I went to see Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi on Thursday night. It’s taken me longer to sort through my thoughts than expected, but I figured I’d put down a few non-spoilery reactions for those who haven’t seen it yet, as I did for Episode VII when it came out a couple years ago.
For those who are looking for a simple yea or nay, Last Jedi is without doubt a better movie than Force Awakens, which has fallen a bit in my estimation since I first saw it a couple years ago, but I don’t think it quite lives up to the excellence of Rogue One. In a nutshell, I think Rian Johnson and team did a commendable job of meeting the understandably high expectations for this film and showing that Disney can actually sustain a certain level of quality and freshness stories of the galaxy far, far away, though the film is not perfect and has at least one major plot problem.
One of the concerns I had going into the film was how much it would mirror Empire Strikes Back. Given the success of Force Awakens despite (valid) criticisms that it followed the plot of the original Star Wars movie too closely, I was a little afraid that the Disney crew might do the same with Last Jedi. After all, why mess with a proven formula, right?
Fortunately, Johnson – who both wrote and directed the film – was able to craft a story that stands on its own, even while making numerous callbacks to Empire. Without explaining how and to what extent they are used in the new film, some of those plot-based callbacks include:
- The Hoth ground assault
- The sustained slow (sub-hyperspace) flight of rebels from a pursuing Star Destroy
- The use of bombers in space where bombs shouldn’t fall because, you know, no gravity…
- A revelation of lineage
- Force ghost intercession
- A mysterious, dark cave
- Interaction of a Jedi-in-training with a self-sequestered Jedi Master
All this to say that, despite reusing a decent number of elements from Empire (not to mention the other two films in the original trilogy), the actual story is quite different. There are a number of plot twists, and taken as a whole, the story of Last Jedi is its own thing, for which I am very pleased.
I was correct in predicting that Last Jedi would be a darker film than Force Awakens, given both my belief that Disney would follow the original trilogy’s formula fairly closely and the darkness of last year’s Rogue One. However, I was wrong in my suggestion that it would reach the same level of darkness as Empire, and for that, I think it fails a bit. More to the point, Last Jedi ends on more of an up beat than Empire, and while that’s not a bad thing in and of itself, it gives the sense of ending at the beginning of a third act rather than at the close of a second act. Nonetheless, I like the generally darker tone and the opportunity it gives to explore the faults and flaws of some of our favorite characters.
That said, even with the overall darkness and desperation of the waning Resistance and waxing First Order – which I think comes across well – there is still quite a bit of humor in the film, and some of it rather unexpected. While I certainly enjoy humor, it felt to me like maybe there were one or two too many gags, although I can’t think of any specific one that I would have pulled from the finished film. (Okay, maybe one…)
Which brings me to the…
I know there are people out there in both the “ZOMG PORGS SO CUTE!” and the “Ugh, just another merchandising ploy” camps. I’m not really in either. I don’t love them; I did, however, buy a Funko Pop! Vinyl Porg (along with several other bobbles). Take that as you will.
As far as their intrusion on the story, there isn’t much, to be honest. They exist for some tension-relief moments of humor and cuteness, and that’s pretty much it. There’s no Ewok-style Porg battle (which is kind of a shame), so anyone who was worried about that sort of thing can rest easy.
If there’s an overarching theme to the film, I’d have to say it’s dealing with mistakes, specifically facing one’s own misconduct, miscalculations, and misunderstandings. How each of the characters fares depends largely with their level of honesty and the fortitude they exhibit – both with themselves and with others. It would be hard to discuss specifics for any character while avoiding spoilers, but what I really liked about this “dealing with mistakes” theme in general was how well Johnson and team integrated it across all the characters, including new ones.
Of course, the typical Star Wars themes are there as well: light and darkness, hope and despair, the metaphor of the Force as a synergistic connection of all life.
One of my biggest problems with The Force Awakens was the utter lack of respect for the time it takes to travel places, and the overall pacing of the film. Last Jedi goes decidedly the other way, almost but not quite to a fault. The timeframe is much more realistic, and hyperspace travel actually feels like travel – that is, like time actually needs to pass to get from one end of the galaxy to another.
That said, the slower pacing is definitely felt: Last Jedi clocks in at full 18 minutes longer than Force Awakens. There are some Stephen King-esque scenes of too much exposition and over-visualization. Some judicious editing could have pared the film back to its predecessor’s length without losing anything, in my opinion.
By new characters, I mean those introduced in the current trilogy, but I will start with those brought into the Last Jedi.
I agree completely with Kurt Loder’s assessment that Kelly Marie Tran’s performance as Rose seems very natural. Rose is competent, motivated, and immediately likable. Also, upon reflection, I think Rose is perhaps the most unmitigatedly “good” character in this story. I mean that in context of the theme I described about facing one’s own misconduct, misunderstandings and miscalculations: Unless there is some big thing I’m forgetting, Rose may be the only character in the film who does not have some kind of darkness to her past (or present). At least, not that we know of yet…
Whenever I see Benicio Del Toro, all I can think of is the Heineken commercial where he objects to being confused with Antonio Banderas. If I am allowed to do a bit of crit fic here, I think DJ is supposed to represent something of a Lando Calrissian-type character playing both sides of the struggle, but to be honest, I’m not totally sold on the portrayal. Perhaps it’s the fact that he starts out as a kind of MacGuffin, and never really rises above his MacGuffinness, in my opinion.
Vice Admiral Holdo
Laura Dern plays the vice admiral admirably, channeling shades of both Mon Mothma and Thrawn – a calm, analytical leader whose plan seems inscrutable to at least some of her underlings, but which we later learn has a certain cunningness to it. Holdo is the kind of no-nonsense and brave leader that is sorely needed in the Resistance (and the Rebellion before it), but which are sadly too few and far between.
Supreme Leader Snoke
Snoke was introduced via hologram in Force Awakens, but we actually get to see him on screen this time around. He’s pretty much what you’d expect – a stand-in for Emperor Palpatine – and while he certainly drives the plot in certain ways, how others react to him and his orders is definitely more interesting than Snoke himself. But I fear I’ve said too much already…
“Previously, on Star Wars…” we saw Rey holding out Luke’s lightsaber to him, and that’s where her part of the story picks up, of course. Without spoiling the nature of their interactions, I will say that I’m surprised – and somewhat delighted – with the amount of time that Rey and Luke spend together in this film. While a few of their scenes could have been trimmed of extraneous bits, Johnson could have really abbreviated Rey’s … path to Jediship … and I’m glad he chose not to do so. Rey goes through a lot of growth, and of course there are some parallels between her development and Luke’s in the original trilogy – but there are also some notable departures. Rey’s storyline is fantastic, and the only downbeat to it is knowing that Daisy Ridley has said she is done with Star Wars films after Episode IX.
Naked Finn Leaky Bag. Need anything more be said?
I really enjoyed seeing Finn interact with all the characters who aren’t Rey. I mean, Rey and Finn are great together, but can I be totally honest and admit that I think Finn and Rose is a better on-screen combo? Maybe it’s the actors, or maybe it’s the character histories (there’s a nice parallel between Finn knowing all about Imperial installations because of his history as a maintenance guy and Rose’s behind-the-scenes blue collar job in the Resistance). In any case, Finn is the same fumbly-bumbly, fish-out-of-water humormonger as in Force Awakens, while still being able to throw down with some of the First Order’s elite soldiers – which, of course, he does.
In my review of Episode VII, I expressed my disappointment in how little we saw of Poe, and hoped that we would get more of him. Last Jedi certainly fulfills that wish.
What I like about Poe’s character in this film is that the one real thing we know about him from Force Awakens – that he rushes in and saves everyone all the time – is pretty much turned on its head. The mentor/mentee relationship between Leia and Poe is also really great, especially given the references to Poe as an impulsive “flyboy,” making him the clearest heir to the Han Solo vibe (in contrast to Solo’s actual heir).
BB-8 and BB-9E
BB-8 has less of a role in Last Jedi, and while the roly-poly droid does contribute to the plot, his participation is mostly minor. The introduction of BB-8’s Imperial foil, BB-9E, seems even more of a merchandising ploy than the Porgs.
Ben Solo/Kylo Ren
We learn quite a bit more about Ben-Ren this time around, including details about the heavily referenced backstory between him and Luke in the last film. Ben-Ren’s inner conflict is better portrayed, and I was a bit surprised about the amount (and quality) of interaction between him and Rey. That said, I’m still not really bought into him as a major villain – I don’t know if it’s Ben-Ren’s characterization or Adam Driver’s overdramatic acting, possibly a bit of both.
I was hoping for more Phasma in Last Jedi than we got in Force Awakens, but she somehow got even less screen time despite the longer film duration. Not really sure what to say other than she still really dislikes Finn.
There’s a probably unnecessary cameo.
Greg “Balls of Steel” Grunberg gets a brief cameo, but no lines this time.
As far as characters from the original trilogy go, Luke is the primary one that we see more of than we did in Force Awakens, so let’s talk about him first.
The most surprising thing about Luke’s character in this film is, I think, the humor – my friend Dom (see his non-spoilery review here) relayed to me an observation from his girlfriend that Luke’s character is something of a meld between the original Luke and ever witty Mark Hamill. That description seems the most apt to me, and while there were one or two moments in the film where the humor kind of pulled me away from the story – this is where my “one too many gags” comment above comes in – I do think that overall the more humorous and irreverent Jedi Master Luke actually works. It provides yet another callback to Empire in which we first see Yoda as a somewhat comical figure (is there a funnier moment than him hitting R2-D2 with his cane?). However, it also bridges this trilogy with the original one, showing that in some ways, Luke never really grew up. Yes, he knows a lot about the Force, but it’s clear he still has much more to learn (which, for me, calls up the Heinlein quote, “When one teaches, two learn”).
All that said, while I certainly understand the desire to spend more time with Luke, I think some of the scenes with him are a bit too protracted. If anything could have used some incisive editing, it’s the day-to-day moment’s of Luke’s monastic life that Rey observes throughout the first half of the film.
General Leia Organa
As I mentioned above, in addition to Leia’s primary role as the military leader of the Resistance, I think her interaction with Poe as a mentor is one of the more interesting character relationships in the film. Of course, with Carrie Fisher’s recent death, there was a lot of pressure to get Leia’s role in this film right, and from that perspective, I think Johnson and team nailed it.
Unfortunately, Leia’s character is also a vehicle for one of the most egregious problems with the film, which I won’t state specifically, but anyone who has seen the film knows exactly what I’m alluding to. Basically, Johnson had a chance to be bold with Leia’s character, and he chickened out, taking the cheap and kitschy way out instead.
Chewie is sadly sidelined for much of this film. He’s little more than an intergalactic chauffeur, and other than a few moments of pathos, his interactions with other characters is negligible. I don’t know if this has more to do with the loss of Han or simply that there are so many characters to follow now, some of them naturally get short shrift. At any rate, there’s not much to say about him.
Just kidding. He’s still dead.