star destroyer we've known, the implication was that the empire had been dealt a crippling blow and the rebellion had in effect won. This was how the trilogy was closed, and there was no ambiguity in it, like when Darth Vader hurls into space in A New Hope. It was done. The rebellion won, and evil had been vanquished.
And yet forty years hence The First Order which may be the empire is stronger than ever, and in one instant wipes out the republic (presumably, it's not really spelled out, we just see some cocktail party goers on a city planet get blown to bits)?
The original trilogy invested overwhelmingly in the suspension of disbelief. Not just in rendering a fantastic universe, but in making it tick; in building its internal logic so as to be able to stage its story against it, and it did so with remarkable efficiency.
The problems with The Force Awakens were plentiful, but its original sin was in not making its universe tick, a sin The Last Jedi has inherited disinterestedly. Where A New Hope used throw-away lines about regional governors as well as the setting of Mos Eisley and Alderaan to tell the story of an oppressed galaxy, The Force Awakens does next to nothing to tell us the story of how the first order fits into the galaxy. And The Last Jedi carries on this lackadaisical approach to the framing story.
The whole tenor of the stories is now off kilter, and the approach carries down to contrivances at the heart of the film, like how we went from star wars, that is wars amongst the stars, an epic setup, to a handful of ships flying at the exact same speed somewhere in random space. That's not only just a straight up dumb concept, but it is unexciting in the extreme. It's the least dramatic, and least Star Wars-like concept I can remember in a Star Wars film. Worst of all it runs counter to what what any kid will tell you: The larger a ship is in Star Wars, the slower it flies!
This also immediately drives me to asking stupid questions like why the first order doesn't have some of their presumably large fleet of star destroyers light-speed in ahead of the resistance to block them from running? Or why does the first order recall their fighters? Since when did the empire care about providing cover? I recognize that Poe Dameron is an ace pilot, but he took out an entire dreadnaught on his own. If one resistance pilot can do that, you'd think that 20-30 TIEs led by Kylo Ren could do some damage to a resistance ship? In fact those very same fighters literally blasted the entire command deck and its inhabitants into space not ten seconds earlier!
And this isn't just me retro-actively finding nits to pick, these were all questions raised as I was watching the film. It fell apart before I even exited the theater.
Lucas himself failed to bring the war-reality from the original trilogy over into the prequels, and it's something that's been completely left behind by the sequel trilogy by now. I love seeing Poe's X-Wing squirm and twist as much as the next person, but what's lost is any semblance of buy-in, replaced by pure adventure aesthetics. Zip, zoom, explosion, zippety-zoom, close-up of Poe Dameron laughing, not a drop of sweat on his brow, and as a result, no tension. Star Wars merged light-hearted swashbuckling adventure with tense sweat-on-the-brow reality, because that's how the audience can buy into a hero's plight. Lucas knew this, because he had grown up watching WWII movies as a kid.
The attack on the first Death Star stands to this day as a phenomenal sequence from end to end. The film tells the story of that struggle, the skill and the consequences in a way that has been utterly lost in the new films. We see it in the faces of the pilots as they sweatily coordinate their attack runs, line up their shots, give covering fire, regroup, and generally fight for their lives. Likewise when Han or Lando twist the Falcon through narrow asteroid belts and metal canyons, we get to witness their anxiety and relief. Although played more for comedy, you see much of the same in Indiana Jones, who's always on his heels, fearing for his life, taking a beating... It almost seems like he could fail!
That's gone in large part from these films, where on the whole all principal characters are either supernaturally talented, never breaking a sweat, rarely fearing for their life... or Finn, comic relief.
These two issues—internal logic and relatable characters—are my main problems with the sequel trilogy so far. I respect anyone willing to take on the responsibility of trying to make one of these films, I understand how hard it is, and I applaud the effort. It's easy for me to tear down what they've worked hard to build, but my empathy for the effort unfortunately doesn't change the fact that these films are flailing.
A New Hope succeeded in spite of it not being as neat and proper a story as it's often portrayed as by people who try to fit it into the hero's journey. For instance, if it was made today, Luke's uncle and aunt would be milked for every emotion possible through the film. Luke would carry a memento of them, perhaps a medallion or a photo, which he would put in the cockpit of his X-Wing, which he would look to when Ben talks to him as he hurls towards the exhaust port.
But in the actual film they're never brought up in the film again after they've died. It's not necessary, and the film is better for it, because the audience isn't stupid and don't need to be hit over the head with sentimental sentiments every moment possible.
The Last Jedi has just such a medallion, and it gets milked exactly as much as I feared.
In a way I think the problem is that this film wants to do too much (and is too long), instead of trying to actually focus its otherwise great storylines which instead drown out in the noise of jokes and subversion.
What else is there to say? For every good moment, there's a trash moment. General Hux is worse than a cartoon. Leia's use of the force was unearned and frankly felt like fan service. What's Luke's third lesson? Rey has the books. Does Yoda know? What's the payoff other than symbolic, from destroying the temple, when the books aren't there? Luke dies anyway, so why bother showing this? The Canto Bight story was so irrelevant that I wrote all of the above, and forgot that it even existed. Yay, they released the horsies!... Wait, they grazing just outside of town, and will be captured come dawn... great victory Finn and Rose! Hey chrome dome, bye chrome dome, again (what an utterly pointless character and subplot). Why does Luke die? I mean I can ascribe value to his death, I'm just not sure the film did. Was it exhaustion? Was he just 'done'? Did real world circumstances ask that an OT character die in every one of the new films? Adam Driver's performance as Ren is great, but his backstory is almost worse than not having one. He tore everything down because Luke had a bad day? I don't buy it. Who are the Knights of Ren? Who is Snoke? We don't need a 30-minute backstory, just a hint! A death star cannon. Again! Do they know that the best Star Wars movie was The Empire Strikes Back, which had no Death Star in it, at all?
Lackadaisical plot devices permeate these films. When the rebels figure out that the first order is tracking them through hyperspace, they exclaim "that's impossible!" But not only is Leia herself wearing a hyperspace tracking beacon for Rey on her wrist (which no one questions as the source) but it was Leia herself who in A New Hope suggested to Han that they had escaped the Death Star too easily and that the empire was tracking them, which they were, with a beacon! Still no one suggests to get rid of Leia's wrist beacon and canvas the ships for trackers, because the screenplay doesn't want them to. And that's not even touching on having these two tracking plot devices sit confusingly side by side yet be completely non-related. It's just sloppy.
Using hyperdrives as a weapon makes for a phenomenal scene, but at the cost of fundamentally changing the nature of the universe. Why wouldn't everyone just mount hyperdrives on asteroids? Beautiful scene, but is the cost of fictional integrity worth it?
Finally... what's left to say in the third film? In its disregard for what came before, The Last Jedi has left no significant plot open. If it wasn't for the fact that good needs to prevail (I mean, I assume that's still the case, or maybe that's also out the window now?), there is nearly no need for a third film.
I could go on. Again, it's not that the film doesn't have good things in it, it's just that the nonsensical, overly constructed bits so outweigh the good things as to drown them entirely, at least for now.
Finally, we have to ask ourselves what Star Wars is really about? What is it that has made this story become an integral part of our culture and stand for generations?
Well, who is Rey? Seemingly a nobody, despite the rampant speculation after The Force Awakens came out. I think that's an interesting choice (and a direction I was hoping for the film to take). But what I think critics and fans who have embraced this direction as The Last Jedi 'opening up the force to everyone, not just those born into it', is that the Skywalker family is in itself representative. That's the whole point! That's why Luke was a blank, ideal canvas of a character, because the audience puts themselves in his place. That's not just a mythological motif, it's a fairytale motif. This is at the very core of why we tell stories!
Mythology is universally applicable stories that frame our existence and teach us truths about life, death and relationships, and Star Wars is a mythological story at its very core. We are all Luke Skywalker whether we're man, woman, young, old, black, white, it doesn't matter. The success of Star Wars itself proves that you don't have to be a white boy who grew up on a farm without your parents to appreciate its universal appeal and message (diverse representation matters, but that's another matter).
As such what's important isn't whether Star Wars gets rid of the idea that you have to be born into the force, because the main character in a mythological story is an audience proxy. What's important is that the story teaches us what's worth fighting for, what to believe in, what our values should be.
And it's because of this, that Luke's character in The Last Jedi is so mis-wrought and destructive. We are Luke. He is our proxy. And now this film is telling us that what Luke (we) fought so hard for, what he grew up to be, what his friends and he built, amounted to nothing. Worse, it needs to be destroyed. That those values and ideals got them nowhere.
It's great to subvert expectations and amp up the drama, but I found the positioning of Luke as a broken, irredeemable cynic to be a severe mis-step. Yes, he steps in to play a part in the final battle on Crait (in an admittedly cool way, but as the story is told, he didn't need to be there for the rebels to escape).
In short, as The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi tells the story so far: "Never meet your heroes, they will disappoint you, and whatever your values and ideals have you fight for will be destroyed, and probably by you."
That doesn't sound like the Star Wars I know.