I posted a non-spoiler review yesterday, so you can get my initial, overall thoughts there. But as I said in that review, to really talk about both what I liked and didn’t like in The Last Jedi, I’m going to have to go full spoiler. Consider this fair warning. Below the jump and the movie poster will be spoilers of all sorts. Please do feel free to talk spoilers in the comment section as well.
At a macro level, there is some really bad storytelling here. Perhaps more troubling than the direct impact on the plot is that those issues squander precious storytelling time. The Last Jedi does a good job of breaking free of the very derivative nature of The Force Awakens (the biggest weakness to an otherwise very good movie) and advancing the story in new, interesting ways, with some good *pew* *pew* action in the process. What it doesn’t do is build the world of Star Wars or even really expand the story. It assuages my main fear after The Force Awakens, but it leaves a new main fear in its wake. The trilogy ender has a lot more heavy lifting to do than Return of the Jedi did.
(The current Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer scores for The Last Jedi are 93% and 56% for critics and the audience, respectively. Both of these are crazy.)
BEWARE! HERE BE SPOILERS!
The Last Jedi opens with the Resistance attempting to escape their base in advance of a First Order assault. I saw someone online say they basically copied the battle of Hoth and I was worried it would be just that. It is similar in that both are escapes, but they play out in very different ways. The battle of Hoth was a ground battle, the battle here happens in space.
We get some nice flying by Poe as he works to disable the big cannons so the Resistance convoy can escape. Even better is our introduction to Rose Tico, a new character. With her sister dead, she has to climb from her gunner position in her bomber to release the bombs and destroy an imperial Dreadnought (an attack led by Poe against Leia’s orders, setting up my least favorite plotline in the movie). [As Kyle points out in the comments, Rose wasn’t in bomber, only her sister Paige.]
I loved this scene with Rose, as well as her first scene with Finn. Her last scene? Not so much. More on that in a bit.
Before I get into the stuff I didn’t like, and before I try to recap the entire movie, let’s cover the good. It looks and sounds great. It is a well put together movie, in that it doesn’t look like it was obviously cut up and restitched together in the editing room. E.g., the visual cues that segue between scenes are clear.
I loved everything with Snoke (except maybe that we learn nothing about him). Snoke manipulating Rey into traveling to Kylo Ren was great, but expected. Andy Serkis does a wonderful job of chewing the scenery in the throne room scene. But the best part was Kylo Ren seizing on Snoke’s gambit to kill Snoke. This is a good example of how TLJ plays off of our expectations from The Empire Strikes Back and TFA by zigging when we expect them to zag. Kylo Ren isn’t pulling a Vader, it is a power grab. It is a gutsy storytelling call to setup a Big Bad and then kill them off in Act 2 of a trilogy, and I applaud it.
The other part I really, really loved was Luke joining the fray. We knew it was going to happen. But the moviemakers ratcheted up the tension by pushing it back and, more importantly, did it in an unexpected way. Swooping in in his X-wing? Nope, that is Rey and Chewie in the Falcon. His appearance without explanation raises just enough doubt in the watcher’s mind to setup for the reveal. The scene also cleverly calls back to Obi Wan Kenobi’s death without being derivative. Of course, his actions wouldn’t have been necessary but for Rose…
I’m very glad that they (apparently) made Rey’s parents nobodies. To have made them someone key from the franchise would have almost had to have undercut her story and character. (I wrote a bit about that in a long post on Rey.)
Almost everything else I thought was good but not great. Unfortunately, there were a few things that stuck in my craw. Presented in order of ascending egregiousness.
The Canto Bight sequence was large unnecessary (actually it was completely unnecessary, but that is related to my least favorite element). My friend pointed out that it is worldbuilding. TLJ is somewhat curious in that we see virtually nothing of the larger universe. We get the planet with the Resistance base, the planet with the Jedi temple, and the mineral planet at the end. Other than Canto Bight, everything else takes place in space. So you need some more worldbuilding, sure. And you probably need a scene for pacing purposes. And the moviemakers obviously felt they needed to show how evil the First Order is. But it is a ham-handed attempt at any of that. There is also a certain amount of misanthropy baked into feeling you need to show animals being hurt to show evil.
(Benicio Del Toro’s character is another example of playing off of our expectations, this time built on Lando’s arc in ESB.)
My second least favorite element was Rose stopping Finn from destroying the cannon. Keep in mind what is going on. That cannon is going to crack the Resistance’s defenses in an instant. Without it, they are confident they can hold until help arrives. The only reason the fighters—many of whom died—went out in the ski-ships was to disable the cannon. Now, if Rose stops Finn because she realizes for some reason his death wouldn’t disable the cannon, fine. Or, Rose could have done a terrible thing out of her love for Finn. That would be tragic, but good storytelling. Instead, they have Rose spout a nonsensical line at Finn about protecting the ones we love instead of killing the ones we hate. Keep in mind, he was attacking an inanimate object, and the most likely result of Rose’s actions was the death of all of those people she loved back in the cave. There would be a certain irony to Rose dying to prevent Finn’s heroic sacrifice in an utterly unheroic sacrifice of her own, but the moviemakers weren’t willing to kill her off (the best part of that scene is that they had me convinced they would kill off Finn, a positive side effect of killing off Snoke). Luke’s heroic sacrifice would mean a lot more if you ignore that it would have been unnecessary but for Rose’s actions.
But my least favorite element by far was the entire arc of the admiral played by a badly miscast Laura Dern. She assumes overall command after the top command circle is killed or incapacitated by an attack on the bridge of the flagship (due to one of those odd technological anachronisms of Star Wars—with even today’s tech there is no need for an exposed bridge with big windows). She is immediately rude to Poe and shows her bias against him. This is important. If she knows anything about Poe, she knows he is their best pilot, extremely well regarded, and likes to go off-script. At this time she apparently already has a plan to salvage what she can of the Resistance.
If she had just TOLD POE the plan, this entire plot thread would have never happened. Finn and Rose would have had no reason to travel to Canto Bight. Which means they would not have been captured, which means the First Order would not have learned of the transports. So the admiral’s bad leadership resulted in the death of much of the remaining Resistance. Perhaps most importantly, a lot of screen time could have been regained that could have been more fruitfully used.
Now, this isn’t necessarily bad storytelling. The incompetent general who doesn’t listen to their subordinates is a pretty well-worn trope. As is there redemption. All you need is a little “what have I done?” horror from the admiral before she turns her ship on the First Order ships. But neither the admiral nor the moviemakers show any recognition of the consequences of her actions. Which does a lot to sully the otherwise awesome scene of her taking her ship into lightspeed to use it as a weapon (which just goes to show you that heroic sacrifice via kamikaze attack is ok so long as you aren’t too important a hero). Of course with the ability to accelerate objects into lightspeed, one wonders why you would need to build even one Death Star.
The Last Jedi ranks, I think, solidly below the original trilogy, The Force Awakens, and Rogue One (though Rogue One is superfluous, but solidly above that wretched hive of scum and villainy, the Prequels. I am happy that it breaks free from the derivativeness of The Force Awakens, but it simply isn’t as good a movie. Nor does it add much to the world. Looking back, one thing I really love about The Empire Strikes back is the sheer number of pulp SF elements thrown in, after the simpler story and world of Star Wars. I said the third movie has a lot of heavy lifting to do, and in many ways that is a good thing. For one, I really don’t know what to expect. But there is a lot of risk too.